A former Homeland Security Department civil rights lawyer, speaking at a Justice Department civil rights conference Wednesday, implored the federal government to investigate the New York Police Department for its secret surveillance of Muslim communities.
Sahar Aziz, a Texas Wesleyan University law professor, said the NYPD monitoring of mosques, Islamic bookstores and Muslim student groups needed to be looked into because the NYPD serves as a model for departments nationwide.
She said reports by “What’s on their mind?” she said to an audience that included the Justice Department’s top civil rights officials. “That’s on their mind.”
An AP investigation that began in August revealed the NYPD’s use of plainclothes officers, known as “rakers,” who pose as customers and eavesdrop in Muslim cafes and bookstores. Hundreds of mosques and student organizations were investigated and dozens were infiltrated as the NYPD built intelligence databases about all aspects of life in Muslim neighborhoods.
NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly said such programs give police a crucial head start in the event of a terrorist plot or attack. But he said police don’t make those decisions based on ethnicity and only follow leads in launching investigations.
The Obama administration has repeatedly sidestepped questions about whether it supports the NYPD’s tactics, refusing to endorse them or to question them. Justice Department officials did not respond to Aziz’s comments Wednesday. Thomas Perez, the assistant attorney general for civil rights, hurried out of the auditorium without taking questions.
Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa said the department was still reviewing a Sept. 13 letter from Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., asking for an investigation.
“It’s a politically sensitive issue,” said Aziz, who served as a senior policy adviser from 2008 to 2009 in the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and has taught at Georgetown University.
Kelly has said all NYPD’s tactics are regularly reviewed by in-house lawyers. Outside the department, however, there is little oversight. The City Council is not briefed on secret intelligence programs. Congressional leaders say direct oversight has to come from the city level. The city’s comptroller has never audited the intelligence unit.
The Justice Department has the authority to investigate a police department when there is reason to believe a constitutional right has been violated. That authority has not been used before to investigate the way police departments handle national security cases.
Because of its history spying on anti-war protesters and political activists, the NYPD has operated since 1985 under a court order that limits how it can gather intelligence. Lawyers in the class-action lawsuit that led to that order have asked the judge to force police to turn over documents related to its surveillance of Muslims.