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Judge Orders More Protections for US Muslims in Landmark NYPD Spying Cases

In response to settlement for two lawsuits, judge orders additional rules protecting U.S. Muslims from police surveillance

The ruling, issued after more than a year of negotiations, would allow the long-awaited settlement to be approved. (Photo: Adrian Owen/flickr/cc)

A federal judge on Monday issued a ruling calling for changes to be made to a landmark settlement that would strengthen surveillance protections for U.S. Muslims in New York. The ruling, issued after more than a year of negotiations, would allow the long-awaited settlement to be approved.

The proposed settlement, announced in January in response to two separate lawsuits—Raza v. City of New York and Handschu v. Special Services Division—would implement rules to ensure that the New York Police Department (NYPD) cannot conduct investigations where race, religion, or ethnicity is a "substantial or motivating factor," among other safeguards, and install a civilian representative within the department to reinforce those protections.

As the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which brought the Raza lawsuit, explained in a press release Monday, Judge Charles S. Haight, Jr.'s order called for alterations to the settlement that would:

  • Clarify the authority of an individual outside the NYPD (a civilian representative) to ensure the NYPD's compliance with the "Handschu Guidelines"—which govern NYPD surveillance of political and religious activity—even beyond the terms of the reforms proposed by the settlement;
  • Require that the civilian representative established by the settlement report periodically to the court on the NYPD's compliance;
  • Require the mayor to seek court approval before abolishing the position of civilian representative.

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"The court's ruling highlights safeguards we sought to secure but the NYPD refused to accept, and we hope it convinces the NYPD to establish additional protections against unwarranted surveillance. This development is an opportunity to put the strongest safeguards in place, and we are eager to discuss the court's suggestions with the NYPD and the city. For the sake of New York Muslims and all New Yorkers, we urge that reforms are implemented as soon as possible," said the counsel for both cases.

Raza, filed in 2013, alleged that several Muslim community and religious leaders, mosques, and a charity had been swept up in the NYPD's dragnet surveillance of Muslims, which the plaintiffs argued stigmatized whole communities on a religious basis.

In August 2016, a report from the NYPD's Office of the Inspector General (OIG)—undertaken to assess the department's compliance with the Handschu guidelines—revealed that the department was "often non-compliant with a number of the rules" meant to protect religious and political activities from unwarranted surveillance, with more than 95 percent of those cases involving Muslims or activities associated with Islam.

As NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said at the time, "The report's recognition of the need for ongoing oversight, and our settlement's proposal for a civilian representative within the NYPD, will together ensure necessary transparency and enforcement of the rules reining in NYPD surveillance of political and religious activity."

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