NYPD settles two lawsuits over post-9/11 surveillance of Muslims

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (C) New York Police Department Chief of Department James O'Neill (L) and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton attend a news briefing regarding Times Square Security in the Manhattan borough of New York December 29, 2015.      REUTERS/Carlo Allegri - RTX20GAY

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, center, New York Police Department Chief of Department James O’Neill, left, and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, right, attend a news briefing regarding Times Square Security in the Manhattan borough of New York on Dec. 29, 2015. De Blasio will appoint a civilian representative to monitor counter-terrorism efforts at the NYPD. Photo by Carlo Allegri/Reuters

For the first time in more than 10 years, a civilian representative will monitor counter-terrorism efforts at the New York Police Department.

The decision is part of a settlement announced Thursday for two lawsuits that claim the NYPD targeted Muslims in surveillance and other counter-terrorism policing after the Sept. 11 attacks.

As part of the settlement, the NYPD must change its guidelines to prevent investigations that target communities based on their race, ethnicity or religion. It also caps the amount of time that the NYPD can leave investigations open. The civilian monitor, which will be appointed by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, will serve a five-year term and report any violations to the police commissioner, the mayor or a federal judge.

Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, a panel of three people monitored intelligence activities at the NYPD and could “approve or reject investigations by the Police Department,” The New York Times reported. But that panel ended after the attacks as the NYPD ramped up its surveillance of Muslim-Americans in the area.

The NYPD built extensive files on the activities of Muslim civilians, employing informants and plainclothes officers to gather information from inside the community, according to a 2011 investigation by the Associated Press. The NYPD’s Demographics Unit, later called the Zone Assessment Unit, conducted many of these activities in secret with help from the CIA.

NYPD police commissioner Bill Bratton disbanded the unit shortly after he took office in 2014. It was “a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys,” de Blasio said in a statement at the time.

Muslim community leaders have said the actions were damaging for the community. Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, told The New York Times in 2014 that the unit’s activities amounted to “psychological warfare” against her community.

Bratton said in November that the unit failed to produce any useful intelligence. “Not one single piece of actionable intelligence ever came out of that unit in its years of existence,” he said during a panel at the Manhattan Institute in November.

Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights, two organizations headquartered in New York City, said they hoped the settlement would prompt de Blasio to speak out against profiling.

“This settlement is important in light of escalating anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes in the U.S., but at the same time we hope Mayor de Blasio will be more vocal about why the department was simply wrong to engage in religious profiling of the Muslim community in the first place,” the groups said in a statement.

The settlement “does not weaken the NYPD’s ability to fulfill its steadfast commitment to investigate and prevent terrorist activity in New York City,” NYPD intelligence chief John Miller said in a statement.

One lawsuit against the city of New York over the program, filed in 2012, is still unresolved. Last October, the group that brought the lawsuit successfully appealed a previous ruling against them at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. In his opinion, Judge Thomas L. Ambro likened the surveillance program to treatment of Jewish-Americans during the Red Scare of the 1940s and 1950s, African-Americans in the civil rights movement and Japanese-Americans during World War II.