The New York Police Department will tighten safeguards against illegal surveillance of Muslims in secret investigations of terror threats and install a civilian representative on an advisory committee that reviews the probes under the terms of a settlement of two high-profile civil rights lawsuits, lawyers said Thursday.
The announcement of a deal came after months of negotiations aimed at formally ending litigation over accusations that the nation’s largest police department had cast a shadow over Muslim communities with a covert campaign of religious profiling and illegal spying.
The suits were among legal actions that followed reports by The Associated Press that revealed how city police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques and otherwise spied on Muslims as part of a broad effort to prevent terrorist attacks.
The NYPD didn’t admit any wrongdoing, and city won’t pay any monetary damages. The department instead agreed to codify civil rights and other protections required under the court-ordered Handschu decree, which was put in place in response to surveillance used against war protesters in the 1960s and ’70s. The decree was relaxed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks to allow police to more freely monitor political activity in public places.
Civil rights groups sued in 2013 in federal court in Manhattan, accusing the NYPD of breaking Handschu rules. A second suit filed that year in Brooklyn federal court by mosques, a charity and community leaders alleged that the department was discriminating against Muslims.
The city began settlement talks last year, and a tentative deal in the Brooklyn case was reached in June. The final agreement “will curtail practices that wrongly stigmatize individuals” while making investigations “more effective by focusing on criminal behavior,” said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Under the deal, the Handschu guidelines will specifically ban investigations based on race, religion or ethnicity. Other provisions require the department to use the least intrusive investigative techniques possible and to consider “the potential effect on the political or religious activity of individuals, groups or organizations and the potential effect on persons who, although not a target of the investigation are affected by or subject to the technique.”
The settlement also sets time limits for ending investigations that ultimately fail to turn up threats–18 months for preliminary investigations, three years for full investigations and five years for terror conspiracy cases. The civilian representative, appointed by the mayor, will attend monthly meetings of police officials and NYPD lawyers who review the investigations and will have authority to report any suspected violations of the agreement to City Hall or a federal judge.