For years after the September 11 attacks, the New York Police Department secretly spied on Muslim Americans in their schools, restaurants, mosques, and bookstores, meticulously mapping out innocent New Yorkers’ every move. On Thursday, the NYPD reached a settlement with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) meant to keep them from ever doing it again.
The ACLU bills the settlement as the first meaningful protections against mass surveillance of Muslim Americans by police. The NYPD will have to agree to an anti-religious discrimination policy and a series of other requirements. The settlement still has to be approved by a judge, but would set a higher bar for opening investigations, which would also be subject to time limits and mandatory periodic reviews. It will also install an outside civilian representative in the NYPD to enforce the reforms and make sure officers aren’t conducting investigations based on race or religion.
The NYPD will also have to scrub its website of a discredited report on Islamic radicalization, which was used to justify the surveillance in Muslim communities.
NYPD’s use of undercover informants, who were paid to infiltrate and report on Muslim student associations and mosques, will also be curtailed. One 19-year-old informant said police instructed him to try to bait people into criminal activity. Other young people reported they were asked to spy on their peers after being threatened with arrest.
The reforms, if approved, could come just in time for a new wave of Muslim targeting. Recent extremist attacks in San Bernardino and Paris have renewed calls for increased indiscriminate surveillance of Muslims, particularly among Republican presidential candidates. Donald Trump enthusiastically endorsed the idea of a database of all Muslims in the U.S., while Ben Carson encouraged more monitoring of mosques and schools. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) went even further, suggesting the government shut down any place Muslims gather, “whether it’s a cafe, a diner, an internet site.”
But besides violating the civil rights of thousands of Muslims in New York and New Jersey, the NYPD’s massive inflitration failed to produce a single viable lead to stop terrorism. In fact, once the police were caught, news of the program backfired, reportedly destroying other law enforcement agencies’ carefully cultivated relationships with Muslim communities.