Republican Candidates Want To Bring Back Ineffective, Unconstitutional NYPD Surveillance

CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew

Supporters of a lawsuit challenging the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program, hold signs during a gathering on a plaza in front of New York City Police Department headquarters, Tuesday, June 18, 2013. In a lawsuit filed Tuesday, civil rights lawyers urged a U.S. judge to declare the NYPD's widespread spying programs directed at Muslims to be unconstitutional, order police to stop their surveillance and destroy any records in police files.

Republican presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Donald Trump wasted no time on Tuesday before turning the terrorist attacks in Brussels into a call for police surveillance in Muslim neighborhoods in the United States.

Just hours after the attacks, Sen. Cruz (TX) called for law enforcement to “patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods.” Then in a later interview with CNN, he pointed to former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s surveillance of Muslims in the city after September 11, calling the program “successful.”

“Mayor Bloomberg in New York had a very successful program to engage with the Muslim community and to prevent radicalization and to identify radical Islamic terrorists before they carry out acts of terrorism,” Cruz said, before criticizing Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to end the program.

During a radio interview with a right-wing conspiracy theorist, Trump made similar comments. He called New York’s Muslim spying program “the finest there is in the world” and insisted that “it caught things before it was going to happen.”

But that controversial New York Police Department program was not successful. In fact, the department has said that in more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations, and cataloging mosques, the NYPD never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, according to the Associated Press.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed suit against the NYPD over the surveillance programs run by the secret Demographics Unit. The programs were disbanded in April 2014, but not before tarnishing the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey.

Arthur Eisenberg, legal director of the New York ACLU, said the surveillance “seriously harmed” Muslim communities and “made us less safe.” And Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, told ThinkProgress that the mapping program was both unsuccessful and unconstitutional.

“The basic issue is that any law enforcement program that subjects communities to warrantless and suspicionless surveillance is unconstitutional,” she said. “It’s a violation of the Constitution’s guarantees of religious freedom and equal protection.”

The AP uncovered in 2012 that the unit sent undercover officers to mosques, Muslim student associations, and businesses frequented by Muslims to secretly observe the population, even though the targets were not suspected of any wrongdoing.

According to trial testimony, officers believed they were permitted to collect information from anyone speaking Urdu, one of the national languages of Pakistan. The unit’s members also eavesdropped on innocuous conversations between people from South Lebanon, claiming “that may be an indicator of possibility that that is a sympathizer to Hezbollah because Southern Lebanon is dominated by Hezbollah.”

During a trial in 2012 over the surveillance program, an attorney for the plaintiffs claimed that “no other group since the Japanese Americans in World War II has been subjected to this kind of widespread public policy.”

Earlier this year, the ACLU reached a settlement with the NYPD designed to protect the city’s Muslim population from being targeted by mass surveillance again.

“The settlement should send a very forceful message that discriminatory police practices are unlawful and unnecessary,” Shamsi said. “The NYPD itself agreed to the settlement and said it has the tools it needs to keep New Yorkers safe.”

The city has worked to repair its relationship with the community, and this week, both the mayor and police chief immediately distanced themselves from Cruz’s proposal.

Standing next to de Blasio, who called Cruz’s comments “reprehensible,” New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton held a press conference on Tuesday to say that Cruz’s statements show why he’s not going to become president.

“We don’t need a president that doesn’t respect the values that form the foundation of this country,” Bratton said. “As the mayor mentioned, I have over 900 very dedicated officers in this department, many of whom do double duty. They serve as active duty members of the U.S. military in combat, something the senator has never seen.”

“So before he starts denigrating any population group, take a close look at who he’s denigrating,” Bratton continued, calling Cruz “really out of line.”

Last year, the NYPD announced an initiative to recruit more Muslim police officers to the force, an effort to combat extremism and to rebuild the fractured trust between the city’s Muslim residents and law enforcement officers.