The Honorable Eric H. Holder, Jr.
Attorney General of the United States
US Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530-0001
Re: New York Police Department’s Religious Profiling of Muslims
Dear Attorney General Holder:
We write to urge the Department of Justice to open an investigation into the surveillance and religious profiling of Muslims based solely on religion and ethnic origin conducted by the New York City Police Department (NYPD).
Since August 2011, The Associated Press has published several reports detailing the NYPD’s surveillance and intelligence-gathering efforts in Muslim communities from 2006-2008 that were carried out solely on their religious or ethnic profile and not on suspicion of criminal activity. The Associated Press reports center around the conduct of the “Demographics Unit,” a unit of the NYPD that it at one time denied existed. Documents detailing the conduct were obtained by its reporters who have authenticated them through interviews with NYPD officials.
A 60-page NYPD report obtained by The Associated Press details a 2007 surveillance operation of Muslims in Long Island, New York and in Newark, New Jersey. Plainclothes officers from the Demographics Unit infiltrated and photographed dozens of areas identified as “locations of concern,” including mosques, Muslim student organizations, and businesses owned or frequented by Muslims. Using this information, the police department built databases showing where Muslims live, pray, buy groceries, and use internet cafes. The report acknowledged that intelligence-gathering efforts went beyond the department’s jurisdiction, and cited no evidence of terrorism or other criminal activity prompting the operation.
The Associated Press also reported that the NYPD monitored Muslim college students throughout the northeastern United States, including at Syracuse University, Yale University, and the University of Pennsylvania, during 2006 and 2007. A number of university presidents have publicly criticized the NYPD operations.
In one report, an undercover police officer joined 18 Muslim students from the City College of New York on a whitewater rafting trip on April 21, 2008, in upstate New York. The officer included in his report the names of leaders of the Muslim Student Association who were participating. The Associated Press quoted the police report as stating: “In addition to the regularly scheduled events (Rafting), the group prayed at least four times a day, and much of the conversation was spent discussing Islam and was religious in nature.”
Earlier this year, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other city officials apologized for showing an anti-Muslim film, “The Third Jihad,” repeatedly during police trainings in 2010-11, but failed to take appropriate action against those responsible. An interview with NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly was included in the film.
The Associated Press reports have also detailed the involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the NYPD’s intelligence unit. According to The Associated Press, CIA agent Larry Sanchez worked in the NYPD while being paid by the CIA, and played a significant role in planning and coordinating the surveillance of Muslim communities. The NYPD also sent a senior officer to be trained at the CIA training “Farm” in Virginia. Following release of the public reports, the NYPD confirmed that an additional CIA officer who has been working with the department will leave in April.
The conduct detailed by the NYPD reports and those of The Associated Press suggest violations of both domestic and international law protecting the rights to freedom of religion, expression and association as well as the right to privacy. These protections are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which the United States ratified in 1992, and are similarly found in state and federal laws as well as the US Constitution. The US federal, state and local governments are obligated to respect and ensure to everyone the rights recognized in the ICCPR, without distinction of any kind, such as religion or other status. This includes adopting measures that may be necessary to give effect to these rights, such as investigating alleged violations. These rights are also protected by the First and Fourth Amendments to the US Constitution. The NYPD receives significant funding from the Department of Homeland Security, and the Justice Department has the authority to investigate both individual allegations of civil rights violations, as well as violations of civil rights perpetrated by recipients of federal funds.
These matters have been brought to your attention before. In September 2011, US Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey wrote to you requesting an investigation, and in December 2011, 35 members of Congress similarly wrote to request an investigation. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has declined to pursue an investigation, and Mayor Bloomberg has frequently defended the NYPD’s actions, making it clear that no state or city investigation is forthcoming.
The alleged conduct by the NYPD has contributed to a climate of fear and distrust among American Muslims. Rather than protect Americans, the surveillance and intelligence-gathering by the NYPD have violated the rights of American citizens and residents. It is likely to have a negative impact on cooperation from members of affected communities who will have reason to view law enforcement officials with suspicion. The NYPD is charged with the highest duty – keeping people safe. Instead, it appears to have used its power to violate the rights of New Yorkers and others in the US in violation of domestic and international law. A full and transparent investigation into the NYPD’s past and present conduct will be an important first step towards rebuilding the trust necessary for effective law enforcement.
We urge you to conduct an investigation into these allegations immediately, and to make the findings public.
Director, US Program
Human Rights Watch
Matt Apuzzo & Adam Goldman, “Inside the Spy Unit That Doesn’t Exist,” Associated Press, August 31, 2011, available at: http://news.yahoo.com/inside-spy-unit-nypd-says-doesnt-exist-090802750.html.
Chris Hawley, “NYPD Monitored Muslim Students All Over Northeast,” Associated Press, February 18, 2012, available at: http://ap.org/Content/AP-In-The-News/2012/NYPD-monitored-Muslim-students-all-over-Northeast.
Tom Robbins, “New York NYPD Cops’ Training Included an Anti-Muslim Horror Flick,” Village Voice,January 19, 2011, available at: http://www.villagevoice.com/content/printVersion/2337684/.
David B. Caruso and Samantha Gross, “Rep Peter King Condemns Chris Christie’s NYPD Criticism, Bloomberg Defends Surveillance,” Associated Press, March 3, 2012, available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/03/rep-peter-king-condemns-c_n_1318278.html.