Ever since Sept. 11, the New York Police Department has been aggressively gathering intelligence to help prevent another terrorist attack.
Now, those tactics are provoking new controversy in New Jersey after The Associated Press published a confidential, 60-page NYPD report from 2007 containing detailed information on dozens of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses in nearby Newark.
Local officials are upset by the extent to which the NYPD is monitoring Muslims beyond New York City’s limits, and activists are outraged by what they see as an overly broad investigation into the lives of law-abiding Muslims.
“It’s unconstitutional, un-American,” said Mohamed El Filali, outreach director at the Islamic Center of Passaic County, during a Friday press conference in Newark. “If there is a lead, by all means, I totally agree that there should be an investigation … [The] safety of our country comes first, but not at the jeopardy of our civil liberties.”
On his weekly radio show on Friday, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the NYPD needs to collect the kind of intelligence found in the 2007 report in order to keep the city safe.
“Everything the New York City Police Department has done is legal. It is appropriate. It is constitutional,” Bloomberg said. “They are permitted to travel beyond the borders of New York City to investigate cases … We don’t target individuals based on race or religion.”
Politicians across the river in New Jersey don’t seem so sure. New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez called for a federal investigation, and even Gov. Chris Christie, who prosecuted terrorism cases as a U.S. attorney, expressed concerns about the NYPD’s tactics.
“The NYPD has at times developed a reputation of asking forgiveness rather than permission,” the governor said at a town hall meeting this week.
According to Christie, the state attorney general is looking into whether the NYPD went beyond its jurisdiction in this case. But the NYPD says it did get permission from the director of Newark’s police department. NYPD spokesman Paul Browne insists the department is complying with the law, including special federal guidelines for the NYPD that have been in place since the 1960s.
“Not only [are] we meeting existing constitutional requirements that exist everywhere in the country, but on top of that, additional requirements under an agreement here in New York,” Browne says.
For all the back-and-forth this week, it’s no secret that the NYPD has operated in New Jersey before. In 2010, an undercover agent in Jersey City helped arrest two would-be jihadists. And in New York City, where aggressive monitoring by the NYPD has been a fact of life for a decade, the revelations about New Jersey were mostly greeted with a shrug. At the Islamic Cultural Center of New York in Manhattan, Imam Omar Abu-Namous says he trusts the NYPD.
“This is their business,” he says. “And I don’t feel uncomfortable about their surveilling, for example, mosques and other Muslim places. Because the city is our city also, and the country is our country, so we are very keen that this country be safe and the city be safe.”
But the department’s tactics do bother Jawad Rasul, a member of the Muslim Student Association at the City College of New York. According to another NYPD document published this week by the AP, his student association was one of many across the Northeast that were infiltrated by undercover cops; an NYPD officer even accompanied Rasul’s group on a whitewater rafting trip. According to Rasul, that kind of oversight is counterproductive.
“There are people who may be extremists,” he says, “but then there is a large number of people who are not extremists at all. And these kinds of tactics can make them an extremist.”
Still, that’s one risk the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg have shown they’re willing to take.