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New York City Settles Lawsuits Over Surveillance Of Muslims


After 9/11, the New York Police Department overhauled its intelligence unit - brought in a CIA veteran to help run it and began spying on the city's Muslim residents. For years, police there infiltrated Muslim community meetings and took down license plate numbers in mosque parking lots. Now the NYPD and the American Civil Liberties Union have reached a settlement on a long-running lawsuit the ACLU filed on behalf of six Muslims in New York. Joining us now is one of the lead attorneys in that case, Hina Shamsi of the ACLU. Thanks very much for joining us.

HINA SHAMSI: Thank you for having me.

MONTAGNE: Tell us the basics. What have the parties agreed to?

SHAMSI: Well, the parties have agreed to reforms that are designed to protect New York Muslims and others from discriminatory and unjustified surveillance. So there are now a robust anti-discrimination policy, safeguards to constrain intrusive investigatory practices such as limitations on the use of undercovers and informants and the appointment of an outside civilian representative to ensure that all of these safeguards are followed and enforced.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, one of the striking things about the NYPD surveillance program is that many in the department didn't like it either - complained for example, about starting an investigation just because someone was a Muslim. And then in fact, William Bratton - Bill Bratton - returned as commissioner a couple of years ago - one of the first things he did was shut much of it down. So it's not just you all at the ACLU - right? - it sounds like the city wanted to do this, too.

SHAMSI: I think that the city recognized that, you know, what had been happening was quite simply untenable. But it took a fair amount of negotiation in our lawsuit and in another lawsuit in which there has been a long-standing consent decree regulating the NYPD's investigations of New York's political and religious activities to arrive at these reforms which, if approved by the courts, will be enforceable. And I think that's really important because I think part of what happened is that there were interpretations of the rules governing NYPD surveillance that quite simply violated those rules. And the oversight mechanisms had been weakened or done away with, and what we've got now, I think, is a settlement which, if approved by the courts, is going to show that effective policing can and must be achieved without discriminatory profiling of Muslims or any other communities.

MONTAGNE: Well, just briefly though - did the NYPD fight you very hard on any particular thing?

SHAMSI: Well, we fought very hard before the settlement negotiations on litigation back and forth. And then we had some pretty intensive discussions over the course of the settlement process. But I think what's important now is the commitment to these reforms especially, Renee, at a time of rampant anti-Muslim hysteria and discrimination nationwide. And this agreement that we have with the country's largest police force sends a forceful message that bias-based policing is unlawful, it's harmful and it's unnecessary.

MONTAGNE: Well, just again briefly, the NYPD has made a lot of changes. It doesn't launch investigations because of someone's religion or ethnicity, so are you happy with that? I mean, that's not even something that needs to be changed.

SHAMSI: Well, I think the provisions of the settlement all need to be read together in order to ensure that these safeguards continue going forward to prevent the abuses that took place.

MONTAGNE: Hina Shamsi is the director of the ACLU's Security Project - thank you very much for joining us.

SHAMSI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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