The New York Police Department (NYPD) has targeted Muslim places of worship using tactics normally reserved for criminal organisations, according to newly obtained police documents.
The files, obtained by the Associated Press news agency, show police collecting license plates of worshippers, monitoring them on surveillance cameras and cataloguing sermons via an informant network.
New York City Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, using the 1993 bombings of the World Trade Center as a precedent, called the secret operation monitoring Muslims was “legal,” “appropriate” and “constitutional” on Friday.
“It seems horrible to me that the NYPD is treating an entire religious community as potential terrorists,”-
– Jethro Eisenstein
“We cannot let our guard down again. We cannot slack in our vigilance. The threat was real. The threat is real. The threat is not going away”, said Bloomberg.
NYPD spokesman, Paul Browne, also defended the tactics, telling reporters a day earlier, that the New York Police Departments’ officers may go wherever the public goes and collect intelligence, even outside city limits.
The records, prepared for Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, offer the first glimpse of what those informants, known informally as “mosque crawlers,” gleaned from inside the houses of worship.
As part of the monitoring scheme, the NYPD used plainclothes officers from the squad known as the Demographics Unit, to sweep Muslim neighbourhoods and catalogue the location of mosques.
The ethnic makeup of each congregation was also logged as police fanned out across the city and outside their jurisdiction, into suburban Long Island and areas of neighbouring New Jersey.
“It seems horrible to me that the NYPD is treating an entire religious community as potential terrorists,” said civil rights lawyer Jethro Eisenstein, who reviewed some of the documents and is involved in a decades-old class-action lawsuit against the police department for spying on protesters and political dissidents.
Al Jazeera’s Cath Turner, reporting live from Patterson, New Jersey, where a local mosque has been targeted by the NYPD, said the Muslim community of New Jersey, “feel betrayed by the NYPD because they say they are citizens in this country and go about living their lives and feel they have been vilified based soley because of their religion”.
In every mosque
David Cohen, the NYPD’s top intelligence officer, wanted a source inside every mosque within a 250-mile radius of New York, current and former officials said.
Though the officials said they never managed to reach that goal, documents show the NYPD successfully placed informants or undercovers, sometimes both, into mosques from Westchester County, New York, to New Jersey.
The NYPD used these sources to get a sense of the sentiment of worshippers whenever an event generated headlines.
The goal, former officials said, was to alert police to potential problems before they bubbled up.
Even when it was clear there were no links to terrorism, the mosque informants gave the NYPD the ability to “take the pulse” of the community, as Cohen and other managers put it.
When New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor were killed on October 11, 2006, after their small plane crashed into a Manhattan bulding, the NYPD’s mosque crawlers reported to police about what they heard at sermons and among worshippers though terrorism was ruled out as a cause hours after the crash.
At the Brooklyn Islamic Centre, a confidential informant “noted chatter among the regulars expressing relief and thanks to God that the crash was only an accident and not an act of terrorism”, one report reads.
“The worshippers made remarks to the effect that ‘it better be an accident; we don’t need any more heat,'” an undercover officer reported from the Al-Tawheed Islamic Centre in Jersey City, New Jersey.
In some instances, the NYPD put cameras on light poles and trained them on mosques, documents show. Because the cameras were in public space, police didn’t need a warrant to conduct the surveillance.
Police also wrote down the license plates of cars in mosque parking lots, documents show.
In some instances, police in unmarked cars outfitted with electronic license plate readers would drive down the street and record the plates of everyone parked near the mosque, former officials recalled.
“They’re viewing Muslims like they’re crazy. They’re terrorists. They all must be fanatics”, said Abdul Akbar Mohammed, the imam for the past eight years at the Masjid Imam Ali K. Muslim in Newark. “That’s not right.”