The New York Police Department has been spying on Muslims and habitually breaking its own rules in the process by providing thin justifications, extending surveillance beyond the approved time period, and broadly defining "political activity," according to an investigation released Tuesday by the inspector general for the NYPD.
Inspector General Philip Eure estimated that 95 percent of the individuals targeted for surveillance were "associated with Muslims." He found that the NYPD routinely failed to justify ongoing surveillance activity and often violated department protocol when using confidential informants.
In the report, Eure notes that the bar for justifying surveillance of "political activity" isn't particularly high. The NYPD's definition of "political activity" is broad – and includes organization membership, "where and with whom they choose to pray," and political statements made "in public, private or on social media."
Officers are meant to explain in writing "the objective basis of need" for an investigation, which could include surveillance at a church, mosque or synagogue. If approved, the surveillance period has a deadline. If they want an extension, officers must re-apply and provide justification. In 100 percent of cases reviewed, Eure found that the NYPD kept investigations open past the deadline without re-applying or providing justification.
Guidelines also say that officers have to explain in detail why and how a particular informant should be used for intelligence-gathering. After reviewing over a decade of applications, Eure discovered that the NYPD "almost never" included detailed justifications, and instead "repeatedly used generic, boilerplate text."
"This boilerplate text was so routine that the same typographical error had been cut and pasted into virtually every application," the report stated.
Use of informants isn't meant to be open-ended. Eure found that the NYPD often failed to renew approvals on time, meaning sometimes a month would go by where an informant was working on behalf of the department without authorization.
"The fact that deadlines were missed and rules were violated is troubling" the report says.
The NYPD's surveillance rulebook – known as the Handschu Guidelines – was created after anti-Vietnam war activists and other groups filed a lawsuit in 1971 against the department's surveillance practices. The rules were modified in 2002 to "accommodate the new realities of a post 9/11 world."
Eure's findings come just eight months after the NYPD agreed to settle two federal lawsuits claiming that Muslims were targeted for surveillance because of their religion.
NYPD officials said that the department has a new tracking system which notifies officials when the authorized surveillance period has expired.
"We believe we've adhered to the spirit and the letter of the law in each instance," said Lawrence Byrne, an NYPD attorney, at a news conference. "We don't break the law to enforce the law."