Friday, May 18, 2012

State Attorney General Refuses to Investigate NYPD Surveillance of Muslims in PA

In August 2011, the Associated Press (AP) began publishing a series of investigative reports about an intelligence-gathering program by the New York Police Department (NYPD) that specifically targeted American Muslims. The AP reported that the NYPD had monitored about 250 mosques, universities and businesses, without any evidence of wrongdoing.  In February 2012, the AP reported that the NYPD was monitoring Muslim college students at over a dozen universities far beyond the New York city and state limits, including at the University of Pennsylvania.  In light of these disturbing reports, the ACLU-PA and Muslim Advocates, in coalition with 20 civil rights, student, faith-based, and civic groups, sent a letter to Pennsylvania Attorney General Linda Kelly requesting that her office undertake an immediate investigation of the NYPD’s surveillance of law-abiding Muslim communities in Pennsylvania. 

The Attorney General refused our request.  In a letter to the ACLU-PA, the Office’s Civil Rights Enforcement Section claimed that it lacked any legal authority to investigate the NYPD’s disturbing and discriminatory actions and that there was no “evidence” the NYPD breached anyone’s civil or constitutional rights in the commonwealth.  The Office later confirmed that its decision is not appealable.

The Office’s disavowal of any authorization to investigate NYPD’s practices in Pennsylvania is not only deplorable but inconsistent with its own mandate.  The Attorney General’s own website states that the Civil Rights Enforcement Section is authorized to issue reports and publicize findings concerning civil rights abuses in the commonwealth.  Indeed, the Office uses an informal set of criteria to determine whether to intervene in any particular matter.  Among those criteria are:  the extent of pervasiveness of the discrimination; the degree to which the discriminatory treatment or incident sets forth a novel issue or an issue of importance in the commonwealth; and the extent to which a particular situation, if not addressed, could escalate into a more serious problem.  The Office states that it “will review these and other factors in determining” whether its intervention is appropriate. 

The NYPD’s targeting of Muslim communities in Pennsylvania for surveillance without any evidence of wrongdoing is pervasive discrimination in violation of the U.S. and Pennsylvania Constitutions.  Singling out University of Pennsylvania students for monitoring based solely on their religious beliefs and practices or associations infringes upon core First Amendment rights to freedom of religion, speech and assembly and Equal Protection rights to be free from discrimination on the basis of religion, race, ethnicity, and national origin.  Wholesale targeting of an entire faith community is a clear violation of civil and constitutional rights in our commonwealth that could escalate if not properly investigated. 

Our Attorney General’s response is even more suspect when compared to the principled actions taken by leaders in other states:  In response to a request to investigate the NYPD’s surveillance in New Jersey, the Office of the New Jersey Attorney General stated that it is “thoroughly examining the underlying facts and circumstances relating to both the nature and scope of NYPD’s operations in New Jersey.”  The NJ Attorney General’s Office emphasized that it “take[s] this matter very seriously” and was “collaborating with the Department of Justice to ensure that a comprehensive fact finding review is conducted.”  We applaud this thoughtful and coordinated action. 

The NJ Attorney General is not alone in expressing grave concern over the NYPD’s practices.  Attorney General Eric Holder stated that reports that the NYPD conducted broad surveillance of Muslims outside New York City were “disturbing” and that the Justice Department was reviewing the matter.  Moreover, just last week, Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) introduced a resolution condemning the NYPD’s “unreasonable, suspicion-less surveillance and investigations of mosques, college campuses, restaurants, businesses, and individuals without evidence of wrongdoing or criminality.”  The resolution calls upon the Justice Department to investigate whether the NYPD violated the Constitution or any federal laws and whether any agency of the federal government facilitated NYPD profiling or surveillance against members of the Muslim American community.  The NYPD's targeting of faith-based communities, says the resolution, “undermines the Nation's commitment to religious liberty and equal protection of the law" and "stigmatize[s] innocent members of the Muslim community merely because of their religion."  Holt was joined by several other members of Congress in introducing this resolution, including Reps. Judy Chu (D-Calif.), Keith Ellison (D-Minn.), Michael Honda (D-Calif.), Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-Ill.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.). 

Targeting entire communities for investigation based on religious, racial or national origin stereotypes is not only wrong, it is a waste of law enforcement resources and produces flawed intelligence.  Attorney General Linda Kelly’s refusal even to acknowledge that the NYPD’s practices could be a violation of civil or constitutional rights of law-abiding Muslims in the commonwealth is shameful and risks jeopardizing the rights of all Pennsylvanians

--Seema Saifee, ACLU-PA Legal Fellow 

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