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Lawsuit over NYPD surveillance of Muslims settled, officials say

People walk below an NYPD security camera near

People walk below an NYPD security camera near a Brooklyn mosque on Fulton Street in August, 2011. Thursday, city officials announced a settlement of lawsuits filed by Muslims against the NYPD over the department's surveillance efforts. Credit: AP / Bebeto Matthews

New York City officials announced a landmark settlement of lawsuits over NYPD surveillance of Muslims Thursday, with the police department admitting no wrongdoing, but agreeing to the appointment of a civilian to help monitor and review terrorism investigations.

The settlement covers litigation in Manhattan and Brooklyn federal courts, and reiterates a requirement that the NYPD not base investigations on religion or ethnicity.

It also restates the department’s obligations under a 1985 federal court decree governing probes of political activities.

That decree, in the so-called Handschu case, ordered the NYPD to base investigations of political activities only on “articulable and factual” information; limited use of undercover officers to situations where less intrusive means aren’t possible; and ensured investigations don’t remain open for long periods.

In a statement Thursday, Mayor Bill de Blasio said “New York City’s Muslim residents are strong partners in the fight against terrorism and this settlement represents another important step toward building our relationship with the Muslim community.”

The city is not required to pay compensatory damages to plaintiffs under the terms of the settlement, but must pay $2 million to lawyers on the cases for legal fees and expenses. The lawsuits covered stem from the original Handschu case and a 2013 lawsuit brought in federal court in Brooklyn by a number of Muslim plaintiffs.

The Brooklyn lawsuit will be dismissed under settlement terms and the half-dozen plaintiffs will join the larger Handschu case — supervised for years by a Manhattan federal district judge.

A separate, ongoing federal lawsuit filed by Muslims in New Jersey against the NYPD is still pending. The suit alleges NYPD intelligence targeted New Jersey Muslims.

NYPD officials said the settlement largely codifies practices it already followed under the 1985 Handschu guidelines.

Manhattan federal court Judge Charles Haight modified the guidelines after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to cover the terrorism threat to the city.

The department also agreed to a settlement term calling for the removal of a report from its website titled “Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat.”

Muslims critics said the report encouraged racial profiling by over-generalizing and exaggerating domestic Muslim radicalization.

In a statement, New York Civil Liberties Union legal director Arthur Eisenberg called the settlement “a win for all New Yorkers.”

Eisenberg said the settlement “will curtail practices that wrongly stigmatize individuals simply on the basis of their religion, race or ethnicity. At the same time, the NYPD’s investigative practices will be rendered more effective by focusing on criminal behavior.”

From the NYPD’s perspective, intelligence activities will remain the same, said Deputy Commissioner John Miller, who supervises intelligence and counterterrorism for the department, adding that the settlement is a win for all sides in the dispute.

Over the years, Miller said, the NYPD has employed a number of the controls now part of the settlement.

“There is no action that we can’t take today that we could have taken yesterday,” Miller said of the settlement. Its terms “better reflect our current rigor and procedures,” he said.

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor representing plaintiffs in the Brooklyn lawsuit, said it’s key that police procedures going forward are now spelled out in a legal document.

“This is unprecedented in that, what you‘re seeing here is going to be court ordered and enforceable by a court,” Kassem said. “None of it was previously part of an enforceable court order.”

While maintaining his support for NYPD Commissioner William Bratton, Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) expressed concern the settlement would be seen as a rebuke of the police department and its counterterrorism efforts.

“The bottom line is,” King said Thursday, “ . . . I have total faith that Bill Bratton and NYPD will get the job done.”

Speaking to reporters Thursday at the swearing in of nearly 1,400 new cop recruits in Queens, Bratton bristled at the suggestion the settlement would saddle the NYPD with another civilian monitor like one appointed by a federal judge in last year’s stop-and-frisk litigation.

He said, “This person is not a monitor, is an appointee of the mayor, who will work on the Handschu Committee, which is controlled by the police department . . . so that person has no relationship to the federal monitors we interact with.”

The Handschu committee involves NYPD officials dealing with intelligence, legal and investigative matters. The committee meets once a month to assess and monitor terrorism cases.

The civilian appointee will take part, but will be bound by a confidentiality agreement and required to have security clearance, said NYPD legal counsel Laurence Byrne.

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