The NYPD's blanket surveillance of Muslims has the backing of most New Yorkers, a new poll said Tuesday, even as the debate over anti-terrorism tactics reaches a fever pitch.
The Quinnipiac University poll found that 58% of voters think the NYPD is acting appropriately in its targeting of Muslim communities, down from 60% in February. The slight erosion of support follows Associated Press reports last month that shined a harsher spotlight on the program by detailing how cops have tracked Muslim student groups outside of the city and across the Northeast.
But in the poll, more than 80% of voters think the department has been effective in combating terrorism and 64% approve of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's performance.
Quinnipiac polling director Maurice Carroll said the NYPD is "undented by criticism."
Even though the majority of New Yorkers also had a favorable view of Islam and considered it a "peaceful religion," American Muslim activist Cyrus McGoldrick said the ample support for "ethnic profiling [is] disturbing."
"I have to remind myself that the Constitution and our civil rights are not dependent on public opinion," said McGoldrick, the civil rights manager for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in New York.
"Fear can sell anything," added Naeem Baig, executive director of the Islamic Circle of North America. "Today it's Muslims, but tomorrow it can be another group."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said last week the Justice Department will look into the criticisms lodged against the NYPD.
Responding Friday, Mayor Michael Bloomerg countered that the city takes "every precaution possible to not do anything that ever violates the law."
Legal experts say any court challenge based on claims of racial or religious profiling wouldn't be won easily.
"The reality is that much of what the ordinary person would consider racial profiling is not legally prohibited by the Constitution," said Stephen Schulhofer, a professor and criminal justice expert at New York University School of Law. However, Schulhofer added, if police actions produced a chilling effect on free speech or religious practices, that could violate the First Amendment.
"We can show that people are not attending prayers because they are afraid," said Omar Mohammedi, president of the Association of Muslim American Lawyers. In addition, if the targeting creates a "stigma" for Muslims, that could violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, experts said.
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Do you think the NYPD has unfairly targeted Muslims to combat terrorism or has acted appropriately?
Don’t know 13%
Would you say you have a generally favorable or unfavorable opinion of Islam?
Don’t know 23%
Do you think mainstream Islam encourages violence against non-Muslims, or is it a peaceful religion?
Encourages violence 18%
Peaceful religion 65%
Don’t know 16%
Do you approve or disapprove of the way Mayor Bloomberg is handling his job?
Don’t know 11%
(Margin of error of +/- 3.2 percentage points)