Lawyers challenge NYPD spy unit
Washington - Civil rights lawyers asked a federal judge on Monday to force the New York police department to turn over documents about its secret efforts to spy on and infiltrate the Muslim community.
The request, filed in federal court in Manhattan, New York, is based on reporting by The Associated Press, which revealed a clandestine police unit that monitored all aspects of daily life in Muslim neighbourhoods.
Documents showed that plain clothes officers were being dispatched to eavesdrop inside businesses. Restaurants that serve Muslims were identified and photographed. Hundreds of mosques were investigated. Dozens were infiltrated.
Police also maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with "American Black Muslim", were labelled "ancestries of interest".
"Based on this evidence, there is reason to believe that the NYPD retains records of surveillance of public places that are not limited to information pertaining to 'potential unlawful activity or terrorism,'" lawyers told US District Judge Charles Haight.
A spokesperson for the New York police department did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment.
The documents were filed as part of a decades-old, class-action lawsuit against the New York department for spying on war protesters and activists.
Since 1985, a court order has limited how the department can monitor activities protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees Americans' freedom of speech and religion.
Police are not allowed to collect and store information about innocent people that is not related to criminal or terrorist activity.
"The [AP] articles, as well as NYPD documents that have been published in conjunction with them, strongly suggest that the NYPD retains such records as a matter of policy," wrote lawyer Jethro M Einstein, the lead lawyer in the case.
NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne has said police only follow leads and do not trawl neighbourhoods. Documents obtained by the AP, however, show that a secret team known as the Demographics Unit was instructed to canvass neighbourhoods looking for businesses catering to one ethnic group, Moroccans.
The documents indicated plans to build databases for other ethnic groups showing where they eat, work, pray and shop.
Current and former officials said the databases made some working in the police department uncomfortable, including in-house lawyer Stuart Parker.
Because of those concerns, they said, the Demographics Unit stored its information on a special computer not connected to the department's normal intelligence database.
Lawyers asked Haight to order police not to delete any of those materials.
Haight did not immediately rule on the request.