Bill de Blasio Still Supports the NYPD in Muslim Spying Lawsuit

Law enforcement officers stand, with some turning their backs, as New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks on a monitor outside the Brooklyn funeral for NYPD officer Wenjian Liu on January 4, 2015. Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Tension between Bill de Blasio and the New York City Police Department was building long before Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch accused the mayor of having blood on his hands after the December shooting deaths of officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.

As public advocate, de Blasio angered cops by supporting two City Council bills that established an NYPD inspector general's office and prohibited racial profiling. As a mayoral candidate, de Blasio cruised to victory on a police reform platform and acted on these promises almost immediately after taking office. In January 2014 he announced that his administration would not to appeal a federal court decision that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy is unconstitutional.

But de Blasio's administration hasn't offered this kind of legal mea culpa when it comes to another contentious policing policy: the department's now-defunct Demographics Unit. The unit gathered extensive intelligence on Muslim neighborhoods in New York and New Jersey, such as where residents ate and attended mosque, without any suspicions of criminal behavior, The Associated Press first reported in 2011. Unit members also eavesdropped on Muslim businesses and infiltrated local colleges' Muslim student associations.

De Blasio did say on the campaign trail he was "deeply troubled" by the program. But a Wall Street Journal report from 2012 indicates de Blasio supported the program. "I defend without question the NYPD's obligation to pursue specific and credible threats," he said. "Based on what I've learned, I believe that the NYPD is currently limiting its work to the pursuit of specific leads and that there is a substantial legal review process connected to those decisions."

Since the terrorist attacks in Paris last week, the program has received renewed public support. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani implored de Blasio to plant police in mosques, as he did during his administration. U.S. Representative Pete King told the New York Daily News, "To me, it shows the importance of having that inside intelligence in a community.... That requires surveillance, and that's just reality. You can't let political correctness get in the way of that."

And while the NYPD announced in April that it had ended the controversial program, The New York Times reported shortly afterward that another NYPD unit aims to recruit Muslim arrestees as informants. In addition, the de Blasio administration has continued to fight lawsuits challenging the surveillance tactics.

In February, a federal judge dismissed one of these suits,Hassan v. City of New York. The Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates, which filed Hassan in 2012, are representing 11 Muslim plaintiffs who claim to have been targets of the surveillance operations in New Jersey. The Hassan plaintiffs appealed this dismissal in March. The city then filed court papers opposing the appeal in October.

Today, both sides will argue whether the case should go to trial before the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in Philadelphia. The plaintiffs seek unspecified damages and a ruling that such surveillance is unconstitutional. If the court rules in the plaintiffs' favor, it would officially bar them from being surveyed, says Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates. Though the ruling would apply to them in literal terms, it could serve as legal precedent in similar court cases. In addition to settling litigation, advocates want de Blasio's administration to confirm that similar intelligence gathering is not taking place.

As The Intercept's Ryan Devereaux pointed out in October, the de Blasio administration's position on the litigation is the same position held by former mayor Michael Bloomberg. Indeed, the city's decision to pursue dismissal, and its refuse to settle the lawsuit, largely borrows the language of the previous administration's legal arguments. City lawyers under de Blasio and Bloomberg have both argued that the AP's coverage of the program harmed surveillance targets, not the surveillance itself. The city claims that the AP hurt the targets by publishing unredacted, confidential documents, resulting in their "alleged stigmatization," Devereaux noted.

"All of the arguments are exactly the same. They have not dialed back any of them," Katon says. "They have made no overtures at all to say, 'Hey, we've stopped doing these things, will you drop the lawsuit?' There's been none of that."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs also say that disbanding the unit implicated in the AP's reports does not mean spying has stopped.

"They have never said they are stopping the program of spying on Muslims," Katon says. "There are some definite indications that they have not."

As in the court filings, a de Blasio spokeswoman blamed the AP, not the surveillance program, for the plaintiffs' grievances.

"This filing does not address broader policy issues concerning surveillance of Muslim communities, but rather technical legal issues. The argument involves only the sufficiency of the allegations in plaintiff's complaint and whether the activities of the NYPD state a plausible claim in court," Marti Adams wrote in a statement to Newsweek.

"The city has moved to dismiss this suit because the plaintiffs have not demonstrated that they have suffered injury as a result of the NYPD's activities. In fact, the city argues that any injuries to the plaintiffs are the result of reporting by The Associated Press—which released identifying information of businesses, schools, mosques and individual identities—not the activities of the NYPD," Adams wrote.

Adams continued: "Nowhere in the city's brief is there an argument regarding the merits of surveillance of individuals solely because they are Muslim. Mayor de Blasio continues to believe that singling out people on the sole basis of their religion is unfair, and has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe but is also respectful and fair, and this administration will continue efforts to bring communities and police closer together."

Still, the political reasoning behind the administration's position isn't clear, though it is simpler than one might expect, and perhaps not as contradictory as it appears.

Continued conflict with the NYPD and police unions, of course, does not bode well for de Blasio's time in Gracie Mansion, or his political future.

"He has to decide which battle to fight. Right now, he's involved very publicly in a battle with the NYPD," says Christina Greer, an assistant professor of political science at Fordham University. With the Muslim surveillance litigation, she adds, "he can also sort of frame this battle less about the NYPD and more about keeping New Yorkers safe."

For Doug Muzzio, a political science expert at Baruch College, the administration's position aligns with de Blasio's broader role to defend the city. This, Muzzio explains, includes defending the NYPD from lawsuits, even when many rank and file members are literally turning their backs on him.

"He's the chief executive. He needs to protect the institution," Muzzio says. "I believe that this action is protecting his institution. That's what chief executives do."

Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime New York City political consultant, says the explanation could be less about politics and more about money. The city's corporation counsel always wants to minimize financial risk. So the city might want to prolong legal proceedings as a negotiation tactic.

"This could be a gambit by the corporation counsel to reduce that...while still having room to come up with a settlement that is acceptable to all parties," he says.

The AP is not commenting directly on the mayor's position, a spokesman told Newsweek, but said of its surveillance stories, "That coverage did earn the Associated Press a Pulitzer Prize, of which we were proud then and remain proud today."