NEW YORK — The New York Police Department will strengthen safeguards against illegal surveillance of Muslims in investigations of terror threats and install a civilian representative on an advisory committee that reviews the probes under the terms of a settlement of two high-profile civil rights lawsuits, lawyers said Thursday.
The announcement of a deal following months of negotiations formally ended litigation over accusations that the nation's largest police department cast a shadow over Muslim communities with a covert campaign of religious profiling and illegal spying.
"We are committed to strengthening the relationship between our administration and communities of faith so that residents of every background feel respected and protected," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
The suits were among legal actions that followed reports by The Associated Press that revealed how city police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques and otherwise spied on Muslims as part of a broad effort to prevent terrorist attacks.
The settlement modifies and adds restrictions on surveillance set by the court-ordered Handschu decree, which was put in place in response to surveillance used against war protesters in the 1960s and '70s. The decree was relaxed following the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks to allow police to more freely monitor political activity in public places.
Civil rights groups sued in 2013 in federal court in Manhattan, accusing the NYPD of breaking Handschu rules. A second suit filed that year in Brooklyn federal court by mosques, a charity and community leaders alleged that the department was discriminating against Muslims.
The city had begun settlement talks last year, and a tentative deal in the Brooklyn case had been reached in June. Although it doesn't require the NYPD to admit any wrongdoing or the city to pay monetary damages, the agreement "will curtail practices that wrongly stigmatize individuals" while making investigations "more effective by focusing on criminal behavior," said Arthur Eisenberg, legal director for the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Under the deal, the Handschu guidelines will specifically ban investigations based on race, religion or ethnicity. Other provisions require the department to try to use the least intrusive investigative techniques possible and to consider "the potential effect on the political or religious activity of individuals, groups or organizations and the potential effect on persons who, although not a target of the investigation are affected by or subject to the technique."
The settlement also sets time limits on investigations — 18 months for preliminary investigations, three years for full investigations and five years for terror conspiracy cases. The civilian representative, appointed by the mayor, will attend monthly meetings of police officials and NYPD lawyers who review the investigations and will have authority to report any suspected violations of the agreement to City Hall or a federal judge.
Police officials insisted the agreement, while requiring more specific guidelines and transparency, mostly formalizes safeguards that were already in place. The head of NYPD's intelligence and counterterrorism operations, John Miller, will still make the final call on when and how to investigate terror threats, they said.
"There's an additional layer of oversight that we don't object to," Miller said. "I don't think anyone loses here. New York will be as safe on Friday as it was on Thursday because we haven't lost any of our powers to launch investigations."
Another provision requires the NYPD to remove from a department website a 2007 report warning of a "radicalization" process that puts young Middle Eastern immigrants on a path to commit acts of homegrown terrorism. Muslim groups had called the findings faulty and inflammatory.
"This settlement is important in light of escalating anti-Muslim rhetoric and hate crimes in the U.S., but at the same time we hope Mayor de Blasio will be more vocal about why the department was simply wrong to engage in religious profiling of the Muslim community in the first place," the Center for Constitutional Rights said in a statement.