The New York Police Department chronically skirted rules intended to protect political groups from unwarranted government surveillance while investigating Muslims, the city’s independent police monitor said in a report released Tuesday.
The audit, conducted by Inspector General Philip Eure, found that while the NYPD’s Intelligence Division had valid reasons to launch investigations, it frequently extended them past court-mandated deadlines without proper authorization.
In 100 percent of the cases reviewed by the inspector general, the department also didn’t adequately explain why it was extending investigations that hadn’t turned up evidence of unlawful activity.
“These failures cannot be dismissed or minimized as paperwork or administrative errors,” the report said.
“The very reason these rules were established was to mandate rigorous internal controls to ensure that investigations of political activity which allow NYPD to intrude into the public and private aspects of people’s lives – were limited in time and scope and to ensure that constitutional rights were not threatened.”
NYPD officials responded by characterizing the criticisms contained in the report by Eure as more technical than substantive.
They also said the department had implemented a new electronic tracking system that will notify them when authorization for surveillance has expired.
“We believe we’ve adhered to the spirit and the letter of the law in each instance,” the NYPD’s top attorney, Lawrence Byrne, said at a news conference. “We don’t break the law to enforce the law.”
The report comes eight months after the city agreed to settle lawsuits accusing the department of waging a covert campaign of religious profiling and illegal spying.
As part of the deal, the NYPD agreed to codify civil rights and other protections required under the court-ordered Handschu decree — put in place in response to surveillance used against war protesters in the 1960s and ’70s — that ban investigations based on race, religion or ethnicity and require use of the least intrusive investigative techniques possible.
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.
A footnote in Eure’s report said of the case files audited, 95 percent involved Muslims or other people associated with Islam.
The report accused the division of failing to follow rules requiring that applications for permission to do undercover investigations “must state the particular role of the undercover in that specific investigation, so that the need for this intrusive technique can be evaluated.”
The NYPD almost never included specifics in its applications, but instead repeatedly used “generic, boilerplate text,” the reported added. “Tellingly, this boilerplate text was so routine that the same typographical error had been cut and pasted into virtually every application.”
The department’s top intelligence official, John Miller, countered that Handschu restrictions don’t prohibit the use of boilerplate language in the paperwork, and that it’s sometimes needed for the sake of confidentiality.
“The fact is that detailing what an individual person’s role is going to be before they’re deployed, before the case takes its own direction, is a very risky venture, in terms of not just revealing that person’s identity, but also by predicting what’s going to happen that hasn’t happened yet,” Miller said.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, called the findings “more evidence that the NYPD’s surveillance of American Muslims was highly irregular, operated in a black box and violated even the weaker rules that existed before our proposed settlement.”