- Associated Press - Monday, November 14, 2011

NEW YORK — Fed up with a decade of the police spying on the innocuous details of the daily lives of Muslims, activists in New York are discouraging people from going directly to the police with their concerns about terrorism, a campaign that is certain to further strain relations between the two groups.

Muslim community leaders are openly teaching people how to identify police informants, encouraging them to always talk to a lawyer before speaking with the authorities and reminding people already working with law enforcement that they have the right to change their minds. Some members of the community have planned a demonstration for next week.

Some government officials point to this type of outreach as proof that Muslims aren’t cooperating in the fight against terrorism, justifying the aggressive spy tactics, while many in the Muslim community view it as a way to protect themselves from getting snared in a secret police effort to catch terrorists.

As a result, one of America’s largest Muslim communities — in a city that’s been attacked twice and targeted more than a dozen times — is caught in a downward spiral of distrust with the nation's largest police department: The New York City Police Department spies on Muslims, which makes them less likely to trust police. That reinforces the belief that the community is secretive and insular, a belief that current and former NYPD officials have said was one of the key reasons for spying in the first place.

The outreach campaign follows an Associated Press investigation that revealed the NYPD had dispatched plainclothes officers to eavesdrop in Muslim communities, often without any evidence of wrongdoing. Restaurants serving Muslims were identified and photographed. Hundreds of mosques were investigated, and dozens were infiltrated. Police used the information to build ethnic databases on daily life inside Muslim neighborhoods.

Muslim women listen Oct. 27, 2011, as Cyrus McGoldrick, a civil rights expert at Brooklyn College in New York, teaches them about their rights in regard to an NYPD surveillance program targeting Muslims. (Associated Press)
Muslim women listen Oct. 27, 2011, as Cyrus McGoldrick, a civil rights ... more >

Many of these programs were developed with the help of the CIA.

At a recent “Know Your Rights” session for Brooklyn College students, someone asked why Muslims who don’t have anything to hide should avoid talking to police.

“Most of the time it’s a fishing expedition,” answered Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York. “So the safest thing you can do for yourself, your family and for your community, is not to answer.”

New York Republican Rep. Peter King said this kind of reaction from the Muslim community is “disgraceful.”

Muslim groups have previously organized educational programs around the country describing a person’s legal rights, such as when they must present identification to a police officer and when they can refuse to answer police questions. A California chapter of a national Muslim organization posted a poster on its website that warned Muslims not to talk to the FBI. The national organization ultimately asked the California branch to remove the poster from the website.

In New York, the AP stories about the NYPD and internal police documents have outraged some Muslims and provided evidence of tactics that they suspected were being used to watch them all along. These disclosures have intensified the outreach campaigns in New York.

A recently distributed brochure from the City University of New York Law School warns people to be wary when confronted by someone who advocates violence against the U.S., discusses terror organizations, is overly generous or is aggressive in their interactions. The brochure said that person could be a police informant.

“Be very careful about involving the police,” the brochure said. “If the individual is an informant, the police may not do anything … If the individual is not an informant and you report them, the unintended consequences could be devastating.”

Sweeping skepticism of police affects community relations with all levels of law enforcement on a wide range of issues, not just the NYPD’s counterterrorism programs. Interactions with a real terror operative could go unreported to law enforcement out of an assumption that the operative is actually working for the NYPD. A victim of domestic abuse or street violence may not trust the police enough to call for help.

Retired New York FBI agent Don Borelli said intelligence gathering is key to police work, not just in terrorism cases. But he said it can backfire when people feel their rights are being violated.

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