NEW YORK — New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on Wednesday compared the New York Police Department’s surveillance of the city’s ethnic neighborhoods to screening kids for measles, and said the department had not unfairly targeted any group in an effort to root out possible terror connections.
An Associated Press investigation found that NYPD dispatched undercover officers into ethnic communities to monitor daily life and scrutinized more than 250 mosques and Muslim student groups in the years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The mayor refused to comment directly on the details of the AP’s investigation. Later in an interview he said: “If there is a community where the crime rate is very high, to not put more cops in that community is ridiculous. If you want to look for cases of measles, you’ll find a lot more of them among young people. That’s not targeting young people to go see whether they have measles or not.”
Bloomberg’s comments Wednesday offered a revealing glimpse into how the mayor believes the city’s law enforcement officials should walk what he says is a fine line – protecting the city against attack while upholding constitutional protections.
“I believe we should do what we have to do to keep us safe. And we have to be consistent with the Constitution and with people’s rights. We live in a dangerous world, and we have to be very proactive in making sure that we prevent terrorism,” he had said earlier in the day.
Bloomberg said no one should generalize about any group, but authorities must respond to the threat of criminal activity.
“What I find disgraceful is the automatic assumption that (in) any one religious group, everybody’s a terrorist. That’s not true. It is true that you can go to certain places where people give sermons and a lot of them are anti-American. But that doesn’t mean that everybody is a terrorist,” he said.
“But if you’ve got a clergyperson preaching anarchy, do you really think the police department shouldn’t try to send somebody and listen and see if they’re trying to foment a riot? You can’t wait till the riot’s on the streets,” he said.
A number of advocates have questioned whether the NYPD’s policies have gone too far as the department put many innocent people under scrutiny while hunting for terrorists. Several Muslim civil rights groups and a New York congresswoman have urged the Department of Justice to investigate the department for what critics see as racial profiling. The AP’s investigation found that the NYPD Intelligence Division maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with “American Black Muslim,” it considered to be “ancestries of interest.”
New York City’s Muslims – a group that the mayor said tends to be well-educated and entrepreneurial – are supportive of police presence, he said.
“I think most Muslims want police protection. They don’t want their kids … falling off the … train and going down the wrong path,” the mayor said.
According to AP’s investigation, the NYPD Intelligence Division used its list of “ancestries of interest” to dispatch a secret team of undercover officers into ethnic communities to eavesdrop and monitor daily life. The officers, known as rakers, filed daily reports on what they overheard.
The department also used undercover officers and informants to scrutinize more than 250 mosques and Muslim student groups, according to documents and interviews with people involved in the program. Mosques were singled out for further investigation based on suspected criminal activity but also for conservative Islamic beliefs, the documents show. At least one business was flagged for having a devout clientele.
All of this was done with unusually close help from the CIA, in a relationship that at times blurred the line between domestic and foreign spying.
Also Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a former FBI agent in Chicago, said he wasn’t disturbed by the NYPD’s practice of monitoring certain ethnic or religious communities when tracking terrorists. “I am opposed to racial profiling, I think it doesn’t work, but there are things called criminal profiling,” Rogers explained.
“If you’re going to catch an Irish mob bank robbery crew … you’re normally going to show up in places where the Irish-connected folks are going to hang out,” Rogers said. “In the FBI, we used to say that’s a clue.”
Rogers said the NYPD was doing nothing wrong when it hired former CIA employees to help it build its program, but said he would support a review.
Bloomberg said he believes the public is increasingly willing to give up aspects of their privacy in exchange for added safety. New facial-recognition technologies will soon make it possible to track exactly who is walking down the street, he said, adding that he believes “we’re going in that direction.”
“As the world gets more dangerous, people are willing to have infringements on their personal freedoms that they would not before,” Bloomberg said.