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John Liu Investigates NYPD Surveillance Of Muslims, Mosques

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A NYPD officer and a protestor look on as civil rights, legal advocates and residents hold a press conference June 18 in New York outside One Police Plaza to discuss planned legal action challenging the city police department's surveillance of businesses frequented by Muslim residents and area mosques. (TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
A NYPD officer and a protestor look on as civil rights, legal advocates and residents hold a press conference June 18 in New York outside One Police Plaza to discuss planned legal action challenging the city police department's surveillance of businesses frequented by Muslim residents and area mosques. (TIMOTHY CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

New York City Comptroller John Liu on Wednesday said he has begun auditing the police department's vast network of surveillance cameras in response to concerns that cops have spied on the city's Muslims.

Liu, a Democrat who is running for mayor, said his office last week began probing how the police department uses 3,000 cameras installed in public places that form the Domain Awareness System. He said he fears the system has been misused to unfairly monitor Muslims, their mosques and Islamic organizations.

"To put religious worship and religious leaders under surveillance without evidence is a rank betrayal of our country's founding principles," Liu said at a press conference in lower Manhattan. "The NYPD should not spy on people simply because of where they study or worship or what neighborhood they live in."

The NYPD has secretly classified some mosques as terrorist organizations and has used informants and undercover cops to spy on them, according to a report published Tuesday by The Associated Press.

The comptroller said he was"truly outraged" by the latest spying revelations, which raise the significance of his probe.

Microsoft helped the city develop the surveillance system, which was unveiled a year ago. The tech company and the city said the Domain Awareness System provides "a sophisticated law enforcement technology solution that aggregates and analyzes existing public safety data streams in real time," in a joint statement last August. The system supposedly can detect suspicious packages and read license plates, among other tracking powers.

Earlier in the summer, police officials announced that they'd expand the Domain Awareness System to grant access to local precinct commanders, because it had been successful in counterterrorism operations.

A spokesman for the comptroller said it was too soon to tell if the camera system itself was used to violate individual liberties and said there was no timetable for completing the review. But the long-simmering controversy over the NYPD's surveillance of Muslim communities since 9/11 prompted Liu's auditors to review whether there were adequate safeguards.

"We're going to determine if this technology, which allows the police to watch almost every New Yorker's move, is safeguarded from abuse or misuse by those entrusted to control it," said Liu. "Does the NYPD have procedures in place to ensure against unconstitutional profiling?"

In an example of the infiltration techniques employed by the NYPD, the AP cited a document that said police officials wanted to plant an informant on the board of the Arab American Association of New York.

The group's director, Linda Sarsour, on Wednesday denounced the tactics.

"The NYPD's approach to counterterrorism policing seems to start from a place that all Muslims are inherently suspect, raising serious civil rights and safety concerns," Sarsour said. "Subjecting whole communities to blanket surveillance because of their faith is not good policing. These tactics alienate law-abiding Muslims and deepen mistrust between law enforcement and communities. That breakdown in communication puts all New Yorkers at risk."

A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a staunch police supporter, referred questions to the New York Police Department, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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