POLITICS
09/08/2014 07:35 am ET Updated Sep 09, 2014

New York Exploring Settlement In NYPD Muslim Surveillance Lawsuits

NEW YORK -- In an about-face, New York City is exploring a settlement with the plaintiffs in two lawsuits against the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program.

The talks were made public on the same day as Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration fought back against an order to reveal reams of documents related to the surveillance program from undercover agents. The administration had pursued an aggressive legal defense against the Muslim plaintiffs in the cases.

In an Aug. 15 letter that attracted little attention when it was first sent, city lawyer Peter Farrell advised the judges in the cases that two meetings with the plaintiffs had already taken place.

Farrell wrote that the two sides had agreed "to attempt to consensually resolve" the lawsuits. The NYPD's widespread surveillance of Muslims was first uncovered in a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of Associated Press reports.

Now the clock is ticking on the settlement negotiations ahead of an Oct. 1 deadline.

Farrell did not say what prompted the settlement talks, and he did not respond to a request for comment from The Huffington Post. But a document entered in the court record the same day as his letter could provide a hint: a city motion to prevent NYPD undercover officers' electronic files on the Muslim plaintiffs from being turned over.

The city had argued in June that turning over those records "could compromise ongoing and future investigations" and would have a "chilling effect" on the NYPD's ability to recruit undercover agents and confidential informants. But federal magistrate Judge Joan M. Azrack ruled against the city in July, ordering it to hand over the documents.

In an Aug. 15 motion, the city again pushed Azrack to reconsider. That city motion suggests there was a massive effort to spy on the handful of plaintiffs involved in the case.

Though there are only six plaintiffs in one case, a 2013 lawsuit against the Muslim surveillance program, the city stated that it would need to comb through potentially relevant records from a startling 93 different undercover officers, informants and handlers. Lawyers complained that they would have to sort through 1 million documents comprising 265 gigabytes to comply.

Plaintiffs in that case and in a long-running lawsuit against NYPD surveillance of political speech had argued that the police were targeting political speech and trawling entire mosques, on scant evidence of actual crimes.

The city and the police, on the other hand, claimed that even the full-scale investigations of entire mosques it is conducting are based on leads and designed to prevent terrorism.

De Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced in April that they were shutting down a unit that collected demographic information on Muslim communities in April, to the acclaim of civil liberties groups. But the city had shown no signs it was backing off its defense of other surveillance efforts -- even asking the plaintiffs themselves to turn over any documents that could reveal connections to terrorism.

A drug bust conducted in June in part because of the NYPD's counter-terrorism surveillance of a Brooklyn mosque suggests that the spying continues even after the departure of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

None of the parties in either lawsuit contacted by HuffPost would comment on who initiated the settlement negotiations or their current status.

"Basically, we're in discussions with the NYPD about the possibility of settling the case," said Diala Shamas of the CUNY CLEAR project, one of the legal teams representing the plaintiffs. "We look forward to seeing how open the new administration is to changes that we believe are necessary."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly referenced the CUNY CLEAR Project as being affiliated with the State University of New York.

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