Newark Mayor: NYPD Muslim Files "Deeply Offensive"

Officers eavesdropped and took pictures in Muslim communities, a report found.

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    NEWSLETTERS

    NBCNewYork

    Newark's mayor and police director said Wednesday the NYPD misled their city and never told them it was conducting a widespread spying operation on Newark's Muslim neighborhoods. Had they known, they said, they never would have allowed it. 

    "If anyone in my police department had known this was a blanket investigation of individuals based on nothing but their religion, that strikes at the core of our beliefs and my beliefs very personally, and it would have merited a far sterner response," Newark Mayor Cory Booker said.

    In mid-2007, the NYPD's secretive Demographics Unit fanned out across Newark, photographing every mosque and eavesdropping in Muslim businesses. The findings were cataloged in a 60-page report, obtained by The Associated Press, that served as a police guidebook to Newark's Muslims. There was no mention of terrorism or any criminal wrongdoing.

    Officials reacted strongly on Wednesday.

    "It is deeply offensive for me to do blanket surveillance for no reason other than religious affiliation," said Booker, who called on his state's attorney general to investigate.

    Newark Police Director Samuel DeMaio, who was deputy chief of the department at the time, said the NYPD asked to be shown around the city. New York police said it was part of an investigation but never revealed what it was about, DeMaio said.

    "We really want to be clear: This type of activity is not what the Newark PD would ever do," he said.

    Gov. Chris Christie, who was the top federal prosecutor in the state in 2007, said he didn't remember the NYPD ever approaching him about surveillance in the city or a threat that would justify it. He called the Newark report "disturbing."

    "The NYPD has at times developed a reputation of asking forgiveness rather than permission," he said.

    Such surveillance has become common in New York City in the decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

    Police have built databases showing where Muslims live, where they buy groceries, what Internet cafes they use and where they watch sports. Dozens of mosques and student groups have been infiltrated, and police have built detailed profiles of local ethnic groups, from Moroccans to Egyptians to Albanians.

    But the NYPD's intelligence unit also operates far outside its jurisdiction and has worked to keep tabs on Muslims across the Northeast. The department has cataloged Muslim communities in Long Island, conducted undercover operations in New Brunswick, N.J., and has turned often innocuous Internet postings by Muslim student groups into police files.

    The monitoring of Muslim college students across the Northeast drew sharp rebukes from administrators at Yale, Columbia and elsewhere earlier this week. But New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued his most vigorous defense of his police department to date.

    "The police department goes where there are allegations. And they look to see whether those allegations are true," he told reporters Tuesday. "That's what you'd expect them to do. That's what you'd want them to do. Remind yourself when you turn out the light tonight."

    NYPD spokesman Paul Browne did not respond to a message seeking comment on the Newark effort Wednesday. He has previously denied the existence of the Demographics Unit.

    The report left Newark Muslims grasping for explanations as they saw pictures of their mosques and businesses in police files.

    "All of these are innocent people," Nagiba el-Sioufi of Newark said recently while her husband, Mohammed, flipped through the NYPD report.

    Egyptian immigrants and American citizens, the couple raised two daughters in the United States. Mohammed works as an accountant and is vice president of the Islamic Culture Center, a mosque a few blocks from Newark City Hall.

    "If you have an accusation on us, then spend the money on doing this to us," Nagiba said. "But you have no accusation."