Asked about police surveillance of Muslims, Bloomberg’s would-be successors take a wait-and-see approach

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Michael Bloomberg and Ray Kelly. ()
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In the face of criticism from academic leaders, the governor of New Jersey, and Muslim civic organizations following the A.P.'s reports on the New York Police Department 's Muslim-targeted intelligence-gathering, Mayor Michael Bloomberg hasn't wavered. The police, the mayor says, are doing what they need to do to keep the city safe.

One group has conspicuously quiet about the whole thing: the Democrats hoping to replace Bloomberg when he leaves office after 2013.

In the absence of public statements from any of them, I reached out to the candidates to get their responses.

Their reactions were measured, ranging from qualified expressions of concern with the department's execution of the program to outright support.

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A spokesman for City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has a close working relationship with the mayor, said there has been, so far, no evidence of any wrongdoing by the NYPD.

"Regarding the NYPD's actions in New Jersey and other jurisdictions, unless we know that laws were broken or someone's civil liberties were violated it is difficult to judge police techniques without knowing the specifics of the case," said Josh Isay, a spokesman for Quinn.

Other prospective candidates expressed concern for possible civil-rights violations by the NYPD in the course of gathering intelligence from members of Muslim groups and institutions, but none called for a halt to the program.

“The NYPD must continue to be vigilant in protecting the people of New York City from terrorism," said Bill Thompson, the 2009 Democratic nominee for mayor and former city comptroller. "But to single out one segment of our diverse, religious community for surveillance without cause raises questions of fairness and equal justice.”

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, who has called for a federal probe into whether the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy unfairly targets young black and Latino men (without calling for an outright halt to the practice), said the surveillance policy, too, needs a closer look. 

"The New York Police Department has done an extraordinary job protecting our city from the ever-present threat of terrorism, no matter where it originates," Stringer said. "Whenever the police get wind of a potential threat, we expect them to pursue the matter with all deliberate speed and keep New York City safe. But it is troubling when people are subject to surveillance and investigation simply because they are members of a particular group. We need to ensure that our efforts to combat the threat of terrorism does not trample on the civil liberties that all citizens have a right to enjoy.”

Tom Allon, publisher of a chain of local newspapers, was the most explicit in expressing support for the NYPD's focus on Muslims and Muslim institutions, saying the tactic was based on the unfortunate reality that people who fit that demographic are more likely to attempt to carry out terrorist attacks.

"The surveillance and random checking of American citizens is an extremely complex issue that cannot be reduced to a sound bite," Allon said in a lengthy email. "'Profiling' is a loaded term that has somehow replaced 'probable cause' in law enforcement lexicon. We need to face realpolitik realities rather politically correct idealism. The people who attacked us 10 years ago and in 1993 were all Muslims. The few planned attacks that the NYPD has thwarted since then were also plotted by young Muslims ... If you randomly stop a fidgeting 20-year-old Muslim on the street or on the subway, this should be called `probable cause' rather than `profiling.'"

Allon also wrote: "If you stop an 80-year-old grandmother on the street, that should be called `unnecessary random checks' that not only wastes our valuable law enforcement manpower but infringes on the civil liberties of us all."

Allon, a former reporter, praised the A.P. for conducting "some exemplary journalism in uncovering these practices," but, he added, "so far, based on what I've heard and read, I support Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Kelly's tactics and applaud their results in keeping New Yorkers safe."

Bill de Blasio was traveling and couldn't be reached for comment.

I haven't managed to reach John Liu yet but will update with a response when I get one.

UPDATE: A spokesperson for Liu sent me the following statement:

"The dedicated men and women of the NYPD have done an extraordinary job of keeping New Yorkers safe. However, we should not as a matter of policy profile people based on religion or race - it goes against everything this city stands for."