Investigations into constitutionally protected religious and political activity by the New York City Police Department have decreased since the installation of a settlement-mandated civilian monitor last year, according to a new report released late Thursday.
Former U.S. District Judge Stephen Robinson, who served in the Southern District of New York for seven years before joining Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom in 2010, filed his first report since being named to the position born out of the city’s 2017 settlement of two civil rights lawsuits over the police department’s surveillance practices.
Among the most notable findings, according to the attorneys associated with those two civil rights suits, Raza v. City of New York and Handschu v. Special Services Division, was a more than three-fold increase in the number of investigations requests denied or revised since Robinson came on board.
“This report is a reminder to New Yorkers and to the NYPD of the importance of the NYPD’s commitment to conduct its investigations of political activity in conformance with constitutional guarantees,” Arthur Eisenberg, New York Civil Liberties Union legal director, said in a statement. “This includes the right of individuals and organizations to be free from investigations in which race, religion or ethnicity are substantial or motivating factors.”
According to the report, in the year before Robinson coming on board in March 2017, the so-called Handschu committee, established in 1985 by a court order in the original case, made similar decisions in only four cases. Between March 2017 and March 2018, with Robinson in place, that number jumped to 14.
“We applaud Judge Robinson for embracing the spirit of the Modified Handschu Guidelines,” Profeta & Eisenstein name attorney Jethro Eisenstein, one of attorneys who brought the original suit, said in a statement. “His efforts are shaping the way the Handschu Committee operates, causing it to scrutinize requests to investigate protected religious and political activity with greater care.”
Robinson’s report also noted the total requests reviewed by the committee decreased by five percent. Additionally, the average length of all Handschu investigations—whether preliminary, full or terrorism enterprise—over Robinson’s first year decreased by 87 days, down to just over 340 days.
While the report indicated improvements, City University of New York School of Law professor of law Ramzi Kassem, who founded the group that brought the Raza litigation, called the nearly yearlong average length of a police investigation into First Amendment protected speech “shocking,” and call for Robinson to examine the issue more closely.
“That holds especially true when these investigations focus almost exclusively on American Muslims,” Kassem said. “Nothing in the report indicates this dramatic over-policing of a minority group has ceased or even changed.”
From the NYPD’s perspective, Robinson’s report showed the department was living up to its obligations under last year’s settlements.
“While data can change from year to year based on a variety of factors, including the volume of leads, pace of plotting and propaganda by terrorist groups, the civilian representative’s report shows the NYPD’s commitment to the Revised Handschu Guidelines,” Deputy Commissioner John Miller said in a statement.
The statement said Robinson’s report “reaffirms” findings by the department’s inspector general back in 2016 that found the department’s reports on Handschu-related investigations were supported facts sufficient to meet required thresholds, and showed the IG nothing to suggest any improper motives.
“It is imperative in a free democratic society to conduct these sensitive investigations in a manner that protects both public safety as well as constitutional rights,” Miller said.
in response to an emailed request for comment, Robinson said his conversations over the yearlong period with both concerned communities and members of the department went far in informing his work.
“I have greatly appreciated the openness and transparency the NYPD has shown me. They have answered my questions and allowed me access far beyond what they are required to do under the Revised Handschu Guidelines. We have engaged in a healthy and robust dialogue and I believe that their work and the city are stronger for it,” Robinson wrote. “I will look for ways for the constituents and the NYPD to gain greater insight into the work and concerns of the other. I think an honest dialogue is the next step towards greater respect and understanding.”