Criticism of NYPD's Muslim Surveillance Mounts as Poll Shows Support for NYPD

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A coalition of interfaith leaders joined the chorus of voices calling for an investigation into what they say is racial and religious profiling by the New York City police department. The protest comes just as a recent Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday shows a majority of New Yorkers believe the NYPD’s surveillance program has been effective in fighting terrorism and is treating Muslims fairly. 

The group of religious leaders submitted a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg calling for an Inspector General to oversee the NYPD, for better training to prevent racial and religious profiling by officers and for a commitment to mend the relationship between police and Muslims in New York

"The practice of racial profiling and of stopping-and-frisking works the same as terrorism works," Reverend Stephen Phelps said Tuesday at Riverside Church, "where you don't actually have to hit every person in the population in order to cause the entire group to feel a terror and to change their behaviors."

New Yorkers have been bombarded by more than six months of news reports scrutinizing the way police have monitored Muslims. Calls have mounted for a thorough federal investigation, for beefed up police policies against racial and religious profiling, for an independent body to oversee the NYPD and for an apology to the Muslim community.  But many New York City residents remain unwilling to take sides.

"I don't know, I can see it from both perspectives, you know?" said Wisdom Omuya, an immigrant from Nigeria who is now a computer science student at Columbia University. "On one hand, the cops have a duty to citizens to make society safer, but still with any kind of profiling, there has to be a level of concern about why you're singling out a particular group of people. What happens to civil liberties?"

Poll Shows Support for NYPD

According to the Quinnipiac poll, 63 percent of New Yorkers approve of the way the NYPD is doing its job, and 58 percent believe the police act appropriately in dealing with Muslims. 

Michael James of Lower Manhattan said he sides with those New Yorkers because he believes the police need to rely on aggressive methods to root out dangerous, fanatical people. 

"Sometimes you have to go into neighborhoods without suspicion, and try to feel them out," said James. "You gotta worry about your homegrown ones. It's not the ones that come from a different country. It's the ones that are here." 

Javon Bell, a student at Hunter College who lives in the Bronx, said the police should be commended in their counterterrorism efforts.

"The cops are just keeping a close eye. I believe if the cops are doing what they're doing now — if they did that maybe around the time of September 11 —  that probably wouldn't have transpired the way it did," Bell said.

That view alarms some of the NYPD's most vocal critics —  like the religious leaders who gathered at Riverside Church on Tuesday.  They say the recent Quinnipiac poll doesn't surprise them, but what's popular isn't necessarily what's right. 

"There have been, throughout American history, times when certain groups of people, because of security situations, have been targeted in exactly the same way," said Rev. Chloe Breyer of Interfaith Center of New York.

Breyer pointed out how Americans remained complicit during the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War Two, and demonized Germans after both World Wars. 

Brittany Barnes of Harlem said that kind of suspicion towards strangers hits home for her.  Every since she moved to Harlem from the Caribbean, she's felt like an outsider in New York.

"I know sometimes how it feels to be stereotyped. You know, you come here, you want to make a home here. You want to feel wanted," Barnes said. "You should have privacy and be able to worship where ever you see fit."

Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has stood his ground. He said gathering this kind of intelligence is necessary to keeping the city safe, and it was done completely within legal guidelines. 

The poll numbers suggest the news reports haven't done a lot to erode his support.  About 64 percent of New Yorkers polled by Quinnipiac say they like the job he's doing.