New York City police have been recruiting Muslims arrested on minor offenses to act as informants by eavesdropping on fellow Muslims in mosques and other gathering places, The New York Times reported Sunday.
It said the police offer to get the charges dropped as an inducement to the arrested people to cooperate.
Citing documents it had obtained and interviews with former and current police officials, the newspaper said the department had sought to enlist the help of immigrants such as a food cart vendor from Afghanistan who was arrested during an argument with a parking enforcement officer, an Egyptian-born limousine driver picked up in a prostitution sting and an accounting student from Pakistan arrested for driving without a valid license.
Detectives working for a unit known as the Citywide Debriefing Team conducted 220 such interviews in the first quarter of this year, the Times said, or an average of 2 1/2 per day.
Police officials described the interviews to the Times as voluntary, but the paper said several Muslim immigrants it spoke to felt coerced in the interviews.
John Miller, the deputy commissioner in charge of the Intelligence Division, told the Times the debriefing team emerged from an urgent need for counter terrorism information following the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“We were looking for people who could provide visibility into the world of terrorism,” the Times quoted him as saying. “You don’t get information without talking to people.”
Miller said the historic technique of debriefing prisoners, now being applied to counter terrorism, had been effective.
Last month, the New York Police announced they had disbanded a highly controversial surveillance unit that sent plainclothes detectives into Muslim communities. But the continued work of the 10 recruiters showed surveillance efforts had not ended.
The Times said many Muslim immigrants had said they felt as though they had little choice but to cooperate.
In one example, Bayjan Abrahimi, a food cart vendor from Afghanistan arrested in 2009 in a parking ticket dispute, said detectives asked him “about Al Qaeda, do you know these people?” They also asked about his mosque, the nationalities of other Muslims who prayed there and about a brother who drove a taxi in Afghanistan.
Finally they asked if he would be willing to gather information at mosques and possibly travel to Afghanistan, to which, frightened, he said he agreed.
After his release, Abrahimi told the Times he never heard from the detectives again, but remained shaken by the encounter.
Other men interviewed by the Times said they had agreed to become informants to placate the police, but had little intention of following through. “You’re going to agree with the cops and try to help your situation in any way possible,” said one man, the son of Egyptian immigrants, who was arrested at age 19 over a stolen fountain pen.
The man recalled being surprised when detectives began asking him where he prayed and other queries “that had nothing to do with the incident.”
After he was released from the station house, the man began getting calls from a detective. They met once at a shopping mall, and the detective offered to pay him if he would visit different mosques and report back to the police on “what was going on.”
He said he had told the detective that he needed to focus on college and could not become an informant. When the detective called again, the man said he did not pick up.