CITY HALL — City Council members grilled Police Commissioner Ray Kelly on the NYPD’s aggressive counter-terrorism tactics Thursday, following a series of stinging reports accusing the department of spying on Muslim communities, mosques and religious leaders with the help of the CIA.
During the often heated hearing, members demanded answers about how the NYPD collects its intelligence information and called for increased oversight to ensure civil liberties are protected as police become more sophisticated in their intelligence gathering.
“Who has oversight of whether civil liberties are being protected by determining whether people are really following legitimate police leads, or whether we’re creeping into religious and ethnic profiling?” asked Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander.
He said that without independent oversight, “it’s hard to believe that we’re getting the balance between civil liberties and protections right.”
The hearing comes after a series of reports by the Associated Press that accuse the NYPD of dispatching secret teams of undercover officers to Muslim neighborhoods to collect intelligence information at local bookstores, mosques and Internet cafes.
But Kelly denied the accusations and said that protecting privacy rights is a top priority for the department.
“The protection of civil liberties is as important to the Police Department as the protection of the city itself,” Kelly said.
He insisted the NYPD strictly adheres to federal guidelines and that the department keeps its own team of experts on staff to vet potential civil liberties conflicts.
“We do not employ undercover or confidential informants unless there is information indicating the possibility of unlawful activity. We go where the leads take us,” he said.
Still, Kelly said an aggressive policy is necessary to stave of future attacks.
“Covert operations may be the only effective way to identify homegrown terrorists,” he said, refencing the 13 attempted terror plots that the NYPD says they've foiled since 9/11, including an attempt to plant a bomb in the Herald Square subway station, and a plot to blow up a Manhattan synagogue.
“New York City remains in the crosshairs of Al Quaeda and affiliated groups,” he warned.
Kelly described several new initiatives intended to protect the city, including radiation detectors positioned throughout the city and carried with officers when they’re on patrol.
He also pointed to the Lower and Midtown Manhattan Security Initiates, which transmit live video feeds from more than 2,000 public and privately-owned surveillance cameras around the clock.
The cameras can scan footage for particular objects and colors, such as a person in a red jacket or a bag left unattended.
But Kelly also described tactics that raised red flags with Council members.
“In addition to carrying out our investigations, we have to be prepared in the event we receive an alert of a terrorist presence in the New York area,” he said.
“What internet cafe in which borough would they be likely to use? [Where] might they find lodging? Establishing this kind of geographically-based knowledge of the city’s communities saves precious time in deterring fast-moving plots.”
He also defended the NYPD’s close relationship with the CIA, arguing that, under a Presidential Executive Order, federal intelligence agencies have every right to assist local law enforcement with equipment and expertise.
But Upper Manhattan City Councilman Robert Jackson, the Council’s only Muslim member, said he was concerned that the tactics being used by the NYPD amounted to racial profiling.
“Have I been under surveillance by the NYPD?” he asked Kelly, who said he didn’t think so.
A group of seven Democratic state senators, including Liz Krueger and Bill Perkins, wrote a letter Wednesday to Attorney General Eric Schneiderman urging an investigation into the NYPD’s “potentially unlawful covert surveillance operations.”
The CIA has already launched an internal investigation into its role.