Salil Sheth, an apartment superintendent for a complex near the Rutgers University campus in New Brunswick, New Jersey, had no intention of finding the location where the New York Police Department (NYPD) was conducting a covert surveillance operations well outside of its jurisdiction. That is exactly what he found when he was conducting the complex’s regular five-year inspection of all units.
According to the Associated Press, he initially thought he had uncovered a “terrorist hideout.” It was alarming enough that he decided to call the 911 line for the New Brunswick police.
The first thing he told the dispatcher (which can be heard in the above video posted by AP) was that the apartment had been doing “five-year state inspections” and come across “an apartment where there is some suspicious activity.” The dispatcher asked, “What’s suspicious?”
CALLER: Suspicious in the sense that the apartment has no furniture except two beds, has no clothing, has New York Police Department radios…
CALLER: …There’s computers in there…
DISPATCHER: There’s what?
CALLER: …There’s computer hardware/software, you know, just laying around. There’s pictures of terrorists. There’s picture of our neighboring buildings that they have…
DISPATCHER: …In New Brunswick?
DISPATCHER: So you were inspecting the apartment for…?
CALLER: We have our annual five-year state inspection for every apartment.
CALLER: So we notified all the residents that we would be going into each unit.
CALLER: And that was about two weeks ago. And so we have been going through the building, you know, unit by unit and we came across this one apartment, number 1076, and it had these serious items. But it doesn’t seem like it’s habited, that someone’s in there because we sent out a notice about two weeks ago that we were going to be doing an inspection and that notice is still hanging on, was still hanging on their front door.
DISPATCHER: Ohhh-kay. Whoever is in the apartment, just tell them to get out and I will, uh, speak to my supervisor obviously.
The AP notes in their report on this story that they had requested a copy of audio of the call last year, when they were in the middle of investigative reporting on the NYPD’s spying on Muslims that would result in AP journalists who worked on the story winning a Pulitzer Prize. New Brunswick, facing pressure from the NYPD, had refused to release the audio until this week.
In addition to the audio, the AP was given emails showing how NYPD tried to prevent the recording of the 911 call from being disclosed. A farce had played out after the call, as the New Brunswick police and FBI agents rushed over to the apartment complex and discovered the NYPD had been using this unit as a home base for a spying operation. Both the New Brunswick police and FBI had no idea they were engaged in this sort of activity so materials were seized and the NYPD had to ask the FBI to give property back to the department.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman add the NYPD had argued “releasing the recording would jeopardize investigations and endanger the people and buildings,” even though the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for legal matters, Andrew Schaffer, in February, had told reporters detectives could “operate outside New York because they aren’t conducting official police duties.” The apartment was also “rented by an undercover NYPD officer using a fake name that he was still using.”
This report provides one more glimpse at the extralegal operations of the NYPD, which have often included ethnic profiling of Muslims. Recall, the AP shined a light on the NYPD’s monitoring of Muslim student associations in February. Rutgers University was one of the institutions of higher learning, where Muslim students were being watched by NYPD officers.
While mayors and heads of colleges or universities expressed outrage when spying operations were uncovered, the Justice Department under Attorney General Eric Holder has not launched a public investigation into the covert surveillance conducted outside of New York City. Though Holder has claimed he is “disturbed,” the Justice Department has only been able to muster the courage to privately “review” complaints. However, according to Apuzzo and Goldman, “Muslim groups have sued to shut down the NYPD programs. Civil rights lawyers have asked a federal judge to decide whether the spying violates federal rules that were set up to prevent a repeat of NYPD abuses of the 1950s, when police Red Squads spied on student groups and activists in search of communists.”
It is important to understand the NYPD does not only engage in widespread surveillance that has a chilling effect on activist and ethnic communities. It also goes after officers who blow the whistle on crime stats manipulation and forces such individuals into psychiatric wards. It will privately investigate allegations of institutional corruption and keep secret reports showing these individuals are not crazy. Its officers also routinely engage in obstructions and violations of freedom of the press, infringe on privacy by racially profiling New York residents through the practice of stop and frisks, and arbitrarily arrest Occupy Wall Street participants, who are exercising their First Amendment rights.
Additionally, the NYPD wants the public to believe it is a police department that has evolved into an honorable agency capable of countering terrorism threats, but as ProPublica‘s Justin Elliott demonstrated recently Commissioner Ray Kelly and his department have not stopped fourteen terror attacks, as they like to claim. So, it is not an agency with counterterror accomplishments that one might say rivals the FBI. Instead, it has become a criminal enterprise that operates with supreme disregard for civil liberties and the rule of law. It has developed into the embodiment of all the worst excesses of the national security state and, in a society that supported accountability for law enforcement that abuses its authority routinely, every single major officer in the department, including Commissioner Ray Kelly, might be under a federal investigation that would result in an agreement similar to what the Justice Department just established with the scandal-ridden New Orleans Police Department.