NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Nearly one year ago, the nation’s top news agency broke an astonishing story that the New York City police department may have been conducting a widespread unconstitutional surveillance operation based in the downtown New Brunswick.
Now, that same agency, the Associated Press (AP) has filed suit against the city’s police department after New Brunswick Police Director Anthony Caputo denied their request for documents and audio related to one of the most peculiar 911 calls ever made in New Brunswick.
On June 3, 2009, a building manager at what was then called the “Highlands at Plaza Square” called local police when he stumbled upon what he believed to be a terrorist cell operating out of the 414-unit luxury apartment building at 1 Richmond Street.
The truth was that the high-tech equipment and terrorist literature in unit 1076 actually belonged to the secret “demographics” unit of the New York City Police Department that was conducting widespread surveillance of the muslim community across the tri-state area.
New Brunswick Police accidentally uncovered what eventually became a national scandal, and the NYPD moved to shut down the spying operation.
The NBPD helped the NYPD keep the spying a secret for over two years until the AP broke the story last August.
Since the surveillance operation was uncovered by the AP, numerous organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union have called the NYPD’s activities in New Brunswick and elsewhere unconstitutional.
According to the AP’s reporting, Central Intelligence Agency operatives were coordinating with the operation and training NYPD officers to spy on muslims who were not engaged in any criminal activity.
“Why don’t we have our police department contact the people that were involved in that?… I think our police department should find out what it is and what it was, and we should be notified when that something like that happens,” said Councilman Kevin Egan at a March 7 city council meeting.
But answers were few and far between two weeks later at the next council meeting.
Joseph T. Miller, a police lieutenant who serves as the public information officer for the department couldn’t say when the department became aware of the surveillance at the following meeting on March 21. When pressed by city resident Ellen Whitt that evening, two council members said they were against the spying in principle.
“My position is that while I don’t think the surveillance was proper under the constitution, I don’t know the circumstances of why they did the surveillance… I don’t know whether there was cause or not,” said Council President Robert Recine.
The Council’s Vice President Rebecca Escobar said, “I personally don’t agree with what they did. I am glad to hear that our police department was not involved in that. Based on what I’ve read, I don’t think it was proper to do that.”
The secret unit of the NYPD spied on innocent people and groups, solely because of their religion. The targets included various student groups at Rutgers campuses in New Brunswick and Newark, as well as other universities and muslim neighborhoods across the Eastern Seaboard.
“We will instruct our city attorney to take a look at it, and see if we can find anything further out,” said Recine at the meeting.
But again the answers didn’t come.
At the next council meeting on April 4, Miller said, “As far as notifying the public, we don’t comment on, you know, other law enforcement investigations, so we wouldn’t notify anyone.”
Miller wouldn’t say who in the police department knew of the spying when asked by NewBrunswickToday.com at the April 4 meeting.
“It came to the light of the detective bureau and they made the notification they needed to make,” he said, eventually adding that the department notified “higher jurisdictions.”
“We don’t have jurisdiction over NYPD,” Miller added.
Questioned by NewBrunswickToday.com at a fourth consecutive council meeting, Recine and Miller still had nothing new to add.
“I think that– I don’t think we’re going to get much more than what we’ve got,” Recine said, adding that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was also not pleased with being on the oustide of the investigation.
“From what I read in the paper, the FBI as well was not happy they were not informed… It’s like the same thing. We’re at the same stage they are.”
Miller added, “Jurisdictions that had authority over NYPD were notified. I’m not going to comment on who in the police department knew about it… The Attorney General is doing his investigation and when that investigation’s done, more facts will come out.”
Three weeks ago, New Jersey Attorney General Jeff Chiesa announced the findings of a three-month probe into the controversial operation. His office determined the NYPD’s actions were entirely within the law, a conclsion that was questioned by the ACLU and several groups representing NJ’s muslim community.
As for the city council, Vice President Escobar had the last word on the surveillance operation at the April 18 meeting, the last time it was discussed.
“I do agree that some surveillance has to be done… But I do know also that it has to be done in a systematic way and in a way that it doesn’t infringe on somebody else’s civil liberties,” she said.
“Did they provide the whole information for somebody to make an informed decision? Who knows? That’s part of the police procedure and whatever they have. I don’t think I need to know because [the police] know better.”
Editor’s Note: The author of this article is a candidate for New Brunswick City Council on the November 6, 2012 ballot.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.