Just as one controversy over alleged racism begins to settle down, the New York Police Department is drifting into trouble all over again.
While the killing of Sean Bell has attracted nationwide media coverage and drawn major figures like the Reverend Jesse Jackson to New York, a lawsuit recently filed in a Manhattan federal court has so far received relatively scant attention. But it too has the potential to detonate the NYPD’s efforts to build effective relations with a skeptical minority community, in this case Arab-Americans.
Lawyers for an analyst in the NYPD’s intelligence division filed the suit against the city eight days ago. The plaintiff, who still works for the department, is referred to as “John Doe Anti-Terrorism Officer,” because he fears reprisals against family members still living in the Middle East if his identity becomes public.
The man is a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Egypt. He is also a Muslim. He alleges that a key counterterrorism advisor to the NYPD sent hundreds of e-mails containing blatant anti-Muslim and anti-Arab comments to him and others in the intelligence division over a period of three and a half years.
According to the suit, the e-mails included comments like “a good Muslim … can’t be a good American” and “Burning the hate-filled Koran should be viewed as a public service at the least.”
The advisor, Bruce Tefft, also purportedly enjoyed adding his own footnotes to material. To one article headlined “1 in 4 Hold Anti-Muslim Views”, he is said to have appended the comment “Then 1 in 4 is well-informed.” To another article, entitled “Has U.S. threatened to vaporize Mecca?”, he allegedly noted, “Excellent idea, if true.”
Mr. Tefft was no low-level rookie who might plead naïveté as an excuse for his words. A retired 21-year veteran of the C.I.A., Mr. Tefft was “a founding member of the C.I.A.’s Counter Terrorism Center in 1985,” according to the biography posted on the Web site of one company in which he was involved.
One of the key issues in the case is the NYPD’s responsibility for the e-mails.
The NYPD’s deputy commissioner for public information, Paul Browne, took issue with the idea that the police are culpable for Mr. Tefft’s behavior. He said that Mr. Tefft “was never an employee of the Police Department—he came with the package, so to speak, with an outside consulting firm.”
Mr. Browne also asserted that action was taken to block Mr. Tefft’s e-mails after they came to the attention of “senior managers” in 2005; that similar moves were made after Mr. Tefft found a way to circumvent the blockage earlier this year; and that cease-and-desist letters were issued.
The version of events provided by Mr. Browne doesn’t tally with the plaintiff’s allegations.
According to the suit, “Tefft’s hate-filled and humiliating email briefings were distributed to virtually all City employees who worked in the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, including the highest-ranking members of that division and Plaintiff’s supervisors. Despite Plaintiff’s repeated complaints—over a period of three years—to his supervisors about Tefft’s discriminatory emails, the City failed to do anything to stop it.”
The man’s attorney, Ilann Maazel, told The Observer: “It is very disturbing that so many hundreds of e-mails were sent to so many people for so many years.”
Arguably even more disturbing are the broader attitudes to which the man claims he was subjected. These include allegations that a high-ranking lieutenant in the intelligence division stated that “all Arabs are animals”; that other employees stated that Muslims should be driving hot-dog carts; and that Muslim and Arab-American employees of the intelligence unit were, on one occasion, asked to leave the room after giving a presentation, while other employees were allowed to stay.
Such allegations, if proven, suggest that a deep anti-Arab racism festers in the NYPD that could gravely undermine its anti-terrorism efforts.
Linda Sarsour of the Arab-American Association of New York points out that the NYPD “needs us” if it is to be effective. Ms. Sarsour added that the allegations in the current case will not only “surely kill their recruitment,” but will also have a corrosive effect on broader community relations.
“They tell us they respect us—and people understand we need the police for our own safety. But then we get this kind of disgusting language against Arabs.”
The NYPD understandably makes much of its efforts to reach out to minorities.
But the department’s own history renders those efforts an uphill struggle. Tolerance of the sort of bigotry to which “John Doe” was allegedly subjected only makes the hill steeper.