“Really? In New Brunswick?” asks a baffled 911 operator as an alarmed caller reports an empty flat strewn with photos of terrorists and Muslim books. But when the FBI dash to the scene, they find not a terrorist cell but a New York police hideout.
Nothing promised such a major embarrassment for the New York Police Department on a June day. Then the 911 telephone line of the New Brunswick Police rang. An alarmed resident of the New Jersey town was saying he had come across something very suspicious.
"What's suspicious?" asked the 911 dispatcher.
"It’s suspicious in the sense that the apartment has no furniture except two beds, has no clothing, has New York City Police Department radios," replied a building superintendent of an apartment complex just off the Rutgers University campus.
"There's computer hardware, software, you know, just lying around,” continued the caller. “There's pictures of terrorists. There's pictures of our neighboring building that they have."
"In New Brunswick?" the dispatcher asked – still seemingly unconvinced.
Though the two were talking back in 2009, the tape of the call has only this week been obtained from the New Brunswick Police Department, following a court action by the Associated Press.
The caller, Salil Sheth, had just been doing his job, conducting a routine inspection and had come across a flat which almost screamed 9/11. Rushing to the scene, the FBI found a small apartment with no furniture or clothes, but with two computers, dozens of black plastic boxes and piles of Muslim literature on the solitary table.
A closer look at apartment No.1076 caused eyebrows to be raised even higher. This was no terrorist cell, but a secret hideout of New York City Police Department detectives, who later proved to have been gathering intelligence on the Muslim community of New Brunswick. But the NYPD had not bothered to inform local officers and agents of the operation.
The materials found at the apartment showed New York officers had been using various techniques to spy on New Brunswick Muslims. They had infiltrated mosques, eavesdropped in cafes, kept tabs on student groups, including some at Rutgers University. This had enabled the officers to build databases on virtually anything.
However, Salil Sheth was not in on their plan, and the superintendent called 911 for a simple reason: New York authorities had encouraged the community to report anything suspicious, especially cases of obvious intelligence collection.
On top of the embarrassment, as the mission was foiled by a mere passer-by, the NYPD had to ask the FBI to return their surveillance materials and faced uproar from human rights groups, who sued to shut down the anti-constitutional domestic surveillance program. Fears were voiced of a repeat of the NYPD abuses of the 1950s, when police ‘Red Squads’ spied on student groups and activists in search of communists.
Two questions still stand out: why would the NYPD act in New Jersey and do they have the right to do so?
In February, the NYPD's legal matters commission responded to the latter question. The legal team said that officers can operate outside New York if they are not conducting official police duties. So, detectives gathering information get the green light.
New York mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has also defended the NYPD's right to go anywhere in the country in search of terrorists without telling local police. So, according to media reports, the department’s Special Services Unit appears to operate not only in New Jersey, but also in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and other states.
After the September 11 terrorist attacks, the New York Police Department embarked on a mission to preclude any repeat of the tragedy, which resulted in monitoring Muslims’ activities in New York – and far beyond.
The scandal in New Brunswick did not contravene NYPD’s practice, says the Associated Press, so targeting minorities without firm evidence of wrongdoing and spying on their own citizens continued. Many note that with the NYPD’s ambitions and methods currently outdoing the FBI and CIA, the organization is growing into a formidable domestic surveillance force.