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The NYPD’s Buffalo Connection

February 27, 2012

The New York City Police Department sent at least four officers to Buffalo, New York to spy on that city’s Somali community, according to an internal Intelligence Division “briefing report” obtained by NYPD Confidential.

The NYPD launched its upstate spying operation even though the briefing report notes that the department’s key Buffalo law enforcement official helping them gather intelligence “was not aware of any crime trends or crime patterns attributed to the ethnic Somali community.”

Daily BeastThe report, dated Jan. 2, 2009, and marked “law enforcement sensitive,” also suggests that the NYPD researched Somali communities in Boston and Maine, but it’s unclear if these groups were also put under surveillance.

The report noted that Somalis in Buffalo, Boston, and Maine settle in Hispanic or white neighborhoods rather than in African-American neighborhoods because of “an apparently unfavorable opinion that many Somalis supposedly have regarding the African-American black community.”

It’s unclear how the police reached this racially charged conclusion: whether they interviewed Somalis, consulted with someone else, or came to it on their own.

According to the briefing report, on Dec. 30, 2008, a captain, lieutenant and a sergeant from the Intelligence Division’s Strategic Intelligence Unit [SIU], met with Erie County Undersheriff Richard Donovan regarding what the report described as the “Somalia Project.”

The report, written by the SIU lieutenant, described Donovan as a “seasoned law enforcement executive” who had retired as Police Commissioner of the Buffalo Police Department in 1994. The report stated that Donovan would be “our key” person in western New York.

It was Donovan who told those three visiting NYPD officers that he didn’t know of any crime trends attributed to Somalis in the Buffalo area. The report added that Donovan “acknowledged that a lot of attention has not been paid to this community” and that he “assured us that more attention will now be given to that area.”

The report said that Donovan “provided the members of SIU with an overview of the ethnic Somalian [sic] Community in the Buffalo area, where there are in excess of 1,000 Somali immigrants residing. There are also an estimated 300 Somali students in the public school system, mostly enrolled in one of two schools which service the West Side of Buffalo.”

The report stated that Donovan also “pledged assistance … in helping to secure new joint sources of information within the Buffalo area,” including “persons of interest within the Erie County jail system and within the Buffalo area.”

In addition, Donovan “offered to facilitate a relationship between the Security Chief at the University of Buffalo [retired Buffalo PD captain] and SIU…” The Associated Press reported two weeks ago that the NYPD had spied on a Muslim student group there.

Donovan also approved an NYPD request “to develop assets jointly in the Buffalo area, to act as listening posts within the ethnic Somalian [sic] community, especially regarding any ethnic Somali person[s] who may travel overseas for terrorism-related training,” the report stated. The report noted that a fourth NYPD officer, a detective, would become “the lead investigator for SIU efforts in the Buffalo area.”

The report also described an “unrelated, ongoing SIU investigation.” Besides meeting with Donovan on Dec. 30, 2008, the report said that the NYPD captain, lieutenant and sergeant “conducted vehicle surveillance” of five Somali locations that appear to be mosques. “New license plate information [NJ Registration] was obtained of a new vehicle observed at a subject location and photos taken,” the reported said.

The briefing report also stated that at least one of those NYPD officers paid an “unannounced visit to a Confidential Informant living in Buffalo” to debrief him “on recent actions.”

Both actions suggest that the NYPD’s spying in the Buffalo area had begun well before December 2008. The report did not make clear whether the NYPD’s spying on the Somalis continues today or whether it resulted in any terrorism-related arrests.

The report also stated that detectives from the NYPD’s Liaison Unit based in Canada might “investigate the Somali population in Canada.”

Donovan “had an interesting suggestion for us … He stated that due to the more relaxed and generous Canadian public assistance programs, it is reasonable to assume that some ethnic Somalis, who may have originally travelled to the Buffalo area, may have opted instead to settle right over the border in Canada,” the report said. NYPD Confidential has no information about whether Donovan’s suggestion was acted upon.

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These revelations of NYPD spying in Buffalo follow reports by the Associated Press that in 2007 the NYPD spied on Muslims in Newark, New Jersey, collecting the license plates of worshippers, monitoring them on surveillance cameras, and cataloging sermons through a network of informants.

In Newark, the NYPD used as its liaison then police commissioner Garry McCarthy, who was a former top NYPD commander. McCarthy told the AP that the NYPD had told him as a courtesy that it was sending plainclothes officers into Newark in 2007.

It was not clear if McCarthy knew the extent of the NYPD’s spying operation in Newark. Nor was it clear what he had told Newark Mayor Cory Booker about it.

But after learning of the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance from the AP, Booker said he had been “misled.” Together with other New Jersey officials, including U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, he called for an investigation.

In Buffalo, it was also unclear whether Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown knew about the NYPD’s Somalia Project.

Mary Murray, a spokeswoman for the Erie County Sheriff's department, said Donovan had retired and that she would attempt to contact him. She did not return a phone call about his whereabouts. NYPD Confidential could not independently reach him.

Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard did not return a call.

Michael DeGeorge, a spokesman for the Buffalo Police Department, said the department did not “discuss investigations involving other police agencies.”

DeGeorge, who also serves as Mayor Brown's spokesman, did not return a call asking if Mayor Brown knew of the NYPD’s spying on the Somalis.

The NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Public Information Paul Browne did not return an email seeking comment on the Somalia Project.

In New York both Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly maintain publicly that the NYPD is not targeting people based on race or religion and is merely following “leads.”

Bloomberg said last week, “Everything the NYPD has done is legal, it is appropriate, it is constitutional. They are permitted to travel beyond the border of New York City to investigate cases. … It ‘d be naïve to think we should stop following threats when we got to the border …”

But Bloomberg appeared to acknowledge for the first time that the NYPD did not merely follow leads. “When there’s no lead, it’s just you’re trying to get familiar with what’s going on and where people might go and where people might be.”

A former top NYPD official who asked for anonymity said, “It’s one thing to sit in an office and monitor the websites of Muslim student groups. It is another to send officers to other jurisdictions without informing local officials. If they [the NYPD] have reasonable grounds, let’s hear about it. If not, it’s a waste of energy.”

What neither Bloomberg nor Kelly will say publicly is that the NYPD’s out-of-the-city spying is being conducted without the help or knowledge of the FBI, the country’s leading agency in fighting terrorism.

“Has the NYPD’s Intelligence Division been sharing all this intelligence information with its law enforcement partners on the Joint [FBI and NYPD] Terrorism Task Force?” said a former FBI official. “I bet not.”

“What if they came across an imminent terrorist situation? Are we to believe that Kelly and Cohen [David Cohen, Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division] would tell their people to back off and contact the FBI and the JTTF in the area? Why would we trust them to do that when their track record does not support it?

“…Also, if this precedent is allowed, what would stop the LAPD, the Chicago PD or the Washington D.C. PD from doing the same thing anywhere in the country? What a mess [and a danger] that would be.”

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Copyright © 2012 Leonard Levitt