Skip to main content

NYPD's top official faces backlash for downplaying Muslim surveillance

John Miller faces criticism from large segments of the Muslim community after claiming years-long surveillance of neighbourhoods and mosques was just a 'perception'
People arrive at a mosque in New York City to attend funeral prayers, on 16 January 2022 (AFP)
By Zainab Iqbal in New York City

The New York Police Department's top official on counterterrorism and intelligence is facing criticism from segments of the Muslim community after suggesting that the agency did not spy on Muslims post 9/11. 

At an eight-hour council hearing on public safety on Friday, Shahana Hanif, the first and only Muslim NYC council member, asked if the NYPD could commit to fully disclosing the extent of its Muslim surveillance programme and if the NYPD could also issue a formal apology or public acknowledgement to Muslim New Yorkers for the "discriminatory, fruitless, and damaging programme".

John Miller, who serves as the NYPD's deputy commissioner on intelligence and counterterrorism, answered that the surveillance was just a "perception".

"Perception allowed to linger long enough becomes reality. I know from my own conversation with Muslim members of the community and Muslim community leaders, that there are people… who will believe forever… [that] there were spies in their mosques who are trying to entrap people," he said.

Mayor Adams needs to hold police officials 'accountable for their continual gaslighting'

- Ahmed Mohamed, legal director at CAIR-NY

"There is no evidence that that occurred based on every objective study that's been done."

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


In 2011, the Associated Press reported that since 2002, the NYPD had "subjected entire neighbourhoods to surveillance and scrutiny, often because of the ethnicity of the residents, not because of any accusations of crimes".

The AP investigation also found that the NYPD religiously profiled and surveilled NYC Muslims in an attempt to find "radicalisation", mapping out communities, conducting video surveillance, recruiting informants, and generating intelligence databases.

A year later, the NYPD acknowledged in a testimony that the unit in charge of the surveillance - the demographics unit- never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation. And in 2014, the unit was discontinued. 

Hanif, who later called on Miller to be fired, told MEE she was dismayed that he refused to accept the intrusive and destructive effect surveillance had on the Muslim community.

"The police department conducted this entrapment, this racial profiling and sent informants into our communities to target and violate innocent, innocent people," Hanif said.

"I wanted to take the opportunity to get him on the public record because I think Muslims, and the broader New York City community, ought to know how the NYPD frames this, how they hurt us and how they carried out this project on Muslim communities."

'Surveillance of Muslims is common knowledge'

Lamis Deek, an attorney whose work spans international human rights, criminal defence and appeals, said Miller's comments depict "a deranged perception of the Muslim community".

"The NYPD and government surveillance of Muslims is common knowledge easily accessible to the public and information fully within Miller's purview," she told MEE, adding that the NYC mayor's office needs to ensure he issues an apology. 

"Miller appears to be sending a message to the NY community, that the Muslim community - despite the city's own admissions - is not credible and letting the Muslim community know that he and his department neither respect nor see their humanity or the harm the NYPD has caused.

"Such patent knowing denial of the harm lays the groundwork for its repetition."

The legacy of Michael Bloomberg's Muslim surveillance programme
Read More »

At a press conference on Monday, Mayor Eric Adams, who is a retired police captain, said surveillance would never happen under his administration.

"It's up to the mayor to set the tone. I set it, the tone, not only now saying it's wrong - I set it then when it was happening."

According to Ahmed Mohamed, the legal director at CAIR-NY, Adams still needs to apologise to the Muslim community and hold police officials "accountable for their continual gaslighting".

In 2021, when Adams was a candidate for Mayor, he went to a mosque and said: "When you speak with the Muslim brothers and sisters here in Brooklyn, they're going to tell you about the days when I stood up when your mosques were been infiltrated by police departments."
"Now as the mayor, he has the authority to back up his rhetoric with action, starting with an apology to the Muslim community for the illegal spying and profiling conducted by the NYPD," Mohamed said.

"Mayor Adams can also hold officials accountable for their continual gaslighting and prohibit Glomar responses which circumvent FOIL [Freedom of Information Law] requests."

FOIL is a New York state law that gives the public the right to access government records.

"Trust will never take root while the NYPD continues to inflict trauma by lying about the harms perpetrated on our mosques, community leaders, students, business owners, and organisations," Mohamed added.

'NYPD attempts to rewrite proven history'

Lamiya Khandaker, the project manager at Majlis Ash-Shura: Islamic Leadership Council of New York, said she hopes Miller rectifies his statements soon.

"Miller's denial of the NYPD's long-standing egregious conduct and discrimination towards the Muslim community post 9/11 is nothing short of abhorring," she said.

"The evidence of NYPD's discriminatory surveillance programme is unquestionable, and we must never forget the racist and Islamophobic NYPD White Paper report that identified faithfully practising Muslims as indicators of radicalisation." 

"To deny the history of law enforcement discrimination is nothing but a pure insult to the Muslim community who has endured so much injustice."
In 2012, Muslim Advocates and other organisations filed a lawsuit against the NYPD on behalf of several individuals and groups who were harmed by surveillance. They won the settlement, which eventually forced the NYPD to pay more than a million dollars to the Muslims "they denied spying on", Muslim Advocates interim legal director Naomi Tsu said.
"The NYPD filmed, tracked and monitored Muslims in mosques, restaurants and schools with cameras and undercover officers in New York, New Jersey and beyond - all without their knowledge," Tsu said.

"As part of the court proceedings, a federal appeals court explicitly said that our clients plausibly pled that the NYPD ran 'a surveillance programme with a facially discriminatory classification'."
"The NYPD's attempts to rewrite this proven history of spying on American Muslims is jaw-dropping and a worrying sign that they could do it again."

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.