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Muslim, law enforcement leaders focus on trust after spying controversy

By Hannan Adely, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) –

HACKENSACK, N.J. — An outreach committee created to improve relations between New Jersey law enforcement and Muslims in the wake of a police surveillance controversy will hold its first meeting Wednesday in Newark.

The New Jersey attorney general announced the committee in May as he tried to quell anger and disappointment over the release of a fact-finding review declaring the New York Police Department broke no state laws when it spied on Muslim businesses, mosques and student groups in New Jersey. The committee was one of a few initiatives launched to improve dialogue with Muslims and promote intelligence sharing among law enforcement agencies.

“The main focus of the committee is obviously to have a greater understanding and communication between law enforcement and the Muslim community,” said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the attorney general.

The committee includes 10 Muslim leaders from across the state, and 10 state law enforcement leaders including Attorney General Jeffrey Chiesa; Edward Dickson, the state’s homeland security director; and Rick Fuentes, head of the state police.

The involvement of top law-enforcement figures — and not just their representatives — underscores the resolve to rebuild trust with Muslim Americans, who leaders say are pivotal in the fight against terrorism. Law enforcement officials say they rely on cooperation and dialogue in those communities to know, understand and interpret potential threats.

For Muslim leaders, the committee offers a way to voice concerns about civil rights and renew ties with state leaders.

“The community felt they were not being treated fairly, so we have to work together to build this back again,” said Khader Abuassab, an Arab-American community leader in Paterson, N.J., and a committee member. “We lost some of the trust because everybody thinks they’re being targeted.”

That trust took a severe hit following news that the NYPD watched, mapped and photographed Muslim institutions, including the Omar Mosque in Paterson, and monitored Muslim student groups at universities including Rutgers.

Muslims said the surveillance — first reported by The Associated Press — violated their civil rights. They also questioned what state officials knew, even as top leaders including Governor Christie denied knowing about NYPD surveillance in the state and rebuked the agency for failing to inform them.

Following the three-month fact-finding review, Chiesa concluded the NYPD broke no state laws and said he did not believe the NYPD engaged in profiling.

The NYPD also has defended the surveillance as legal, important counterterrorism work. Police also say they weren’t “spying,” but instead collecting publicly available information.

In a few cases, the NYPD relied on New Jersey undercover officers or their informants for intelligence at local mosques and non-profits. State authorities were involved in specific investigations through the Joint Terrorism Task Force based on legitimate leads, said a spokesman at the Attorney General’s Office. But the extent of NYPD surveillance, such as the mapping and documentation of Muslims establishments in Newark, N.J., was not known, he said.

In May, Chiesa issued a directive requiring law enforcement agencies in New Jersey to notify higher-up agencies if they learn of out-of-state operations in their jurisdictions. The reporting must be within 24 hours.

New Jersey law enforcement leaders also have begun meeting monthly with the NYPD to exchange information about counterterrorism intelligence and operations.

Loriquet also said the fact-finding review on the NYPD activities is still ongoing.

The first meeting of the outreach committee will take place at the Leroy F. Smith Jr. Public Safety Building in Newark Wednesday.

Imam Mustafa El-Amin, a committee member, said Muslims were still upset about surveillance, but he believed the steps being taken would lead to healing — “I think it reflects a genuine effort on the part of attorney general to correct a bad situation,” he said.

El-Amin said he would relay officials’ messages to his mosque, the Masjid Ibrahim in Newark, and invite law enforcement leaders to visit and speak directly with the congregation. El-Amin also said he wanted to get across to law enforcement the diversity of the Muslim community.

Mohamed Younes, a community leader who worships in Teaneck, N.J., and lives in Franklin Lakes, N.J., said he still wants the attorney general to explain findings that the NYPD had done no wrong. He also hopes that through open dialogue, the kind of secret surveillance that caused such hurt and fear will be a thing of the past.

“You don’t want this to happen again,” he said. “You don’t want to be going through that one more time.”

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