BROOKLYN (AP) — The New York Police Department collected not only information on businesses owned by recent immigrants from the Arab world but by those owned by second- and third-generation Muslim- and Arab-Americans, according to documents recently obtained by the Associated Press.
Their reach extended even to the well-known Damascus Bread and Pastry Shop at 195 Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn, where judges and lawyers from the nearby federal courthouse frequently dine on fresh baklava and other pastries. Police noted that the building is owned by a Syrian family, adding: “This location mostly sells Middle Eastern pastries, nuts, foreign newspapers and magazines.”
“If they want to check on Damascus Bakery, why not, let them check,” said Ghassan Matli, 52, when shown the police documents.
But like many whose businesses were monitored, he said he wishes the NYPD would stop by and talk to him so it would get its information right. The people who owned the store at the time of the report, for instance, were indeed the grandchildren of Syrian immigrants — but had been raised as Catholics.
“If they need help, I will help them,” said Matli, who is a Christian. “This is the last country we can go to for freedom and to live in freedom. So if they want, why not? Let them check.”
The NYPD has faced intense criticism from Muslims, lawmakers — and even the FBI — for widespread spying operations that put entire neighborhoods under surveillance. Police put the names of innocent people in secret files and monitored the mosques, student groups and businesses that make up the Muslim landscape of the northeastern U.S.
Mayor Bloomberg has defended his department’s efforts, saying they have kept the city safe, were completely legal and were not based on religion.
“We don’t stop to think about the religion,” Bloomberg said at a news conference in August after the Associated Press began revealing the spying. “We stop to think about the threats and focus our efforts there.”
In late 2007, however, plainclothes officers in the department’s secretive Demographics Unit were assigned to investigate the region’s Syrian population. Police photographed businesses and eavesdropped at lunch counters and inside grocery stores and pastry shops.
The resulting document listed no threat. And though most people of Syrian heritage living in the area were Jewish, Jews were excluded from the monitoring.
Similarly, police excluded the city’s sizable Coptic Christian population when photographing, monitoring and eavesdropping on Egyptian businesses in 2007, according to the police files.
“This report does not represent the Coptic Egyptian community and is merely an insight into the Muslim Egyptian community of New York City,” the NYPD wrote.
Many of those under surveillance were American-born citizens whose families have been here for the better part of a century.
“The majority of Syrians encountered by members of the Demographics Unit are second- or even third-generation Syrian Americans,” the Syrian report said. “It is unusual to encounter a first generation or new arrival Syrian in New York City.”