How far law enforcement should be able to go in breaching civil liberties in order to protect the homeland was the subject of a wide-ranging conversation Tuesday night on the University at Buffalo North Campus.
The discussion, with a panel of federal, state and local law enforcement officials, was arranged in the wake of a series of Associated Press stories about New York City Police Department surveillance of various Muslim organizations not only in New York City but stretching all the way to Western New York.
"It was a pretty tough panel to put together, given the nature of the topic and the nature of the sensitivity of the topic," said Dr. Khalid Qazi, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York, at the conclusion of the 90-minute forum.
"On the one hand we're talking about securing our homeland and on the other hand trampling civil rights while we are doing that," said Qazi, who acted as moderator for the panel.
On the panel were U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr., Erie County Sheriff Timothy B. Howard, Deputy Buffalo Police Commissioner Charles Tomaszewski, UB Police Chief Gerald Schoenle and Niagara County Undersheriff Michael Filicetti.
Also on the panel were John Curr III, New York Civil Liberties Western Regional director; Ehsan Zaffar of the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in Washington, D.C.; and Sunny S. Jamil, president-elect of the Muslim Student Association at UB.
Earlier this year, members of a Muslim student group on the UB campus condemned revelations in the now Pulitizer Prize-winning AP report that the New York City Police Department had monitored the online activities of college students attending schools far beyond the city's limits, including UB.
Jamil Tuesday said the Muslim Student Association "was known to be a happy gathering place."
"Students would just come to the MSA room and we would talk and we would chat and have some food," he said.
"In the past year that changed because I realized people felt a little paranoid of who their friends were, who should be trusted as a friend or who should be trusted as an acquaintance even," Jamil added.
Qazi noted that news of the surveillance also had a chilling effect on other social organizations on college campuses and communities where Muslim Americans gather.
"That's one of the most unfortunate results of an activity like this," he said. "There's no reason, in my opinion, whatsoever, for any student at the university or for that matter, anywhere, to be hesitant in relation to doing what is right, what is legal, what is absolutely normal."
Hochul and local law enforcement officials on the panel insisted that undercover surveillance of local citizens by an outside police agency is highly unusual.
But Curr expressed skepticism and insisted some local law enforcement agencies were apprised of what the New York City Police Department was doing.
"The New York Police Department has a special intelligence unit that has been trained and has been on staff, until at least very recently, a Central Intelligence Agency officer, an active CIA officer doing domestic intelligence," Curr said.
"We know they were here. We know that, whether the sheriff was aware of it or not, there was some enthusiasm with the Erie County Sheriff's Department to assist them. Thankfully, the university folks weren't involved," said Curr.
Howard said it was not unusual for local law enforcement to cooperate with outside police agencies seeking information about particular individuals or specific communities.
"Law enforcement agencies keep abreast of religious institutions, places of worship and the religious leaders Our purpose in doing that is when information is developed, and it's happened on several occasions that someone is targeting a particular religious institution and committing crimes against those institutions, we use that information to quickly get the information to those religious leaders to inform them of that," Howard said.
"It's not kept strictly for any one particular religion, but it's just information that's kept as a directory for law enforcement, just as we keep it for particular businesses in the community," Howard said.
"It's not done to do a disservice. Quite the opposite, it's done to serve those different communities," he added.