A female undercover NYPD detective “converted” to Islam to spy on Muslim students at Brooklyn College, none of whom were ever accused of a crime. The spying continued for years, long after Mayor de Blasio vowed to end the NYPD's blanket surveillance of the Muslim community. While the NYPD didn’t respond to Gothamist’s calls or emails when we published the account, they later claimed that the story was bogus.

"There's truth in the Gothamist story, if you pick out certain facts you can say, 'Well, this is true,' or 'That's true,’” NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller, told WNYC in November.

“But it's wrapped around this narrative that there was this overarching blanket surveillance, which is not the case."

Jethro Eisenstein, an attorney who has been part of the lawsuit challenging the city’s investigations into political and religious groups since 1971—Handschu v. Special Services Division—wasn’t so sure.

Eisenstein read Gothamist’s story and wrote to his NYPD counterparts, expressing concern about the length of the reported four-year secret investigation and the undercover’s intimate involvement in the lives of those she was spying on.

“This came to our attention and we asked them about it,” Eisenstein says.

While cellphone videos have transformed the national conversation when it comes to police brutality, no similar mechanism of public accountability exists when it comes to how the NYPD conducts its counterterrorism surveillance.

Almost all the information released by the NYPD about its undercover operations has been obtained as a result of the Handschu lawsuit.

“And it really depends on them coming to light in some other way,” Eisenstein explained, often through the press. “The undercover operations—unless they result in an arrest—are by definition secrets.”

NYPD lawyers told Eisenstein it was true that a female undercover detective using the alias “Melike Ser,” or “Mel,” was deployed to infiltrate the Brooklyn College Islamic Society in 2011 “for most of a year,” but that the investigation was closed in early 2012.

The NYPD said they reactivated Mel’s identity again in 2013, but for a completely unrelated terrorism investigation involving two Queens women, Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui, which ultimately led to their arrests this past spring for an alleged bomb plot.

Under Handschu, for the use of an undercover operative to be considered, an investigative statement must be submitted that demonstrates a “reasonable possibility” of ongoing criminal activity. NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller, who gave the interview to WNYC, approves or denies these requests.

“From what [the NYPD attorneys] said, there was no connection between the second deployment and Brooklyn College,” Eisenstein said.

Yet former students and Brooklyn College Islamic Society members insist this is not true.

Though her investigation may have been terminated in 2012, they say Mel remained on campus and in their lives through January of 2015. According to these former students, Mel attended religious gatherings, discussed the role of the hijab, and knew what to say after a bad breakup.

Other current and former Brooklyn College students have come forward since Gothamist’s initial report was published. They remember Mel as one of a handful of people who attended planning meetings at Brooklyn College for another student group, introducing herself as a member of the Islamic Society, long after her assignment supposedly ended.

These two starkly different narratives—from the NYPD and their targets of surveillance— illustrate the difficulty of determining the truth about undercover operations and raise questions about whether the police overstepped their authority.

Mayor Bill de Blasio delivers Remarks at Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, New York. Friday December 4, 2015 (Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)

“That’s not true,” said Thomas DeAngelis, a current Brooklyn College student, when asked to respond to the NYPD’s claim that Mel’s policing duties at Brooklyn College ended in 2012.

DeAngelis, 22, had been a lead organizer for the UNITY group, a coalition formed on campus in the spring of 2014 and dedicated to increasing cooperation and coordination amongst students of color.

UNITY was composed primarily of students of color groups on campus, including the Puerto Rican Alliance, the Dominican Student Movement, the Haitian American Student Association, and Students for Justice in Palestine, as well as others.

At the time, DeAngelis was Vice President of the Hispanic Society, another UNITY member group. The coalition met to build support and share dates of upcoming events. (Gothamist has reviewed notes from the meeting to verify dates and participating groups.)

“I positively remember meeting her at that meeting,” DeAngelis said of the first UNITY planning session, which occurred in the Brooklyn College Student Center building on May 15, 2014.

DeAngelis learned about Mel’s true identity this past April, after Noelle Velentzas and Asia Siddiqui were arrested, which was around the same time that some former ISO members who were in the same social circles as the two accused women also realized that Mel was the undercover officer in that case; they texted others about it and posted the news on Facebook.

DeAngelis immediately recognized Mel’s name because it had appeared on UNITY listserves, and when former ISO members posted a photograph of Mel online, he remembered her face.

A second Brooklyn College student also recalled meeting Mel at the UNITY meetings. The student, whose attendance at the UNITY meetings was confirmed by DeAngelis, spoke on the condition that she not be identified in this article—we’ll call her Amanda.

Amanda, 23, graduated from Brooklyn College last spring. “I don’t trust the police,” she said. Amanda recalled that at a UNITY meeting in early fall of 2014, one woman introduced herself to the group as Melike, or Mel for short.

“I went up to her afterwards because I recognized that Melike is Turkish.” Amanda had lived in Turkey in 2012, so she wanted to introduce herself. She told Gothamist that everyone at the meetings took notes, including Mel. Amanda also recalled running into Mel at a demonstration just outside Brooklyn College campus during the siege of Gaza on September 2, 2014.

A third source, a current student at Brooklyn College, said that she also saw Mel at UNITY meetings that spring. The source, also who asked not to be named out of fear of law enforcement surveillance, remembered that Mel “introduced herself as a member of the Islamic Student Organization.” DeAngelis also confirmed the source’s account.

“The Brooklyn College students were engaged in political activity during their organizing meetings, and the NYPD had an undercover officer at those meetings,” said Michael Price, who serves as counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Liberty and National Security Program.

“If ‘Mel’ was not there as part of an authorized investigation, then it would constitute a Handschu violation.”

Asked whether Mel’s presence at the UNITY meetings in spring and fall of 2014 would constitute a violation the Handschu Guidelines, Eisenstein replied, “Yes.” Unless, he clarified, the NYPD believed that the meetings were open to the public.

“Even without an investigation, the NYPD can attend a public function ‘on the same terms as members of the public generally,’ but cannot retain any information gathered in that activity unless it relates to criminal activity or terrorism,” Eisenstein explained.

DeAngelis said that the first UNITY meeting was held in the student center at Brooklyn College, which requires a CUNY ID to enter. Subsequent meetings were held elsewhere on campus. The UNITY gatherings were planning sessions and people were mostly invited through word of mouth, although DeAngelis does not remember what kind of invitations he sent out online, if at all.

According to Michael Price, “The use of Facebook or a listserv doesn’t change whether an event is public or private, but it gives us more facts to consider,” like whether access to the group was restricted or if permission from an administrator was required to join.

But, Price clarified in an e-mail, “I would argue that if the only reason the NYPD has access to an online forum is because of (continuing) fraud and false pretenses, then they are not following the same terms and conditions that apply to the public generally.”

Given the details available about where the UNITY meetings were held and what was discussed during them, Price said, “It doesn't seem like these meetings were public.”

Brooklyn College's student center, where UNITY meetings took place (CUNY)

After the alleged closing of the Brooklyn College investigation, Mel also maintained and strengthened relationships with women she had met at the Islamic Society. The former students frequently saw Mel at events around town, including a Ramadan preparation event in June 2013, a youth gathering in November 2013, an all-day, women-only event about the hijab in February 2014, and religious classes held at mosques across the city.

Jehan, 30, first met Mel in the spring of 2012 in the ISO prayer room. (Jehan is a pseudonym for an individual interviewed in the initial Gothamist investigation.) She saw Mel several months later, at the November 2013 youth conference, but the two didn’t get a chance to speak, so she reached out to her shortly after. Jehan was going through a difficult separation, and recalled that Mel spent hours on the phone with her that December providing emotional support.

In an email to Jehan dated January 13, 2014, Mel wrote, “I will keep you in my prayers and hope that things continue to get better for you iA [Insha’Allah, or God willing]. You are very brave and I appreciate you opening up about your personal life.”

About a year later, in early December 2014, Jehan texted Mel to let her know she had changed her phone number. Mel, who still had the same phone number, responded and thanked her for getting in touch. The two spoke on the phone and texted back and forth for about six weeks. In April of 2015, Jehan, who helps coordinate a center for Muslim youth, reached out to Mel to keep her abreast of upcoming events she was organizing. Mel didn’t respond to her messages.

The Handschu Guidelines do not specify if an undercover can maintain personal relationships with individuals after an investigation has been closed, but they may not gather information on the political activities of their contacts.

During his conversation with the NYPD, Eisenstein said they “made reference to continued contact with some of the people the undercover had encountered during the initial investigation”—which he believes occurred so that Mel could maintain her covert identity. If Mel completely disappeared from the lives of the women she met, it might raise suspicion, and make it harder to redeploy Mel in a later investigation.

“The fact that you get a woman of appropriate age, and a vaguely appropriate ethnicity who’s a police officer operating undercover, that’s a pretty valuable resource,” Eisenstein explained when asked why the NYPD would invest so much time and resources in maintaining Mel’s cover.

Michael German is a former FBI undercover agent and a fellow with the Brennan Center. German suggested that the NYPD could have invented a creative story to maintain Mel’s cover without requiring her to stay in contact with the Brooklyn College women—perhaps Mel could have gone to study or work abroad.

“Embedding undercover police officers in lawful social, religious, or political groups with no criminal investigative purpose and for an unlimited time period just in case they might someday find something worth investigating is an anathema to a free society and exactly what the [Handschu] guidelines were designed to prevent,” he said.

Lumumba Akinwole-Bandele is the Senior Community Organization for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and sits on the board of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), which organizes for police accountability in New York City.

“Part of what may be surprising to people in this society is that law enforcement can lie,” he said. “That’s a huge reality for the work that we do—so it’s far from surprising. It’s expected, in fact.”

A spokesperson for the Mayor’s Office, Monica Klein, declined to comment on whether the NYPD may have violated the Handschu Decree, citing the fact that Handschu litigation is still pending.

In an email, she wrote that “the Mayor has said he is committed to strengthening the relationship between the city and communities of faith, including Muslim communities, to ensure residents of all backgrounds feel respected and protected by this administration.”

In response to a list of questions, an NYPD spokesperson wrote an email from the department’s press office stating that they would not comment on the story, despite Deputy Commissioner Miller’s appearance on WNYC in November.

“It is our understanding you were already in touch with City Hall regarding this inquiry and that you were advised due to pending litigation we will refrain from commenting,” the spokesperson wrote.

John Miller, Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence & Counterterrorism, speaks at the Police Commissioner's Executive Tabletop Exercise at Police Headquarters on September 9, 2015 (Getty Images)

None of the individuals active in UNITY group or the Brooklyn College Islamic Society recall seeing Noelle Velentzas or Asia Siddiqui, the two Queens women accused of hatching a bomb plot, on campus. While students like Amanda saw members of the Islamic Society posting messages on social media about Mel after their arrest, the Queens women had no known connection to Brooklyn College. One possibility is that Mel encountered them at a public event, perhaps even one she attended with former Brooklyn College students.

In a statement released in late November, Frederick P. Schaffer, the General Counsel and Senior Vice Chancellor for Legal Affairs at CUNY, said the administration "has no knowledge of any undercover operations by the NYPD at Brooklyn College, or any of its campuses, targeting Muslim groups or any other groups."

He added:

CUNY recognizes that the use of undercover officers in the context of political or religious groups can inhibit the free exercise of constitutionally protected rights. It is for that reason that limitations were imposed on that practice in the guidelines set forth in the consent decree in the Handshu case. The Mayor and Police Commission have publicly stated that the NYPD’s activities are conducted in compliance with those guidelines. CUNY has no information as to whether the alleged undercover operations comply with the guidelines.

Contacted by Gothamist for the first story, the attorney for Noelle Velentzas declined to comment “due to the existing protective order and other constraints.”

Stephen Schulhofer is a professor at New York University’s School of Law and an expert on how the landscape of American civil liberties has changed since 9/11.

“These [police] claims, that there is a predicate or that it’s a justified, legitimate undercover operation, you have to take these on faith, because there’s no system of oversight or independent accountability,” he said.

“I don’t think it would be right, to prohibit [undercover agents] entirely,” Schulhofer added. But while undercover spies “do give you a little better chance of finding that needle in the haystack, they also make it more difficult for you to find that needle in the haystack.”

When used indiscriminately, Schulhofer believes that the NYPD’s surveillance activities “really chill very substantially the willingness of people in the community to cooperate. And that cooperation is essential for success in countering terrorist activity.”

With the latest disclosures from the NYPD, former UNITY members are left wondering why Mel would be sent to spy on the group, especially if the terrorism investigation at the school’s ISO had long been closed. “Historically, inter-ethnic coalitions have been targeted,” said DeAngelis. “That’s the only reason I could think of, to monitor what’s going on.”

Jehan, who has lived in New York for 25 years, also struggled to make sense of why the NYPD would have kept Mel active for so long. “I was at a point in my life when I needed someone,” she said. “What did she want from me?”

Aviva Stahl is a Brooklyn-based journalist who primarily writes about prisons, especially the experiences of terrorism suspects and LGBTQ people behind bars. Follow her @stahlidarity.