It’s 2021 and Rayhanah Alhanafi continues to recover from a traffic stop gone wrong in the summer of 2019. The young, Black Muslim woman has taken legal action against the New York Police Department for alleged excessive force after she asked to be searched by a female officer, citing her religious beliefs. As the NYPD faces increased scrutiny following a list of complaints from Muslims, as well as a fresh lawsuit from the attorney general’s office, Ms. Alhanafi continues to seek justice.
According to a complaint filed with the New York Civilian Complaint Review Board, Ms. Alhanafi was driving in Upper Manhattan in July 2019 when she was stopped by four police officers. One officer, identified as Officer Khan, alleged Ms. Alhanafi had forged license plates and that one of her taillights was broken. She provided him with proof of purchase of her plates. After reviewing the documentation, and her driver’s license and registration in his vehicle, Officer Khan returned and asked Ms. Alhanafi to step out of her car. She followed the command, and Officer Khan informed her that she was under arrest as the other three male officers surrounded her. She complied but requested for a female officer to search her due to her religious beliefs.
The complaint, which does not provide the names of the other officers, says as Ms. Alhanafi stepped back to keep the male officers from touching her, they grabbed her and threw her to the ground. Officer Khan proceeded to put his knees on her back and hands around her throat. She was unarmed.
Ms. Alhanafi waited on the ground in handcuffs for a female officer. The complaint says she complained of not being able to breathe due to her asthma but was not given medical attention. When a female officer arrived, Ms. Alhanafi was dragged to the police car and called derogatory names.
The next day, Ms. Alhanafi was finally given medical attention. She suffered a hairline fracture in her neck and had neck and back pains. For the allegation that she had forged plates, Ms. Alhanafi said she went to court and provided documentation for her temporary plates.
The charges of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest filed against her were dropped. The Final Call reached out to NYPD but received no response by presstime.
“Since it has happened, it has taken a toll on me,” Ms. Alhanafi said. “I have trauma, mental trauma as well as physical injuries.”
The now 21-year-old college student majoring in health care administration and native New Yorker has been going to physical therapy since the incident happened. But she says it hasn’t helped her much because she continues to deal with pain. She also says her family members are overwhelmed with what happened and continue to deal with anger and disappointment as the fight for justice continues.
Muslim communities in New York are not unfamiliar with harassment from law enforcement, Ms. Alhanafi points out. Over the years, she’s witnessed it with her siblings and her father.
“Him being an African-American Muslim man and having a beard, he was targeted when 9/11 happened,” she said. “He was considered to be a terrorist. I just feel that Muslims are always targeted. And just being an African American period, that’s already two strikes against you in America.”
Ahmed Mohamed, legal director of Council on American Islamic Relations New York (CAIR-NY), says studies show the majority of Muslims in the United States are Black.
“Which means, not only are they going to be suffering from Muslim discrimination that all Muslims receive, but they’re also going to be suffering from the racism directed at African American Muslims,” Mr. Mohamed said. “So, it’s a double-edged sword.”
Many of the complaints filed against the NYPD regarding biased policing have gone unanswered. In a 2019 report, an office independent of the NYPD––the Office of the Inspector General––found that the department did not substantiate any complaints of biased policing it received between October 2014 and January 2019. Between that time period, the department received 2,495 complaints.
Many Muslim New Yorkers feel they have been targeted, harassed, or abused by the department.
“The Muslim community is definitely targeted by law enforcement in general,” Mr. Mohamed said. “We’re talking federal, state and local law enforcement officials. The NYPD and other law enforcement agencies focus on targeting Muslims for harassment.”
This has led to efforts to change policies within the department, using advocacy and litigation.
Mr. Mohamed said CAIR-NY helped to file a lawsuit against the department in 2018 for “violating Muslim’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.”
“They would arrest a Muslim woman that was wearing a hijab. They would force that woman to remove her hijab in front of male officers and then take a mugshot of her without her hijab and then keep that mugshot in their database for viewing,” he said. “An incident like that and a policy like that violates, what we believe, is the first amendment, [and the] state constitution here in New York. It also causes a great deal of trauma for Muslim women to have to remove something they believe is an essential part of their faith.”
CAIR-NY is no longer counsel on that lawsuit, but Mr. Mohamed says the NYPD agreed to overhaul their practices on religious headwear. He says this means they would not ask individuals to remove religious head coverings. They would only ask them to remove it for photo identification if the crime was committed without it, or if there is a safety concern that the head covering could be used to harm the individual. Mr. Mohamed says this would have to be properly documented.
Advocates also pushed for the department to disband its demographics unit, which Mr. Mohamed said, “had the job of in essence mapping all the Muslims in New York City and surrounding areas.” The department did so in April 2014. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the department’s secret program would “send plainclothes officers into mosques, restaurants, and neighborhoods to gather information on people’s mundane daily activities.”
Earlier this year, the NYPD faced an increased level of scrutiny after the New York Attorney General, Letitia James, filed a lawsuit Jan.14 in the fallout from George Floyd protests last summer. The lawsuit accuses officers of “illegal and harmful” conduct against protesters. But the NYPD isn’t the only subject. It also charges New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea, and NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan “with failing to address this long standing pattern of abuse by not properly training, supervising, and disciplining officers to prevent misconduct, despite knowledge and public admission that it violated the rights of New Yorkers.”
“Over the past few months, the NYPD has repeatedly and blatantly violated the rights of New Yorkers, inflicting significant physical and psychological harm and leading to great distrust in law enforcement,” Attorney General James said in the release. “With today’s lawsuit, this longstanding pattern of brutal and illegal force ends. No one is above the law—not even the individuals charged with enforcing it.”
According to Gothamist, a website from New York Public Radio, a group of lawyers filed a lawsuit in federal court against the department Jan. 21 seeking damages for those protesters.
As all of this unfolds, Ms. Alhanafi continues to push her case. Currently, her lawsuit against the NYPD is pending, partially delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic. But Ms. Alhanafi has faith that she will get justice.
“I just want these police officers to resign from their positions because as a police officer, you are here to serve and to protect the community,” she said. “You aren’t here to abuse and take advantage of those you are supposed to be serving and protecting.”