Two polls of New Yorkers offered conflicting views Tuesday about the police department's gathering of intelligence on Muslims as it guards the city against another terrorist attack.
A survey by Quinnipiac University showed most voters in the city believe police have acted appropriately toward Muslims, while another, broader poll by Baruch College found New Yorkers evenly divided over whether the department should be focusing on Muslims.
Polling experts attributed the divergent findings to differences in wording and question order. Some of the same difficult questions have divided legal experts and politicians since The Associated Press disclosed the NYPD's secret surveillance of Muslims in a recent series of stories.
New Yorker Carol Martin, a retired bookkeeper, said she is uncomfortable with the idea of putting people under surveillance with no evidence they are doing anything wrong, but considers it a necessary precaution.
"I don't think there's such a thing as fairness after 9/11," she said as she strolled through a park within sight of the unfinished World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. "I don't know if it's right or wrong to do these things, but there's some credence behind it."
The AP series revealed how the police department conducted surveillance of Muslim communities by such means as infiltrating student groups, monitoring the Web activity of college students, taking notes at mosques and eavesdropping at cafes and grocery stores.
The Quinnipiac poll found that 58 percent of voters surveyed believe the department has treated Muslims "appropriately," while 29 percent think they have been treated "unfairly" and 13 percent didn't know or had no answer. Overall, 82 percent believe the NYPD has been effective in its counterterrorism efforts.
"New Yorkers overwhelmingly think their police are going a good job of protecting against terrorism, and they don't believe they're picking on Muslims," said Maurice Carroll, director of the university's polling institute.
The survey by Baruch College asked people if they "approve or disapprove of police focusing on Muslims." The question followed several queries about racial profiling and the NYPD's controversial practice of stopping and frisking people who are thought to be acting suspiciously.
The poll showed 44 percent disapproved of the focus on Muslims, while 43 percent approved. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Micheline Blum, director of Baruch College Survey Research, said the slightly more accusatory language in the Quinnipiac poll _ asking people whether the NYPD "unfairly targeted" Muslims _ may have elicited a slightly different response than the Baruch poll.
Both polls were telephone surveys of similar size, but Quinnipiac questioned only registered voters.
Quinnipiac surveyed 964 people between March 6 and 11, and the poll had a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points. The Baruch poll surveyed 804 people from Feb. 28 to March 7.
The Quinnipiac poll showed a slight increase from last month _ five percentage points _ in the number of New Yorkers who believe the police have acted inappropriately. Carroll said that was probably due to a burst of publicity after the AP disclosed last month that the surveillance had extended far beyond the city limits.
Internal NYPD documents show the department's Intelligence unit cataloged and eavesdropped on Muslim-owned businesses in New Jersey and on New York's Long Island. They collected license plate numbers outside a mosque in Paterson, N.J., and noted the names of people who posted on student websites at colleges as far away as Buffalo, N.Y.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie accused the NYPD of acting like "masters of the universe" by working in his state. The head of the FBI in Newark, N.J., warned that the NYPD was undermining the bureau's efforts to prevent terrorist attacks by sowing distrust among Muslims.
On Tuesday 15 leaders from different religions protested against the NYPD's surveillance program at the soaring, neo-Gothic Riverside Church in Manhattan.
"We feel these activities are a crisis for people of faith throughout this city, and throughout the land," the Rev. Stephen Phelps of Riverside Church said.
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly have maintained that the NYPD's actions are legal and necessary in a city under constant threat of another terrorist attack.
They say the city has been the target of 14 terrorist plots since 9/11. However, some of the plots never got past the discussion stage.
Emilio Aguilar, a 32-year-old deliveryman in Manhattan, said he empathizes with people who feel their privacy is being invaded, but also understands the pressure police are under to protect the city.
"I think they're doing what they have to do," Aguilar said. "It's for the good of the country."