New York City Police Department has dismantled a unit that mapped Muslim community in and around New York City as part of its controversial surveillance program.
Under the program, NYPD’s Demographics Unit would send plainclothes officers into mosques, restaurants, and neighborhoods to gather information on people’s daily activities. NYPD officers, stationed in cars outside of mosques, have taken pictures and video of those leaving and entering places of worship, and recorded the license plate numbers of worshippers attending services. Remotely controlled NYPD cameras have also been placed on light poles, aimed at mosques. Muslims, civil and human rights groups have long criticized the program, terming it a violation of Muslim community’s constitutional rights.
As a candidate, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a known liberal Democrat, had termed the mosques surveillance as “troubling”. The news of dismantling of the Demographics Unit came days after de Blasio revealed that the surveillance program was under review. In Washington, 34 members of Congress demanded a federal investigation into the NYPD’s actions. Attorney General Eric Holder said he was disturbed by reports about the operations, and the Department of Justice said it was reviewing complaints received from Muslims and their supporters.
The New York Times in a report quoted NYPD’s spokesman Stephen Davis as saying that detectives from the Unit, which dates back to 2003 and in recent years was renamed as the Zone Assessment Unit, had been reassigned.
“Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing the threat information that comes into New York City virtually on a daily basis,” the Times quoted Davis as saying. “In the future, we will gather that information, if necessary, through direct contact between the police precincts and the representatives of the communities they serve.”
The decision by the nation’s largest police force to shutter the surveillance program, said Times, represents the first sign that William J. Bratton, the department’s new commissioner, is backing away from some of the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor.
According to the Times report, the unit was the brainchild of the Central Intelligence Agency officer Lawrence Sanchez, who helped establish it in 2003 while working at the Police Department and while he was still on the spy agency’s payroll.
“The goal was to identify the mundane locations where a would-be terrorist could blend into society. Plainclothes detectives looked for “hot spots” of radicalization that might give the police an early warning about terrorist plots. The squad, which typically consisted of about a dozen members, focused on 28 ‘ancestries of interest,’” the report added.
The Associated Press broke the news about the existence of the unit in 2011. The program, according to AP, was expanded to New Jersey as early as in 2007.
According to American Civil Liberties Union, the NYPD’s suspicion-less surveillance program swept up Muslim communities throughout New York City, as well as every mosque within 100 miles of New York, and extended to Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey, and more. ACLU says the NYPD expressly excluded from its surveillance and mapping activities non-Muslims such as Coptic Christian Egyptians or Iranian Jews.
NYPD detectives, allegedly working with the blessing of former Newark Police Director Garry McCarthy, created a secret dossier in 2007, filled with detailed information on the city’s 44 mosques and other Muslim-owned businesses and Islamic schools, said Star-Ledger in a report.
McCarthy has repeatedly declined to comment on the matter, and Newark police officials also said they had no idea the NYPD was here in 2007. In March of 2012, the NYPD’s former chief police spokesman, Paul Browne, told The Star-Ledger that Newark police officers accompanied NYPD detectives in the city “at all times,” and suggested several high-level police officials were aware of the surveillance operation.
In June 2009, a building supervisor also stumbled upon an NYPD safe house, a place where members of the demographics unit could lie low, near the New Brunswick campus of Rutgers’ University. The 911 call from the supervisor sent FBI agents and local police scrambling to the building, as they were completely unaware of the NYPD operation.
The former NYPD commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly always defended the program, calling it lawful and necessary to protect the city from terrorist attacks. Last month, a federal judge in New Jersey dismissed a lawsuit over the department’s surveillance there, saying Muslims could not prove they were harmed by the policy.
The program created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust within mosques and the Muslim community at large. A report released in 2013 said mosques congregants often regarded newcomers with anxiety, unsure if they were sent to spy by the NYPD. The report revealed that as a result of heavy surveillance, these houses of worship could not serve as the places of spiritual refuge and comfort that they are intended to be.
Mayor de Blasio’s administration is being rightly praised by civil and human rights organizations. “The Demographics Unit needlessly spied on American Muslim communities, never producing any intelligence,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We hope its dissolution marks a new approach to policing in New York and look forward to reforms that curb all unwarranted intrusions into Muslims’ personal and religious lives.”
“It’s one thing to disband a unit. It’s another to change the way you do business,” added Michael Price, counsel in the Liberty and National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “The NYPD must next change its policies on surveillance to rebuild trust with all New York Muslims.”
“The NYPD’s disbanding of a unit that targeted New York Muslims and mapped their everyday institutions and activities is a welcome first step for which we commend Commissioner Bratton,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “We hope that the Demographics Unit’s discriminatory activities will not be carried out by other parts of the NYPD.”
“The Demographics Unit was only one component of a huge, discriminatory surveillance program that has sent informants and NYPD officers to spy on mosques, charities, student groups, and other mainstays of New York Muslim life,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project. “We look forward to an end to all aspects of the bias-based policing that has stigmatized New York’s Muslim communities and done them such great harm.”
Shamsi is counsel in a federal lawsuit challenging the spying program filed on behalf of Muslim New Yorkers and organizations represented by the ACLU, the NYCLU, and the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project of Main Street Legal Services, Inc. at CUNY School of Law.
The Center for Constitutional Rights also cautiously welcomed the news. “While we welcome the dismantling of the Demographics Unit as a long overdue step towards reining in the unconstitutional excesses of the NYPD, what has to stop is the practice of suspicion-less surveillance of Muslim communities, not just the unit assigned to do it. The Demographics Unit, as it was constituted, did a great deal of harm to Muslim communities in NY and NJ, and the city has conceded that it did not produce a single criminal lead. But nothing in the City’s announcement definitively suggests they will put an end to broad surveillance practices, which would continue to be illegal regardless of which department within the NYPD might be engaged in it. We will continue to work, through litigation and advocacy, to ensure the NYPD is fully and finally respecting the rights of the Muslim community,” CCR said in a statement.
CCR’s sentiment was reflected by Abu Adib, an Arab American community organizer. “We hope this means an end to the dragnet approach to policing…” he said in a tweet hours after the New York Times broke the story.