Report: NYPD disbands controversial unit behind Muslim surveillance program

muslim surveillance
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the NYPD’s Demographics Unit behind the controversial Muslim surveillance program was disbanded in favor of more open lines of communications with community members.
Credit: Hamza Giron

The controversial police unit that targeted New York City’s Muslim communities for counterterrorism intelligence has been shut down.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, which covertly sent out officers in plainclothes to keep track of activity in and around mosques and Muslim-owned businesses, was disbanded in favor of improved lines of communications with community members.

“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,” NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis told the Times.

In operation since at least 2003 and in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, the group of eight officers — also referred to as the Zone Assessment Unit — came under criticism in 2012 when the Associated Press uncovered documents showing that the surveillance program never resulted in actionable intelligence.

Meanwhile, the program did draw the ire of New York Muslims who felt unfairly and unconstitutionally targeted by the NYPD on the basis of their religion. Some members also reported attempts by officers to recruit them as potential informants for police.

Two federal suits were filed against the unit’s activities in October. One of the suits, filed in New Jersey, was tossed out in late February. The second suit in New York City is ongoing.

Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the unit’s dissolution in a statement late Tuesday.

“This reform is a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys,” he said.

Bill Bratton, De Blasio’s police commissioner, also received praise from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who said Bratton took a stand for civil liberties with his decision.

“This reform is a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys,” she said in a statement.

Instated by under former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended the program throughout his time in office. His administration attempted to assuage the Muslim community’s concerns with more outward displays of collaboration, creating the department’s Muslim Advisory Council.

A number of that council’s members, however, left in protest in August of after it was revealed that police designated mosques and Islamic organizations as terrorist organizations to justify continued surveillance.

The Times reported that Bratton met with various members and leaders of the Muslim community last week at One Police Plaza to discuss the police department’s decision and to reinforce the administration’s commitment to the policy shift.


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