The New York Police Department is shuttering a controversial, once-secret unit devoted to surveillance of local Muslim communities.
“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair,” New York City Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “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.”
Referred to as the “Demographics Unit,” the unit, advised by an official from the Central Intelligence Agency, had engaged in broad surveillance of Muslim communities, such as neighborhoods, mosques, businesses in New York and New Jersey, without specific evidence of criminal behavior. Testifying under oath, an NYPD official admitted that the program had not lead to a single terrorism investigation. Nevertheless, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had defended the unit’s operations, saying, “We have to keep this country safe.” The unit was first revealed as part of a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation by the Associated Press.
As a candidate, de Blasio had said that “we need to do a full review of all surveillance efforts, and anything that is not based on specific leads should not continue.” Yet the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Muslim civil rights group Muslim Advocates said they were uncertain whether the end of the Demographics Unit means the end of what they called “the practice of suspicionless surveillance of Muslim communities.”
“It is not at all clear that the NYPD is ending the unconstitutional practice of spying on innocent Muslims in New York, New Jersey and throughout the northeast,” said Glenn Katon, an attorney with Muslim Advocates. “An internal NYPD structure is going away but we still don’t have assurances that the practice of broad surveillance is ending.”
Muslim Advocates is in the process of suing the NYPD over its surveillance of Muslim communities in New Jersey. A federal judge sided with the NYPD in February, justifying the surveillance by stating that “The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself,” and that any harm done to the Muslim community was the result of leaks to the press, not the surveillance itself.
Katon said the lawsuit filed by Muslim Advocates would continue because it was not clear that the practices, and not just the Demographics Unit, had been discontinued, and that the group would continue to seek damages. The ACLU filed a similar lawsuit challenging the Demographics Unit’s operations in New York state last June. In 2011, Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress that the civil rights division of the Justice Department was looking into investigating the NYPD’s practices but an inquiry never materialized.
Shortly after taking office, de Blasio replaced former NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly with former LAPD commissioner William Bratton. Though initially seen as an ominous sign for de Blasio’s pledge to shift NYPD policies seen as targeting minorities, in addition to disbanding the Demographics Unit under de Blasio the city has pulled back from defending its stop and frisk practices in court.
According to an analysis by the New America Foundation, while 229 individuals have been charged with crimes associated with jihadist terrorism since 9/11, 177 have been charged with crimes associated with non-jihadist terrorism. The non-jihadists have been more lethal relative to their numbers, killing 34 people compared to 24 killed by jihadists.
Nevertheless, conservatives have generally been supportive of the NYPD spying on Muslim communities without evidence of a crime, despite the absence of any evidence at all that the Demographics Unit was effective in protecting the city.
New York Republican Congressman Peter King, who is seeking to become the next chairman of the House intelligence committee, said on Fox News in 2012 that “almost 90% of terrorist crimes are carried out by the Muslim community” and called for the NYPD not to “give into political correctness.”