NYPD ends controversial Muslim spying unit

Muslim-American men offer evening prayers after breaking their day-long Ramadan fast on Aug. 24, 2011 at Islamic Center of Bay Ridge in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Muslim-American men offer evening prayers after breaking their day-long Ramadan fast on Aug. 24, 2011 at Islamic Center of Bay Ridge in the Brooklyn borough of New York.

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."