New York City police brass have reportedly disbanded the controversial unit that conducted covert operations to gather information in Muslim communities in the city and beyond its borders following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks—including on Long Island.
The Demographics Unit, which became operational around 2003, surveilled Muslim-Americans at houses of worship, restaurants, smoke shops and other businesses as a way to gather information about possible terrorist activities. Civil liberties groups for years have criticized the NYPD for what they viewed as indiscriminate monitoring of local Muslims because of their religion, blasting the police department for creating an atmosphere of mistrust within the community. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the squad is no longer active.
“They were spying on students activities in the campuses, they were visiting mosques, they were visiting and spying on business and basically creating a sense of fear among the community, and casting the whole community in a suspicious light,” Dr. Faroque Khan, a board member for the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury, and the Muslim communities de-facto spokesman, tells the Press. “Everybody’s in favor of having people who break the law apprehended and brought to justice but branding the whole community with suspicious is not right.”
Undercover officers monitored movements of local Muslims and scribbled vague notes which were eventually published in the NYPD’s 166-page Demographic Report for Nassau and Suffolk counties. Critics contended that the unit was a waste of taxpayer money because the undercover probes failed to spark one investigation and never led to an arrest.
The spy initiative, which was reportedly renamed the Zone Assessment Unit, is the subject of at least two lawsuits. Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was challenging the department’s “discriminatory surveillance of innocent Muslim New Yorkers.”
Most recently, a U.S. District Judge in New Jersey dismissed a similar lawsuit brought on by a group of Muslims alleging that they were targeted solely on basis of their religion.
“The Plaintiffs in this case have not alleged facts from which it can be plausibly inferred that they were targeted solely because of their religion,” U.S. District Judge William Martini wrote in his 10-page ruling. “The more likely explanation for the surveillance was a desire to locate budding terrorist conspiracies.”
“The police could not have monitored New Jersey for Muslim terrorist activities without monitoring the Muslim community itself,” he added.
Lawyers for the group have stated their intention to appeal.
Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has defended the spy tactic, saying the surveillance was necessary to prevent future attacks.
“The NYPD is trying to stop terrorism in the entire region,” the mayor said two years ago. “When there’s no lead, it’s just you’re trying to get familiar with what’s going on and where people might go and where people might be.”
Khan suggested that disbanding the unit is a reflection of the policies adopted by recently-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s new police commissioner William Bratton.
“The new mayor, he obviously has a very different outlook,” Khan said. “He’s more engaged with the whole community rather than just one segment of the community.”
Dr. Hussein Rashid, a professor of religion at Hofstra University, echoed Khan’s comments.
“I am relieved to hear the [Commissioner] Bratton recognized the waste and harm the the Demographics Unit was causing,” he told the Press in an email. “No matter what name changes it went through, it was an Unconstitutional use of resources, that violated people’s most sacred spaces, broke trust in communities, and only served to satisfy the desires if actual terrorists who want us to live in fear of them and each other.”
Hopefully the Commissioner’s next steps will be to start rebuilding relations between New Yorkers and the police, and not just Muslims, but all communities that the NYPD regularly abuses,” he continued. “Law enforcement and crime solving should never depend on authoritarian measures that create a permanent state if conflict in this city.”
The covert program was first revealed in an explosive series by The Associated Press, which earned a Pulitzer prize for its reporting.
According to documents obtained by the AP, which they made public, the NYPD characterized parts of the towns of Hempstead, North Hempstead and Oyster Bay as “locations of concern.” Three religious institutions were also dubbed “locations requiring further examination.”
Plainclothes officers often scribbled descriptions of businesses they targeted—noting the presence of donation boxes, fliers listing phone numbers, and commenting on wardrobes—while also revealing one Huntington kebab joint’s preferred form of entertainment.
“This location also has belly dancing on the weekends,” the report stated.
The decision to disband the unit also comes as federal agencies are reconsidering mass surveillance techniques, most notably those deployed by the NSA.