With disbanding of NYPD spy unit, mayor makes good on big promise

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio sprang to the top of the polls as a candidate last year in large part because of his outspoken criticism of NYPD tactics. Now, he's taken a first, big step toward reform.

Seth Wenig/AP/File
A group of people hold signs during a rally in New York last year protesting the New York Police Department’s program of infiltrating and informing on Muslim communities. The program was disbanded Tuesday.

The administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton began their long-promised reform of New York Police Department tactics Tuesday, disbanding a controversial domestic spying unit that had been monitoring Muslim residents in both New York and New Jersey.

Along with the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which allowed cops to frisk anyone they felt could be a terrorist threat, the surveillance unit caused bitterness among Muslim and other minority residents and prompted a number of federal lawsuits charging the NYPD with unconstitutional racial and religious profiling.

This anger helped catapult Mr. de Blasio into City Hall last fall. Languishing in the polls early in the primaries, de Blasio did not shy away from outspoken criticism of the police policies of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, which launched the candidate’s unexpected and meteoric rise, culminating in a record landslide win.

“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair,” said de Blasio in statement 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."

The surveillance unit, which had been shaped with help from the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11, has been largely inactive since January, NYPD officials said. Officers assigned to the Zone Assesement Unit – the new name for the program, which had long been called the Demographics Unit – have been reassigned to other duties within the department’s Intelligence Bureau.

For more than a decade, the NYPD spy unit had sent “rakers” and “crawlers” into Muslim shops, mosques, and civic organizations, including two grade schools and a number of college student groups. The unit, which had also set up surveillance cameras in Muslim neighborhoods, sought to create leads to identify terror suspects and create a map of community movement and behavior.

Civil rights groups have called this “suspicionless surveillance” and point out that the surveillance program never generated a single lead for suspected terrorism.

In spite of that fact, a federal judge in New Jersey in February dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of Muslim residents. He rejected the argument that they had been singled out simply because of the way they prayed, violating their First Amendment right to religious freedom and their 14th Amendment right to equal treatment under the law.

“While this surveillance program may have had adverse effects upon the Muslim community...,” wrote US District Judge William Martini, “the motive for the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law-abiding Muslims.”

The change in NYPD policy also comes just a week after US Attorney General Eric Holder announced the drafting of tighter federal rules on racial profiling. But the rules still allow the FBI to map ethnic populations and use that data to investigate communities and recruit informants.

Though the NYPD has disbanded its surveillance unit, the Intelligence Bureau will continue to gather relevant information about the demographics of certain neighborhoods.

“Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing information regarding potential threats coming to the attention of the New York City Police Department,” said the department’s press office.  “It has been determined that much of the same information previously gathered by the Zone Assessment Unit may be obtained through direct outreach by the NYPD to the communities concerned.”

Still, community leaders and civil rights group say they are cautiously optimistic.

Last week, Commissioner Bratton and members of the NYPD’s top brass met with a number of Muslim leaders and civil rights groups to discuss their concerns.

“It was a meaningful exchange,” says Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York. “Hopefully the beginning of a cautious relationship between advocates and the New York Police Department.”

Ms. Sarsour says department officials treated people at the meeting with cordiality and respect, and that the top officials were present, including Bratton and John Miller, the department’s deputy commissioner of intelligence.

Before, “Commissioner Kelly ignored our requests to come to the community to discuss surveillance, and he would attack us in the media and call us special interest groups,” she says.

At the meeting, community leaders described the climate of fear and mistrust created by the NYPD's policies.

"Even when you’re praying at the mosque," says Sarsour, "if you see someone new, you don’t think, 'Maybe he’s new to the neighborhood,' or, 'Maybe he's just a cab driver who happens to be in the neighborhood and he’s praying at my mosque.' "

"What that does is create a kind of psychological warfare on a community," she continues. "When you can't trust the people in your own community, when you don't know whether a person who asks a legitimate political question, like 'Hey, what do you think about what's happening in the Ukraine?' or something, that you don't even know if that person is asking you this because he's an informant. That really hits at the fabric of any community."

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