Outside the Bubble 4/17/14

Controversial NYC Police Unit Disbanded

A controversial New York Police Department surveillance unit that collected data on Muslim communities has been disbanded, according to the department. The decision by the nation’s largest force to close the surveillance program presents the first sign that the department’s commissioner, William J. Bratton, is pulling away from some post-9/11 intelligence-gathering policies.

“The Zone Assessment Unit, previously referred to as the demographics unit, has been largely inactive since January,” the department said in a statement Tuesday. “Recently, as part of an ongoing assessment of Intelligence Bureau operations, personnel assigned to the Zone Assessment Unit were reassigned to other duties…”

To many Muslims, the squad, known as the Demographics Unit, was a sign that the police viewed their every action with suspicion. The police mapped communities inside and outside the city, logging where customers in traditional Islamic clothes ate meals and documenting their lunch-counter conversations (KSPR, “NYPD disbands unit that spied on Muslims,” 04.15.14).

“The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community,” said member of the Arab American Association of New York Linda Sarsour. “Those documents, they showed where we live. That’s the cafe where I eat. That’s where I pray. That’s where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community” (The New York Times, “New York Drops Unit That Spied on Muslims,” 04.15.14).

“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair. 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,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday (CNN, “New York Police Department disbands unit that spied on Muslims,” 04.15.14).

The future of those programs remains unclear. The former police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, has said his efforts helped protect the city from terrorist attacks. Last month, a federal judge in New Jersey dismissed a lawsuit over the department’s surveillance, saying Muslims could not prove they were harmed by the tactics.

Two other federal lawsuits continue to challenge the department’s tactics. Martin Stolar, one of the lawyers who brought that claim, maintains that the post-9/11 surveillance programs violate the court order in that case. A judge has not yet ruled on that question (NYT).


—Noble Ingram, News Editor

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