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Has New York City Stopped Spying on Muslims?

The NYPD's notorious Muslim mapping program has been disbanded, but that doesn't mean the cops have stopped watching mosques and Muslim student groups.

by Matt Taylor
Apr 16 2014, 3:50pm

Muslims protesting the NYPD's surveillance of their neighborhoods in New York. Photo via Flickr user Samantha Grace Lewis

After Bill de Blasio easily got elected mayor of New York City last November, the campaign promise he seemed least likely to follow through on was a vague pledge to rein in the local police department's sprawling surveillance of ordinary Muslims. The horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks had been used by three-term oligarch Michael Bloomberg and his extremely popular police commissioner, Ray Kelly, to justify the creation of a global spying regime with outposts in European capitals as well as less exotic destinations like New Jersey. What was a calculating progressive political strategist from Brooklyn with no law-enforcement credentials going to do about it?

The skepticism grew only more acute when de Blasio appointed Bill Bratton to run the NYPD. Bratton, a relic who served a previous stint as commissioner under Rudy Giuliani in the mid 1990s, was known for his embrace of the discredited "Broken Windows" theory of policing, and you didn't have to be all that cynical to assume that the new administration would continue monitoring Muslims throughout the New York metro area, even without evidence that any of them had committed a crime.

But the NYPD took a major step forward this past week when Bratton and Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence John Miller formally disbanded the Zone Assessment Unit, a squad of plainclothes detectives who infiltrated Muslim communities in hopes of mapping where the population lived, ate, prayed, and shopped, among other basic human activities. (This team was previously known as the Demographics Unit until the cops realized that sounded rather... racist.)

Mapping was just one small piece of a vast intelligence-gathering operation that involves hundreds of officers, however, leaving Muslim and civil liberties advocates far from ready to declare victory.

"This isn't the end of the Muslim-surveillance program by any stretch of the imagination," said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Liberty and National Security Program at NYU's Brennan Center for Justice. "We already knew that the Demographics Unit wasn't producing any useful intelligence."

As investigative reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman detailed in a Pulitzer Prize–winning series of damning stories for the Associated Press in 2011 and 2012, all that sneaking around in the name of developing some kind of comprehensive record of where the city's Muslims might be found at any given time not only didn't foil any terrorist plots—it didn't even lead to any investigations. So it's only natural that Miller, who promised to reevaluate all active probes when he appeared before the City Council last month, would put the kibosh on the useless mapping program.

The fear is that the dissolution of the most infamous piece of the spying apparatus might serve as a pretext for Bratton's NYPD to continue some of Kelly's worst policies, like designating entire mosques as terrorist organizations (and using that as an excuse for spying on everyone who frequents them) as well as infiltrating Muslim student groups on college campuses. After all, the NYPD's budget for counterterrorism and intelligence in 2010 was over $100 million, and the two divisions employed about 1,000 officers. The Zone Assessment unit itself never included more than about 16 detectives at any given time, meaning tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of bodies are still available to spy on targeted ethnic groups, Muslim or otherwise.

Fortunately for the reform-minded, relying on Bratton and de Blasio to do the right thing is not the only avenue for change. An independent inspector general will get to work within a matter of weeks with a generous mandate to explore the atrophy that took place under Kelly's reign, as well as some of his more, shall we say, innovative tactics. And a trio of lawsuits making their way through various federal courts could also help shine more light on what the NYPD is up to these days. In that sense, ending the mapping program was not just a no-brainer—it was an historical inevitability, one Bratton saw no reason to delay.

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