NYPD disbands Muslim surveillance unit

Cyril Josh Barker | 4/17/2014, 1:31 p.m.
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The NYPD is shutting down a surveillance operation aimed at Muslims. Known as the Demographics Unit, NYPD tactics included going undercover to gather information on Muslims, along with eavesdropping on public conversations among those in the faith.

The unit was started after 9/11 under Mayor Mike Bloomberg in an effort to gather information on Muslims, with the hopes of stopping another attack.

Muslims in New York and New Jersey were targeted by the unit, although Arabs and South Asians were also subjected to spying. The NYPD tried to keep an informant inside every mosque within a 250-mile radius of the city. “Muslim crawlers” were undercover officers who monitored sermons and discussions at mosques and reported back to the NYPD.

One notable incident involved an NYPD undercover agent who went on a whitewater rafting trip with a Muslim student group. Another involved a woman who was surveilled because she operated a school for Muslim girls.

The program was widely criticized for spying and invading the privacy of innocent Muslims who had no ties to terrorism. Critics, however, are still wary that the city will continue spying on innocent people.

“The Demographics Unit, as it was constituted, did a great deal of harm to Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey, and the city has conceded that it did not produce a single criminal lead,” said the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) in a statement. “But nothing in the city’s announcement definitively suggests they will put an end to broad surveillance practices, which would continue to be illegal regardless of which department within the NYPD might be engaged in it.”

The first lawsuit challenging the NYPD spying program, Hassan v. the City of New York, was initially filed by Muslim Advocates and later joined by CCR in December 2012. The lawsuit is currently under appeal.

“We should not confuse this for victory. There are many unanswered questions about whether the already collected data will continue to be used for further profiling activities,” said Monami Maulik, founder and executive director of Desis Rising Up and Moving-South Asian Organizing Center.