On Tuesday, April 15 the New York City Police Department (NYPD) announced it was disbanding a controversial unit that had been spying on Muslims since its inception in 2003. The NYPD’s “Demographics Unit” specifically gathered intelligence on Muslims living in New York City, New Jersey, and even as far away as Philadelphia. It sent plain clothed detectives to cafes, restaurants, and other community centers frequented by Muslims with the stated purpose of identifying potential centers of terrorist activity. Detectives were told to speak with the employees at such establishments about political issues in attempt to identify anti American sentiment. The NYPD also sent informants to Muslim student groups on various college campuses. Despite the wide breadth of surveillance, even the NYPD acknowledged that the program has failed to create a single lead.
A particularly chilling aspect of the Demographics Unit was its creation of detailed maps of various “ethnicities of interest.” One example is from a 2006 NYPD document entitled “Egyptian Locations of Interest Report.” Its definition for a location of interest includes places that are a “center of activity for a particular ethnic group” and “popular hangout[s]…that provides a forum for listening to neighborhood gossip or otherwise provide an overall feel for the community” (emphasis original). The report contains several maps of New York City boroughs with indicators of ethnic group concentration in particular precincts and specific community centers labeled.
The fate of a related NYPD unit, the Terrorist Interdiction Unit, remains unclear. This unit has labeled entire mosques as “terrorism enterprises” to provide legal justification for collecting information about anyone attending. As Associated Press (AP) reporter Matt Apuzzo said in an interview with Democracy Now:
“They’ll use license plate readers to collect information on who’s attending mosques and use informants with hidden microphones to audiotape sermons. And these investigations stretch on for years and years. And, of course, no mosque has been charged. I mean, the NYPD developed no information that a mosque was a terrorist organization.”
The two programs were secret until the AP revealed their existence in 2011. The AP based its reporting on a large number of internal NYPD leaked documents. It also revealed that both the Bush and Obama administrations provided grants to the NYPD that funded the Demographics Unit. Their reporting also showed that an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency, Lawrence Sanchez, played a significant role in initiating the program.
The impact of this surveillance program was documented in a report by the CLEAR Project (Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility) of the CUNY School of Law, along with two other civil rights organizations. The report notes how awareness of the surveillance program has resulted in the modification of religious practices, the chilling of free expression on politically controversial issues, especially among Muslims on college campuses, and distrust of new members in Muslim communities.
Linda Sarsour, of the Arab American Association of New York, was part of a meeting with NYPD Commissioner William Bratton in early April where he indicated the unit would be disbanded. While Sarsour was pleased at this step, she remained concerned about the effects surveillance had on New York’s Muslims and the possibility that it is continuing in other forms. She stated on Democracy Now:
“I think that the disbandment of the [Demographics Unit], for me, is definitely a welcomed first up, but it’s going to take years to undo the trauma that the American Muslim community has endured…We want to still talk about the informants that are being sent in our community, the standards in which they are sent. We want it to be based on suspicion of criminal activity, not just because of our faith.”
Sarsour credited large scale activism for pressuring the NYPD to close the Demographics Unit. She noted that a large coalition of activists focused on police discrimination against all people of color helped raise public awareness about what has happened to Muslim Americans.
The history of the United States is filled with examples of the targeting of people of color and religious groups, from the profiling of immigrant communities for fear of political radicalism in the early 20th century to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Every example is looked upon with shame and regret, as it is recognized that it is never justified to treat an entire class of people as an enemy. The NYPD’s spying on Muslim Americans should likewise be viewed in the same light. It is incumbent upon Commissioner Bratton and the NYPD to take the next step and make clear that it will not treat mosques as “terrorist enterprises.”