After a long controversy, the New York Police Department has dropped its Muslim surveillance project. The squad, known as the “Demographics Unit” and now renamed the “Zone Assessment Unit,” used plainclothes detectives to spy on the conversations and day-to-day activities of New York’s Muslim neighborhoods.
The effort went as far as logging the conversations Muslims had in restaurants, as well as tracking the places they lived, worked, traveled, and prayed. Anyone in traditional Muslim clothes was a potential target.
The decade-long surveillance program never generated a single terrorism lead, the police acknowledged in 2012.
Civil rights groups protested the spying, probed by a series of investigative stories by the Associated Press that prompted two federal lawsuits. A senior FBI official also spoke out against the surveillance, arguing that it actually harmed national security efforts by creating distrust for law enforcement in Muslim communities.
The New York Times reports that the decision to close the unit is a first sign that the department’s newly appointed commissioner, William J. Bratton, is easing off the counter-terrorism efforts that mounted after 9/11.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio called the move "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 American Civil Liberties Union wrote last October that 125 groups had asked the Justice Department to investigate the surveillance program, including the ACLU.
"The NYPD's surveillance program has stigmatized Muslims as suspect and had deeply negative effects on their free speech, association, and religious practice,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU's National Security Project.
But the ACLU points to other, ongoing practices in the NYPD that will continue despite the fact that the surveillance program has been dismantled, including targeting mosques as “terrorism enterprises” and discriminatory use of surveillance cameras.
Muslim advocates are still concerned about where the collected data is going—and if the practices are really going to stop.
"This was definitely a part of the big puzzle that we're trying to get dismantled," Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, told the Associated Press at a private meeting last week announcing the shuttering of the unit. “But this doesn't necessarily prove to us yet that these very problematic practices are going to end."