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NYPD Shutters 'Muslim Spy Unit' But More Needed, says ACLU

'We hope that the Demographics Unit’s discriminatory activities will not be carried out by other parts of the NYPD.'

- Jon Queally, staff writer

Protesting the New York Police Department's surveillance tactics near Police Headquarters in 2013. (Credit: Seth Wenig/Associated Press)The New York City Police Department on Tuesday announced the disbanding of a controversial unit that spied on Muslim community members and caused outrage nationwide when the existence of the religious-basd surveillance program was first revealed in 2011.

As the New York Times reports:

The decision by the nation’s largest police force to shutter the controversial surveillance program represents the first sign that William J. Bratton, the department’s new commissioner, is backing away from some of the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor. The Police Department’s tactics, which are the subject of two federal lawsuits, drew criticism from civil rights groups and a senior official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who said they harmed national security by sowing mistrust for law enforcement in Muslim communities.

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.

Though civil rights groups who challenged the targeted of individuals based solely on their religious affiliations welcomed the news, they say the NYPD still has a long way to go.

“The NYPD’s disbanding of a unit that targeted New York Muslims and mapped their everyday institutions and activities is a welcome first step for which we commend Commissioner Bratton,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “We hope that the Demographics Unit’s discriminatory activities will not be carried out by other parts of the NYPD.”

According to Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project and counsel for the ongoing lawsuit against the city, the shuttered unit is only one aspect of the city's "huge, discriminatory surveillance program" which targets muslims. The NYPD, said Shamsi, must go further by ending "all aspects of the bias-based policing that has stigmatized New York's Muslim communities and done them such great harm.”

In a blog post on the ACLU website, Noa Yachot lays out examples by which, despite the closure of the Demographics Unit, much of the surveillance program remains in place:

  • Use of informants: A wide network of NYPD informants have infiltrated community organizations, mosques, restaurants, bookstores, and more to monitor, record, and take notes on innocent people and innocuous conversations. This needs to stop.

  • Designation of entire mosques "terrorism enterprises": The NYPD has used “terrorism enterprise investigations” against entire mosques to justify the surveillance of as many people as possible. That unmerited designation has allowed the police department to record sermons and spy on entire congregations.

  • Discriminatory use of surveillance cameras: Cameras have been set up outside mosques and community events – even weddings – to record community members’ comings and goings and collect license plate numbers of congregants and attendees.

  • Radicalization theory: The NYPD must disavow its debunked “radicalization” theory, on which discriminatory surveillance is based. This misguided notion, which we’ve described in detail here, treats with suspicion people engaging in First Amendment-protected activities including “wearing traditional Islamic clothing [and] growing a beard,” abstaining from alcohol, and “becoming involved in social activism” – meaning, basically, anyone who identifies as Muslim, harbors Islamic beliefs, or engages in Islamic religious practices. 

  • Discriminatory surveillance by other units: The Demographics Unit’s discriminatory mapping activities shouldn’t be carried out by other parts of the NYPD and its Intelligence Division.

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