NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — The NYPD has disbanded a unit that drew widespread criticism for reports that it conducted broad surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods.
As CBS 2’s Tony Aiello reported, the NYPD announced Tuesday that police Commissioner Bill Bratton decided to disband the “Demographics Unit” after he took office – following a review determined that its intelligence could be gathered in other ways.
“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair,” the Mayor’s office said in a statement. “This reform is 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 unit was put in place by Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s police commissioner, Ray Kelly, 18 months after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
According to a report The New York Times, the unit had already been largely inactive since Bratton took over Jan. 1. Its detectives have been reassigned.
Based on internal NYPD reports and interviews with officials involved in the programs, the unit conducted wholesale surveillance of entire Muslim neighborhoods, chronicling daily life, including where people eat, pray and get their hair cut, according to a series of reports by The Associated Press. Police also reportedly infiltrated dozens of mosques and Muslim student groups.
In addition, the NYPD secretly labeled entire mosques as terrorism organizations, a designation that allows police to use informants to record sermons and spy on imams, often without specific evidence of criminal wrongdoing, according to the AP.
The NYPD said at the time its investigations target individuals suspected of criminal activity and are constitutional.
Supporters called the surveillance program an effort to understand better where radicalization might produce would-be terrorists. But many Muslims called it an infringement on civil rights and filed several lawsuits.
Muslim organizations largely had the same reaction to the move: It’s a step in the right direction, but they want more assurances that the NYPD is ending its spying practices.
“We want to make sure that the NYPD is not only closing the Zone Assessment Unit but ending the mass surveillance practice this unit was conducting targeting the American Muslim community in New York City,” Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said in a statement.
“It’s a good step, but I think what we need to do now is build bridges between NYPD and law enforcement authorities in general,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman.
“We’re, of course, concerned that some of the functions might just be carried out by different parts of the NYPD,” Glenn Katon, legal director for Muslim Advocates, told 1010 WINS’ Sonia Rincon.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told Rincon: “We hope that this marks an end to bias-based policing of New York’s Muslim community.”
While campaigning for office last fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would end broad spying on Muslims. He said on his watch, NYPD surveillance tactics would only be authorized to follow up on specific leads and that the police force would be under the supervision of a new inspector general
“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair,” the mayor said in a statement Tuesday. “This reform is 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.”
Meanwhile, Bratton met last week with Muslim community leaders to work on improved relations.
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