NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — Muslim groups and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision by NYPD officials to disband a controversial unit that tracked the daily lives of Muslims as part of efforts to detect terrorism threats, but they said there were concerns about whether other problematic practices remained in place.
The NYPD said Tuesday it had disbanded the surveillance program and that detectives assigned to the unit had been transferred to other duties within the division.
An ongoing review of the Demographics Unit by Police Commissioner Bill Bratton found that the same information collected by the unit could be better collected through direct contact with community groups, officials said.
“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,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement.
The Demographics Unit was created 18 months after the 9/11 terror attacks. The program, conceived with the help of a CIA agent working with the NYPD, assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed.
Plainclothes officers infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and cataloged Muslims in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.
Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, applauded the decision but said there’s still concern about the police use of informants to infiltrate mosques without specific evidence of crime.
“This was definitely a part of the big puzzle that we’re trying to get dismantled,” Sarsour said. But, she added, “This doesn’t necessarily prove to us yet that these very problematic practices are going to end.”
Others also voiced concerns and said they want more assurances that the NYPD is ending the practice.
“It’s a good step, but I think what we need to do now is build bridges between the NYPD and law enforcement authorities in general,” Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“We’re, of course, concerned that some of the functions might just be carried out by different parts of the NYPD,” said Glenn Katon, legal director for Muslim Advocates.
New York Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Donna Lieberman said police-community relations took a blow from the NYPD unit’s broad surveillance of all Muslims, not just people suspected of wrongdoing.
“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 Lieberman. “We hope that the Demographics Unit’s discriminatory activities will not be carried out by other parts of the NYPD.”
Former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly defended the surveillance tactics, saying officers observed legal guidelines while attempting to create an early warning system for terrorism.
But in a deposition made public in 2012, an NYPD chief testified that the unit’s work had never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation in the previous six years.
In Washington, 34 members of Congress had demanded a federal investigation into the NYPD’s actions.
Attorney General Eric Holder said he was disturbed by reports about the operations and the Department of Justice said it was reviewing complaints received from Muslims and their supporters.
While campaigning for office last fall, 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.
Former federal prosecutor Philip Eure was named to the inspector general position last month.
Bratton also met last week with Muslim community leaders to work on improved relations.
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