The New York Police Department announced on Tuesday it was disbanding a decade-old secret surveillance program of the city's Muslim community. The NYPD’s Zone Assessment Unit—previously called the Demographics Unit—was designed, the New York Times reports, “to identify the mundane locations where a would-be terrorist could blend into society.” It turns out the program wasn’t very good at identifying would-be terrorists. In fact, it never generated a single lead.
What the program did do, however, is outrage civil rights groups, create deep-seated mistrust of law enforcement within the city’s Muslim community, and spur two federal lawsuits over the NYPD’s surveillance practices. The eavesdropping program “dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped,” according to the Times.
Here’s more from the Times on the NYPD’s tactics:
The police mapped communities inside and outside the city, logging where customers in traditional Islamic clothes ate meals and documenting their lunch-counter conversations… The squad, which typically consisted of about a dozen members, focused on 28 “ancestries of interest.” Detectives were told to chat up the employees at Muslim-owned businesses and “gauge sentiment” about America and foreign policy. Through maps and photographs, the police noted where Albanian men played chess in the afternoon, where Egyptians watched soccer and where South Asians played cricket.
During his campaign, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was critical of the surveillence practices and the decision to shutter the program is an indication that new police chief, William Bratton, is “backing away from some of the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor,” according to the Times. A NYPD spokesman said since Bratton took over the department in January, the Demographics Unit has been largely dormant and its personnel assigned elsewhere.
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