The New York Police Department has abandoned a secretive program that dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped, the department said.
The decision by the nation’s largest police force to shutter the surveillance program represents the first sign that new department commissioner William Bratton is backing away from some of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor.
The department’s tactics, which are the subject of two federal lawsuits, drew criticism from civil rights groups and a senior FBI official 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.
“The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community,” said Linda Sarsour, of the Arab American Association of New York. “Those documents, they showed where we live. That’s the cafe where I eat. That’s where I pray. That’s where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community.”
Sarsour was one of several advocates who met on Wednesday last week with Bratton and some of his senior staff members at Police Headquarters.
She and others in attendance said the department’s new intelligence chief, John Miller, told them that the police did not need to work covertly to find out where Muslims gather and indicated that the department was shutting the unit down.
The Demographics Unit, which was renamed the Zone Assessment Unit in recent years, has been largely inactive since Bratton took over in January, department chief spokesman Stephen Davis said.
The unit’s detectives were recently reassigned, he said.
“Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing the threat information that comes into New York City virtually on a daily basis,” Davis said.
“In the future, we will gather that information, if necessary, through direct contact between the police precincts and the representatives of the communities they serve,” he said.
The department’s change in approach comes as the federal government reconsiders and re-evaluates some of its own post-Sept. 11, 2001, policies.
The Demographics Unit was the brainchild of CIA officer Lawrence Sanchez, who helped establish it in 2003 while working at the police department and while he was still on the spy agency’s payroll.
However, after years of collecting information the police acknowledged that it never generated a lead.
The police also designated entire mosques as suspected “terrorism enterprises,” a label that the police claimed allowed them to collect the license plate numbers of every car in mosque parking lots, videotape worshipers coming and going, and record sermons using informants wearing hidden microphones.
The future of those programs remains unclear.