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Activists cautiously welcome end of NYPD Muslim spying programme

The decision is 'a small step' as questions remain over what happened to the information gathered by the unit that targeted where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed.

People protest against the New York Police Department programme that spies on Muslims. The NYPD has disbanded a surveillance unit that targeted and monitored Muslim communities. Reuters / November 18, 2011
People protest against the New York Police Department programme that spies on Muslims. The NYPD has disbanded a surveillance unit that targeted and monitored Muslim communities. Reuters / November 18, 2011

NEW YORK // Muslim groups and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision by New York police officials to disband a controversial unit that tracked the daily lives of Muslims as part of efforts to detect terror threats, but said there were concerns about whether other problematic practices remained in place.

The Demographics Unit, conceived with the help of a CIA agent working with the NYPD, assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed.

Plainclothes policemen infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued Muslims in New York who adopted new, Americanised surnames. The NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis confirmed on Tuesday that detectives assigned to the unit had been transferred to other duties within the department’s Intelligence Division.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said she was among a group of advocates at a private meeting last week with police at which the department’s new intelligence chief, John Miller, first indicated the unit – renamed the Zone Assessment Unit – was not viable. She 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,” Ms Sarsour said. But, she said: “This doesn’t necessarily prove to us yet that these very problematic practices are going to end.”

Another person at the meeting, Fahd Ahmed, the legal and policy director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, called the decision “a small step”. He questioned what had happened to the information gathered by the unit.

“The concern wasn’t just about the fact that this data was being collected secretly – it was about the fact that this data was being collected at all.”

An ongoing review of the division by new Police Commissioner William Bratton found that the same information collected by the unit could be better collected through direct contact with community groups, officials said.

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, called the move a crucial “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”.

Since taking office, Mr de Blasio has taken other steps towards changing how the police department operates, like ending the city’s appeal of a judge’s ruling ordering major reforms to the department’s implementation of a controversial street stop policy including the implementation of the first-ever inspector general for the NYPD.

After a series of Associated Press stories detailing the extent of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims, two civil rights lawsuits were filed challenging the activities as unconstitutional because they focused on people’s religion, national origin and race.

In Washington, 34 members of Congress had demanded a federal investigation into the NYPD’s actions. The nation’s top law enforcement official, the attorney general, Eric Holder, said he was disturbed by reports about the operations, and the justice department said it was reviewing complaints received from Muslims and their supporters.

* Associated Press