Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

With Disbanding of NYPD Spy Unit, Mayor Makes Good on Big Promise

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

With Disbanding of NYPD Spy Unit, Mayor Makes Good on Big Promise

Article excerpt

The administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton began their long-promised reform of New York Police Department tactics Tuesday, disbanding a controversial domestic spying unit that had been monitoring Muslim residents in both New York and New Jersey.

Along with the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which allowed cops to frisk anyone they felt could be a terrorist threat, the surveillance unit caused bitterness among Muslim and other minority residents and prompted a number of federal lawsuits charging the NYPD with unconstitutional racial and religious profiling.

This anger helped catapult Mr. de Blasio into City Hall last fall. Languishing in the polls early in the primaries, de Blasio did not shy away from outspoken criticism of the police policies of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, which launched the candidate's unexpected and meteoric rise, culminating in a record landslide win.

"Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair," said de Blasio in 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."

The surveillance unit, which had been shaped with help from the CIA in the aftermath of 9/11, has been largely inactive since January, NYPD officials said. Officers assigned to the Zone Assesement Unit - the new name for the program, which had long been called the Demographics Unit - have been reassigned to other duties within the department's Intelligence Bureau.

For more than a decade, the NYPD spy unit had sent "rakers" and "crawlers" into Muslim shops, mosques, and civic organizations, including two grade schools and a number of college student groups. The unit, which had also set up surveillance cameras in Muslim neighborhoods, sought to create leads to identify terror suspects and create a map of community movement and behavior.

Civil rights groups have called this "suspicionless surveillance" and point out that the surveillance program never generated a single lead for suspected terrorism.

In spite of that fact, a federal judge in New Jersey in February dismissed a lawsuit brought by a group of Muslim residents. He rejected the argument that they had been singled out simply because of the way they prayed, violating their First Amendment right to religious freedom and their 14th Amendment right to equal treatment under the law.

"While this surveillance program may have had adverse effects upon the Muslim community...," wrote US District Judge William Martini, "the motive for the program was not solely to discriminate against Muslims, but rather to find Muslim terrorists hiding among ordinary, law-abiding Muslims. …

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