This is What the NYPD’s Failed Muslim Surveillance Program Actually Looked Like

April 17, 2014

 

On Tuesday, the NYPD announced it would dismantle its Demographics Unit, the controversial squad of plainclothes officers tasked with monitoring and gathering intelligence in New York’s Muslim neighborhoods. The announcement was greeted with a mix of praise (for the move, considered long overdue) and skepticism (that the department would actually end the practice of mass, suspicion-less surveillance of Muslims).

The NYPD’s announcement came a week after Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and his intelligence chief, John Miller, met with Muslim advocates, according to the New York Times.

The Demographics Unit, first revealed by the Associated Press in 2011, sought to root out terrorists among us. Instead it severely damaged relations between the NYPD and New York Muslims without, by the department’s own admission, ever generating a single lead.

What did the failed surveillance program look like in practice? Data artist Josh Begley created a visual aid using images from NYPD documents obtained by the AP, most dated between 2004 to 2009. Begley terms the arresting web mosaic “the visual vernacular of NYPD surveillance.”

“The photographs come from a range of places — restaurants, bookstores, cricket fields, mosques, internet cafes — and most of the images are quite banal. What I find striking are the ones that contain glimpses of the photographer; a rear-view mirror capturing the bottom of an officer’s face. What do these photographs say about the people taking them?”

Profiling.is bears a certain resemblance to another of Begley’s projects, PrisonMap; it offers a bird’s-eye view of prisons around the country. (He also runs the Twitter account @dronestream, which issues a tweet for every reported drone strike.)*

Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York, one of the advocates who met with Bratton and Miller last week, echoed that sentiment. Speaking to the Times on Tuesday, she called the NYPD’s surveillance “psychological warfare in our community.”

“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.”

Asked about his reaction to Tuesday’s news, Begley pointed to a statement given by Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project.

“The Demographics Unit was only one component of a huge, discriminatory surveillance program that has sent informants and NYPD officers to spy on mosques, charities, student groups, and other mainstays of New York Muslim life,” Shamsi said on Tuesday. “We look forward to an end to all aspects of the bias-based policing that has stigmatized New York’s Muslim communities and done them such great harm.”

The Village Voice.com: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2014/04/josh_begley_profiling_is_nypd_demographics_unit.php

NJ attorney general tells Muslim leaders that NYPD unit has stopped surveillance in NJ

NEWARK, N.J. — The state attorney general assured a group of Muslim leaders Wednesday that a New York City police unit that conducted surveillance of Muslim businesses, religious leaders and student groups was no longer operating in New Jersey.

Jeffrey Chiesa made the remarks during the first meeting of an outreach committee he formed to repair relations between law enforcement and Muslims in the wake of the revelations about the New York Police Department’s surveillance tactics.

Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the attorney general, confirmed that state Department of Homeland Security and Preparedness Director Edward Dickson said during the closed door meeting that the NYPD’s Demographics Unit was no longer working in New Jersey. Loriquet added that Chiesa felt the meeting was productive and that the attorney general “wanted to make sure that all the people of New Jersey’s rights are protected and respected.”

Chiesa told the group Wednesday that he stood by his findings — announced in May following a three-month review — that the NYPD had not violated any New Jersey laws in conducting the surveillance.

NYPD official: Muslim spying by secret Demographics Unit generated no leads, terrorism cases

NEW YORK — In more than six years of spying on Muslim neighborhoods, eavesdropping on conversations and cataloguing mosques, the New York Police Department’s secret Demographics Unit never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the department acknowledged in court testimony unsealed late Monday.

The Demographics Unit is at the heart of a police spying program, built with help from the CIA, which assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Police infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued every Muslim in New York who adopted new, Americanized surnames.

Civil rights lawyers believe the Demographics Unit violated those rules. Documents obtained by the AP show the unit conducted operations outside its jurisdiction, including in New Jersey. The FBI there said those operations damaged its partnerships with Muslims and jeopardized national security.

After the AP began reporting on the Demographics Unit, the department’s former senior analyst, Mitchell Silber, said the unit provided the tip that ultimately led to a case against a bookstore clerk who was convicted of plotting to bomb the Herald Square subway station in Manhattan. Galati testified that he could find no evidence of that.

Attorney Jethro Eisenstein, who filed the Handschu case more than 40 years ago and questioned Galati during the deposition, said he will go back to court soon to ask that the Demographics Unit be shut down. It operates today under a new name, the Zone Assessment Unit. It recently stopped operating out of state, Galati said.

“This is a terribly pernicious set of policies,” Eisenstein said. “No other group since the Japanese Americans in World War II has been subjected to this kind of widespread public policy.”

Dozens of members of Congress have asked the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD. Attorney General Eric Holder has said he was disturbed by the reports. But John Brennan, President Barack Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser, has said he is confident the NYPD’s activities are lawful and have kept the city safe.

White House, NY lawmaker back NYPD after report undercover police eavesdropped on Muslims

WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama’s counterterrorism adviser and the Republican chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee are offering support for the New York Police Department after an Associated Press investigation revealed a secret police unit that monitored daily life inside Muslim communities.

Muslim civil liberties groups and a Brooklyn congresswoman have called on the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD for its Demographics Unit, which maintained a list of 28 countries that, along with “American Black Muslim,” were considered “ancestries of interest.” Nearly all were Muslim countries.
Undercover police officers known as “rakers” would then eavesdrop inside Muslim businesses and write daily reports as they kept an eye on mosques, religious schools and social clubs.

The NYPD has denied that the department has ever had anything called the Demographics Unit. Documents obtained by the AP describe the Demographics Unit in great detail, showing how the NYPD singled out minority neighborhoods for extra scrutiny.

The Demographics Unit and other NYPD intelligence programs were created in the months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of an unusual partnership with the police department and the CIA. The CIA dispatched a veteran officer, Lawrence Sanchez, to New York, where he guided and oversaw the programs.