NYPD cuts Muslim surveillance program

The Demographics unit, or Zone Assessment unit, sent plainclothes officers into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and build files detailing where they ate, prayed and shopped.
By Aileen Graef  |  April 16, 2014 at 10:23 AM
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NEW YORK, April 16 (UPI) -- The New York Police Department will be discontinuing the activities of the Zone Assessment unit, a program that spied on Muslims after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

NYPD Chief Bill Bratton announced the end of the unit that has been spying on Muslim-Americans in their own communities. The unit has been largely inactive since January but had previously been active since 2003 in an effort to spot potential terrorists.

NYPD officer Lawrence Sanchez established the program in 2003, while still working for the CIA, to spot where a "would-be terrorist" could blend into society. About a dozen officers in the unit would monitor 28 "ancestries of interest" to single out any radicalization "hot spots" that would purportedly give the police department early warning about potential terrorist plots.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has condemned the program and said while campaigning for mayor that he was "deeply troubled" by the surveillance program. Former NYPD commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said his efforts were lawful and helped prevent terrorist attacks, but the NYPD has admitted the surveillance program has not created any leads.

"Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing information regarding potential threats coming to the attention of the New York City Police Department. It has been determined that much of the same information previously gathered by the Zone Assessment Unit may be obtained through direct outreach by the NYPD to the communities concerned," said the NYPD in a statement.

This is not the first time the NYPD's practices have singled out minorities. The department's stop-and-frisk program was roundly criticized for being discriminatory and violating the constitutional rights of people of color. The unit has made Muslims uncomfortable in their own communities, and they say they see the police as viewing every one of their actions with suspicion.

Zead Ramadan, a board member on the Council of American-Islamic Relations, said he is happy to see the changes but that substantial damage has already been done.

"If there's a Christian or a Jew or anybody else that commits a crime, should all of them pay for the crimes that were committed by those individuals? The answer is no."

De Blasio released a statement Tuesday saying the closing of the unit was, "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."

[PIX11] [New York Times]

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