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Wednesday, June 19, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

NYPD’s Muslim-Spying Unit Disbanded

MANHATTAN - The New York City Police Department announced the shuttering of a Demographics Unit that spied on Muslims in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Though the city had at first denied the program's existence, The Associated Press brought the unit to light in 2012 with a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles.

The Southern District of New York then opened discovery to ensure that the program, rechristened the Zone Assessment Unit, complied with a 1985 consent decree that was reached in Handschu v. Special Services Division.

Handschu guidelines prohibit the NYPD from investigating political and religious organizations without "specific information" linking the group to a crime. The underlying case, named after a former lawyer for the Black Panthers, involved protest over the McCarthyist era of NYPD investigation into supposed communist activities.

In a deposition unsealed in August 2012, NYPD Intelligence Division Assistant Chief Thomas Galati told the court that he had not heard that the program ever stopped a crime.

"I never made a lead from rhetoric that came from a demographics report, and I'm here since 2006," Galati told the court on June 28, 2012. "I don't recall other ones prior to my arrival."

The New York Civil Liberties Union moved last year to have the demographics unit disbanded.

In one of the 15 exhibits, Queens resident Shamiur Rahman testified about the 9 months he spent as a informant, being paid as much as $1,500 a month to take part in the NYPD's alleged "create and capture" program.

"This meant I was to pretend to be a devout Muslim and start an inflammatory conversation about jihad or terrorism and then capture the response to send to the NYPD," Rahman swore in a deposition. "I did this on numerous occasions with people I met at mosques and other locations."

One of these "other locations" included a Muslim student association at John Jay College, he says.

Rahman said he never snared even a litterbug, and quit the program in September 2012 because he "did not want to spy on people any longer."

The program's disbandment Tuesday is the latest boon to civil libertarians from the city under the new leadership of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

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

Earlier this year, de Blasio agreed to have the police face court scrutiny related to the stop-and-frisk class action.

A court challenge to the city's surveillance of Muslims was dismissed in February, but Muslim Advocates and the Center for Constitutional Rights had filed an appeal last month.

They applauded de Blasio's announcement Tuesday "as a long overdue step towards reining in the unconstitutional excesses of the NYPD."

Stopping the unit, however, does not ensure the end of "the practice of suspicionless surveillance of Muslim communities," the groups emphasized in a statement (emphasis in original).

"Nothing in the city's announcement definitively suggests they will put an end to broad surveillance practices, which would continue to be illegal regardless of which department within the NYPD might be engaged in it," they added.

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