Will The NYPD Finally Stop Spying On Muslims?

Making good on one of his campaign promises, Mayor de Blasio has shuttered an infamous police unit:

Referred to as the “Demographics Unit,” the unit, advised by an official from the Central Intelligence Agency, had engaged in broad surveillance of Muslim communities, such as neighborhoods, mosques, businesses in New York and New Jersey, without specific evidence of criminal behavior. Testifying under oath, an NYPD official admitted that the program had not lead to a single terrorism investigation. Nevertheless, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg had defended the unit’s operations, saying, “We have to keep this country safe.” The unit was first revealed as part of a Pulitzer prize-winning investigation by the Associated Press.

As a candidate, de Blasio had said that “we need to do a full review of all surveillance efforts, and anything that is not based on specific leads should not continue.” Yet the Center for Constitutional Rights and the Muslim civil rights group Muslim Advocates said they were uncertain whether the end of the Demographics Unit means the end of what they called “the practice of suspicionless surveillance of Muslim communities.”

Cue Pamela Geller, with the headline “De Blasio Surrenders New York To The Jihad.” But Rachel Gillum, the principal investigator of the Muslim American National Opinion Survey, explains how closing the unit might actually help anti-terrorism efforts:

The Muslim-American community has served as a major resource for law enforcement since 9/11, with some scholars citing Muslim-Americans as the single largest source of initial information leading to disrupted terrorism plots since 2001. Such community assistance is particularly important in stopping homegrown attacks which tend to involve more “lone wolf” actors, making them more difficult to detect by law enforcement. Indeed, it was a Muslim immigrant who first reported suspicious activity in the 2010 case of Faisal Shazad, convicted in the Times Square bombing attempt.

The NYPD’s spying tactics, guided by a former CIA official, stirred debate over whether the NYPD was infringing on the civil rights of Muslims and illegally engaging in religious and ethnic profiling. Findings from recent studies based on MANOS data– a nationally representative survey of 500 Muslim-American respondents collected online by YouGov in March 2013 –suggest that such programs that unfairly target Muslim communities can create feelings of cynicism and reduce Muslims’ willingness to voluntarily assist police in criminal investigations.

But Matt Taylor warns that this doesn’t mean the NYPD is going to stop spying on Muslims altogether:

The fear is that the dissolution of the most infamous piece of the spying apparatus might serve as a pretext for [Police Commissioner Bill] Bratton’s NYPD to continue some of [former commissioner Ray] Kelly’s worst policies, like designating entire mosques as terrorist organizations (and using that as an excuse for spying on everyone who frequents them) as well as infiltrating Muslim student groups on college campuses. After all, the NYPD’s budget for counterterrorism and intelligence in 2010 was over $100 million, and the two divisions employed about 1,000 officers. The Zone Assessment unit itself never included more than about 16 detectives at any given time, meaning tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of bodies are still available to spy on targeted ethnic groups, Muslim or otherwise.