Yesterday, the New York Times was first to report that the New York Police Department has abandoned its Demographics Unit, also known as the Zone Assessment Unit, a program that spied on Muslims in their mosques, student groups, neighborhoods, and homes, and which was the subject of two separate lawsuits.
Linda Sarsour of the Arab American Association of New York told the paper that she and other community leaders had met with new-old Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and other senior NYPD officials last week. “She and others in attendance,” the paper writes, “said the department’s new intelligence chief John Miller told them that the police did not need to work covertly to find out where Muslims gather and indicated the department is shutting the unit down.”
It’s interesting news, and perhaps an indication of a different and, dare we say, less blatantly discriminatory, approach to law enforcement. But lawyers for spied-upon Muslims have just one question: Is the spying actually going to stop?
For several groups, the vague nature of the announcement didn’t quite assuage their spying concerns. The Center for Constitutional Rights, along with the San Francisco-based Muslim Advocates, filed a lawsuit in December 2012 representing a number of Muslim community groups and individuals in New Jersey. The case was dismissed by a judge in February. Yesterday, the two groups issued a joint statement on the end of the Demographics Unit. It reads, in part, “While we welcome the dismantling of the Demographics Unit as a long overdue step towards reining in the unconstitutional excesses of the NYPD, what has to stop is the practice of suspicion-less surveillance of Muslim communities, not just the unit assigned to do it.”
Martin Stolar, a civil rights lawyer involved a long-running series of cases dating back to police surveillance of student groups in the 1960s, told the Times the same thing, asking, “Is it still going to be blanket surveillance of where Muslims hang out? Are they going to stop this massive surveillance?”
Bratton hasn’t commented publicly on the policy change. Last night, though, Mayor Bill de Blasio did, sending out a statement that reads, “Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair. 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 full statement from the Center for Constitutional Rights and Muslim Advocates is below.
April 15, 2014 — Today in response to the New York Police Department’s announcement that it is disbanding its Demographics Unit, Muslim Advocates and Center for Constitutional Rights issued the following statement:
“While we welcome the dismantling of the Demographics Unit as a long overdue step towards reining in the unconstitutional excesses of the NYPD, what has to stop is the practice of suspicion-less surveillance of Muslim communities, not just the unit assigned to do it. The Demographics Unit, as it was constituted, did a great deal of harm to Muslim communities in NY and NJ, and the city has conceded that it did not produce a single criminal lead. But 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. We will continue to work, through litigation and advocacy, to ensure the NYPD is fully and finally respecting the rights of the Muslim community.”