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Americas

New York police disband unit targeting Muslims

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2014-04-16

New York police said they had disbanded a deeply controversial and heavily criticized unit that sent undercover officers to spy on local Muslims.

Muslim groups and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision by the New York Police Department officials to disband the anti-terrorism unit, but said there were concerns about whether other problematic practices remained in place.
 
The Zone Assessment Unit, previously known as the Demographics Unit, was created in 2003 as part of the reaction to the 9/11 attacks, which included the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York, 2001.
 
The unit was conceived with the help of a CIA agent working with the NYPD. It assembled databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed. Plainclothes officers infiltrated Muslim student groups, put informants in mosques, monitored sermons and catalogued Muslims who had adopted Americanized surnames.
 
The NYPD said the unit had been largely inactive since January. Stephen Davis, a spokesman, said on Tuesday that detectives assigned to the unit had been transferred to other duties within the department's Intelligence Division.
 
Intelligence gathering
 
The decision by America's largest police force is the first sign that new Police Commissioner, William Bratton, is moving away from some of the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor.  Bratton concluded that the same information could be better collected by other methods.
 
"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," the police said in a statement."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."
 
Groups representing the targeted demographic were sceptical.
 
"This was definitely a part of the big puzzle that we're trying to get dismantled,''   said Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York.
 
She added, ''This doesn't necessarily prove to us yet that these very problematic practices are going to end.''
 
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's National Security Project, said the disbanded unit was only one part of "a huge, discriminatory surveillance program" that sent informants and police officers to spy on New York Muslims.
 
Bias-based policing
 
"We look forward to an end to all aspects of the bias-based policing that has stigmatised New York's Muslim communities and done them such great harm," she said.
 
In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, called the move ''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. ''
 
Former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had defended the tactics, saying officers observed legal guidelines while attempting to create an early warning system for terrorism. But in a deposition made public in 2012, an NYPD chief testified that the unit's work had neither generated a lead, nor triggered a terrorism investigation in the previous six years.
 
Last month, a federal judge in Newark, New Jersey threw out a lawsuit brought by several New Jersey Muslims who claimed the NYPD had illegally targeted them for undercover monitoring solely because of their religion.
 
The judge said the city persuasively argued that its surveillance was intended as an anti-terrorism, not an anti-Muslim, measure.
 
A similar lawsuit in New York is pending.
 
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, Reuters)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Date created : 2014-04-16

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