World / US and Canada

NYPD disbands Muslim-tracking unit amid concerns

By Associated Press in New York (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-17 07:14

Muslim groups and civil liberties advocates applauded the decision by New York Police Department officials to disband a controversial unit that tracked the daily lives of Muslims as part of efforts to detect terror threats. But concerns remained over whether other problematic practices remained in place.

The NYPD's Demographics Unit, conceived with the help of a CIA agent, 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 in New York who adopted new, US-style surnames.

NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis confirmed on Tuesday that detectives assigned to the unit had been transferred to other duties within the department's Intelligence Division.

Linda Sarsour, the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, said she was among a group of advocates at a private meeting last week with police at which the department's new intelligence chief, John Miller, first indicated the unit - renamed the Zone Assessment Unit - wasn't viable. She applauded the decision but said there was still concern about the authorities' use of informants to infiltrate mosques without specific evidence of a crime.

"This was definitely a part of the big puzzle that we're trying to get dismantled," Sarsour said. But, she added, "This doesn't necessarily prove to us yet that these very problematic practices are going to end."

Another person at the meeting, Fahd Ahmed, the legal and policy director of Desis Rising Up and Moving, called the decision "a small step". He wondered what had happened to the information gathered by the unit.

"The concern wasn't just about the fact that this data was being collected secretly. It was about the fact that this data was being collected at all," he said.

An ongoing review of the division by new Police Commissioner William Bratton found that the same information collected by the unit could be collected better through direct contact with community groups, officials said.

In a statement, Mayor Bill de Blasio 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."

The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York and the California-based Muslim Advocates, which represented eight Muslims from New Jersey in a 2012 lawsuit challenging the spying program, welcomed the dismantling of the unit but expressed concern it wouldn't stop surveillance in Muslim communities.

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

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