The New York Police Department has disbanded a division that conducted extensive covert surveillance on the city's Muslim communities. The Demographics Unit infiltrated mosques, restaurants, and other locations with plainclothes officers and informants, but the NYPD was forced to conclude in 2012 that the program never generated any serious leads or investigations into terrorism. A report last year explored the fear and mistrust that the unit spread among Muslims in New York, with many saying they felt forced to downplay their faith as a result.
Future intel to come from "direct contact" between police and community
Stephen Bratton, the department's chief spokesperson, tells The New York Times that the Demographics Unit has been mostly inactive since new commissioner William Bratton took over in January, with its detectives reassigned to other posts. "Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing the threat information that comes into New York City virtually on a daily basis," he says. "In the future, we will gather that information, if necessary, through direct contact between the police precincts and the representatives of the communities they serve."
This could bring the Police Department's code of conduct closer in line with that of the FBI, which prohibits the kind of eavesdropping on everyday, First Amendment-protected conversations that the Demographics Unit carried out. But one lawyer suing the city in an ongoing case over its surveillance practices is wary that the NYPD's changes may not go far enough. "I want them to say that they’re getting rid of not just the unit, but the kind of policing that the unit did," says Martin Stolar, noting that the program's name has changed before. "Is it still going to be blanket surveillance of where Muslims hang out? Are they going to stop this massive surveillance?"