AMU Homeland Security Opinion

NYC Abandons Covert Muslim Surveillance Unit

By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security

A New York police unit that used plain closed detectives to infiltrate Muslim neighborhoods, student groups, mosques and other gathering places to gather information to counter Islamic extremism and terrorism has just been just been disbanded.

This was the group that spied out “hotspots” of potential radicalization in order to issue an early warning of a terrorist attack by combing the larger demographic. This was a time of high uncertainty as to al Qaeda cells within New York.

Infiltration of Muslim communities began after September 11, 2001. The Zone Assessment Unit (formerly the Demographics Unit) was started in 2003. Police Commissioner William Bratton assumed office at the start of this year and the Unit has been reportedly inactive in 2014.

The NYPD new intelligence chief, John Miller announced shutting the unit down because it was unnecessary. The police do not need to covertly investigate the meeting places of Muslims in the city.

The NYPD’s spokesperson, Steven Davis, said: “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, 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.”

NYC has been the victim of persistent Muslim extremist terrorism; especially since the First WTO bombing in 1993.

The Demographics Unit was always designed to feel out the larger New York Islamic enclaves as a feeler for pro or con US sentiment. Additionally, its ultimate purpose was to pursue threats to the public and not to spy on Muslims because of their religion. It went beyond counterterrorism and a crime-centric infrastructure.

Recently, law enforcement profiling, intelligence and surveillance practices are continually under attack and have resulted in many civil rights law suits. A federal judge in New Jersey just threw out a case that claimed the police were targeting Muslims because of their religion. Similar law suits are pending in New York.

The new NYC Mayor, Bill de Blasio, said that the police should focus only on specific leads rather than broad surveillance of communities. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was once a fan, was riddled with lawsuits and replaced by a politician against such methods.

Does this latest retreat of policy challenge police intelligence role and preventive policing in general?

NYC arguably has the most sophisticated police force in the country and acts as a model of sorts within the law enforcement community. Regardless of the outcomes of the battles, over time, national and local lobbies gain political momentum to influence law enforcement activities like any other by patience, endurance and concentrated efforts. Not on trial was the need or effectiveness of the program and the level of threat from Muslim extremists that still target The Big Apple.

One thing to watch out for now that pro-Muslim and civil rights groups have apparently won a major victory is what I might call, Phase Two of their political operations. This will involve going on the offensive where the NYPD and their political intelligence and profiling methods actively retreat. They will continue to play a role of victimization while transitioning into one of greater power. Specifically, this means that such groups and organizations will seek to push for “special protections” to ensure that this treatment does not happen again.

The problem is emotional guilt, phobia and psychological manipulation on the part of activists through and beyond the levels of tolerance and sympathetic critical mass. While the first phase might seem justified as defensive, the second must not be allowed to happen. Government and security establishments must continue on a threat based analysis and threat each threat and scope in the calculus of their operations while being fair and objective, without bias. However, when most threats come from one community, it will be natural to focus efforts and operations there.

Two last issues are: procedural abuses and a separation of police-to-Muslim cooperation. Of the former, the NYPD had labeled entire mosques as suspect “terrorist enterprises. According to the New York Times sources, this allowed the police the ability to track license plate numbers, videotape worshipers and use informants wearing hidden microphones. Understanding the time of over-reactions when this was taking place does not justify it, but only gives it context.

Lastly, NYPD-Muslim relations were jeopardized as the community mixed with civil rights and larger entities to further segregate the authorities from the community; meanwhile, at the same time the Muslim groups were seeding the political engines and airwaves and infiltrating the political process as a whole. The importance of police and demographic relations is critical to the overall policing effort. One must have good relations with the target demographic in order to obtain their assistance and cooperation. The Muslim community of New York will now naturally, actively, court all attention and appology from the new Mayor and demand reassurances that their community is not being singled out and crawling with NYPD spies.

Whatever follows, the pursuit of justice and the “just the facts” motto must not be impaired by special protections for specific groups seen now as “off-limits” in the reversal of police intelligence and anti-profiling where critically needed most.



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