Shutdown of NYPD Surveillance Unit Welcomed

NYPD often uses surveillance towers like this one in neighborhoods around the city, including those with a predominently Muslim population. (Photo by  satanslaundromat, Creative Commons License)

The NYPD often uses surveillance towers like this one in neighborhoods around the city, including those with a predominantly Muslim population. (Photo by satanslaundromat, Creative Commons license)

The Muslim community is praising the New York Police Department’s decision to disband a special unit that conducted widespread surveillance of the city’s Muslim residents. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton are receiving accolades from community organizations and civil rights groups for closing the NYPD’s Demographics Unit.

Bill de Blasio during his election campaign last year had expressed reservations about the program, promising to review it if elected. During a roundtable with the city’s community and ethnic media last month, the mayor had indicated that the program was being reviewed and that changes were being considered. “You don’t have to break the law to enforce the law,” de Blasio had told the journalists at City Hall on March 27.

In interviews with Voices of NY, Muslim community leaders expressed their gratitude to the mayor for honoring his words.

“As a Muslim and American citizen, I commend Mayor Bill de Blasio for his courage and leadership and honoring his word with the Muslim community when he was running for office,” said Naji Ahmed, an Arab-American community leader and co-founder and president of New York Muslim Voter and Information Club. Naji’s political club supported de Blasio’s election campaign in 2013.

A view of Masjid Hazrati Abu Bakr Siddique in Flushing, Queens. Run largely by immigrants from Afghanistan, the mosque is believed to have been under the NYPD surveillance. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak/Voices of NY)

A view of Masjid Hazrati Abu Bakr Siddique in Flushing, Queens. Run largely by immigrants from Afghanistan, the mosque is believed to have been under NYPD surveillance. (Photo by Jehangir Khattak/Voices of NY)

The New York Times broke the news on April 15. It evoked swift response from community, civil rights and human rights activists and groups on social media. “Great news! NYPD Police Unit That Spied on Muslims Is Disbanded,” tweeted the Muslim Public Affairs Council, a Washington, D.C.-based Muslim civil rights group.

The news generated not just warm reaction but also revived emotions that the controversial program, launched during former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s years in office, had stirred.

“It is not acceptable to monitor any particular community or social or religious group’s overall activities,” said Kowshik Ahmed, editor of Weekly Bangalee, a New York-based Bangladeshi newspaper.

Saleem Rizvi, a New York-based immigration attorney who also hosts a show on a Pakistani television channel, supported Ahmed’s observations.

“The notorious spying program which blatantly and unconstitutionally targeted innocent Muslim communities was not only highly controversial but it was also badly flawed and ineffective,” said Rizvi.

Omar Saeed Butt, a Pakistani activist, pointed out that the program did not produce a single lead about any act of terrorism. He was also concerned about the data already collected about Muslims through the program. “The biggest concern we have is our liberties and privacies were violated. Furthermore, where is that ‘data’ now and where will it be shared and with whom in the future,” said Butt, 42, who works as a real estate broker in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn.

Imam Shamsi Ali, a noted Islamic scholar, chairman of the Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria and director of the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens, while expressing his elation, noted that the program’s lack of clarity was one reason for its unpopularity. “… I am happy to hear that because it has been cloudy in the community about what and how it works,” Ali said.

Imam Ali said in response to an email query from Voices of NY that he was not too worried about the program. “I was not totally worried because I know that what the NYPD did in the past is an attempt to make sure that our city is safe and every possible terrorist attack to be prevented before it is happening. What I was troubled about was how this effort would be reconciled with religious freedom and to make sure that no discrimination at all happens. And so its ending brings joy, surely the Muslim community will be relieved entirely.”

Almost everyone contacted by Voices of NY foresaw improvement in relations between the NYPD and the Muslim community in the coming weeks. Naji and Butt said both the NYPD and the Muslim community must work together to make the city safe and the best place to live.

Rizvi asked the NYPD to engage with the Muslim community more constructively to restore confidence. “I also hope that Police Commissioner Bratton will create a meaningful community training program for NYPD cops who previously worked for the Demographic Unit and now are being transferred to the Intelligence Division or the Counter-Terrorism Bureau.”

Imam Ali also stressed that the restoration of trust was the key to improving NYPD-Muslim relations. “I am sure that the decision by the NYPD to end that surveillance program would normalize its relations with the Muslim community and trust would naturally evolve.”

Kowshik Ahmed said the Bangladeshi community already has good relations with the police department and would always join efforts to promote peace and harmony.

Amidst the upbeat mood and welcoming statements, there were a few voices that demanded more details about the NYPD’s plans.

Civil and community rights groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), while welcoming the news, sought clarification from the city as to whether the program was being entirely disbanded, or only a part of it.

“We should not confuse this for victory. There are many unanswered questions about whether the already collected data will continue to be used, and whether​ profiling practices will continue in other forms,” a press release quoted Monami Maulik, founder and executive director of DRUM, as saying.

CAIR also echoed Malik’s concern in its statement, which welcomed the news. “We need to hear from the mayor and NYPD officials that the policy itself has been ended and that the department will no longer apply mass surveillance or other forms of biased and predatory policing to any faith-based community.”

And CCR said that the new development would not deter it from challenging the surveillance program in the court of law. “We will continue to work, through litigation and advocacy, to ensure the NYPD is fully and finally respecting the rights of the Muslim community,” said a statement posted on the organization’s website.

Hassan v. City of New York is the first lawsuit challenging the NYPD spying program, initially filed by Muslim Advocates and later joined by CCR in December 2012.  The lawsuit is currently under appeal, added the CCR announcement.

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