Human Rights

Bratton and NYPD Still Spying On Muslims

The NYPD Intelligence Division has transformed into a paramilitary agency that chills speech and activism in the Muslim community.

Photo Credit: Ciar/Wikimedia Commons

Linda Sarsour has waited over two years for a new police commissioner who would halt the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) blanket spy program targeting Muslims.  

Sarsour, one of the most prominent Muslim-American faces in the fight against surveillance, spoke and met with former top cop Ray Kelly numerous times during his tenure. She even played soccer with Kelly and sat next to him while at Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s annual iftar (the meal that breaks the fast during the holy month of Ramadan). But she started refusing to meet with Kelly in August 2011, which is when the Associated Press first began to expose the department’s infiltration of Muslim student groups, designation of mosques as “terrorist enterprises” and mapping of ethnic communities by the so-called “Demographics Unit” of the Intelligence Division.  

The organization Sarsour runs--the Arab-American Association of New York--was a direct target of NYPD spying.  In August 2013, the Associated Press’ Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman revealed that the police sought to place an informant on the board of the group. As Sarsour wrote in a 2012 blog post: “While we were letting them in the front door, their informants were infiltrating our mosques, and our community was illegally being spied on.”

Bill de Blasio’s ascent to the seat of New York City mayor in 2013 was supposed to inaugurate a new era, one of collaboration with the communities the NYPD patrols.  On the campaign trail, de Blasio said that he was “troubled” by the reports of “blanket surveillance.”

Then the new progressive mayor appointed Bill Bratton, the commissioner who introduced harsh “broken windows” policing when Rudy Giuliani was mayor of the city in the 1990s.  While Bratton has disbanded one unit that mapped the Muslim community, he has continued other surveillance practices that ensnare Muslims.  

“The appointment of Bratton left many of us surprised and skeptical,” said Sarsour, who, as founder and president of the Muslim Democratic Club of New York, mobilized the Muslim vote for de Blasio.  “We weren’t jumping for joy.”  There was ample reason for Sarsour to feel that way.

Bratton, also the former Los Angeles police chief, once backed a program that would map the Muslim community in LA as a way to fight terrorism, before backing off in the face of widespread outrage.  He went on to spearhead the use of Suspicious Activity Reports, a program where LAPD officials are directed to collect intelligence on behavior--including taking notes, espousing extremist views or using binoculars--that might indicate terrorist activity.  The American Civil Liberties Union attacked the reports as opening “the door to racial profiling and other improper police behavior.”

“His record doesn’t really bode well given the impacts of his policies the first time around in NYC, and then in Los Angeles,” Fahd Ahmed, the legal and policy director for DRUM - South Asian Organizing Center, told AlterNet.

Now, Bratton is once again the target of criticism over his continuation of spy programs targeting the Muslim community in New York, one of many ways that Muslim-Americans nationwide have felt the brunt of the “war on terror.”  In May, the New York Times’ Joseph Goldstein revealed that the NYPD continues to field an army of informants, culled from Muslim immigrants or those with Arab sounding names who have been charged with petty crimes.  The city continues to battle the American Civil Liberties Union in court over the surveillance program.  And there has been no indication that one of the most controversial parts of the NYPD’s spy program--the labeling of mosques as “terrorism enterprises”--has stopped.

That has engendered disappointment among those hoping for a full halt to the surveillance of Muslim communities in the Northeast.  Still, when Bratton took over the NYPD after de Blasio was elected, he did make moves that indicated at least a cosmetic break from the Kelly era--moves that make Sarsour “cautiously optimistic” about Bratton and the new administration, despite the continued use of informants.  Three weeks before de Blasio was inaugurated, Bratton met with harsh critics of the NYPD, a sharp break from the practices of former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who spurned speaking directly to activists.  

Then, in April, he met with members of the Muslim-American Civil Liberties Coalition (MACLC), a group working to end NYPD spying.  Also at the meeting was NYPD Intelligence Division head John Miller, who listened as activists informed officials of the harmful impact of blanket spying.  The willingness to at least listen to Muslim community members was novel, and days later, the NYPD made the announcement that the Demographics Unit (renamed the Zone Assessment Unit) would be disbanded.

The roots of this unit trace back to the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, when the NYPD, with the help of Central Intelligence Agency officials, transformed the Intelligence Division into a paramilitary intelligence agency that chilled speech and activism in the diverse Muslim community of New York.  One major part of the effort was mapping the Muslim community and cataloging where Muslim-owned businesses and institutions were located in New York--and in Newark, New Jersey.  Plainclothes police officers that made up the Demographics Unit were sent out to Muslim-owned places to chat up the owner and take note of whether people who frequented these places talked politics or expressed anti-American sentiment.  The conversations the agents listened in on were put into police files, a potential violation of federal guidelines the NYPD has agreed to operate under.

This unit was part of an Intelligence Division thoroughly transformed after 9/11 by former CIA official David Cohen, who was tapped by Ray Kelly to be the Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence. When Bratton was the head of the police in the 1990s, the Intelligence Division was focused on gang activity.  In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks, Cohen implemented a radical shift in direction towards intelligence gathering and fighting terrorism.  1,000 officers were directed to focus on terrorism. The counter-terror mission has become institutionalized to the point where it “would be very difficult to dismantle it,” former NYPD counter-terror official Richard Falkenrath told the Associated Press last year.

The Intelligence Division’s shift has been fueled by cash, with its budget growing exponentially in recent years.  From 2009-2013, money for the NYPD Intelligence Division and counter-terrorism efforts grew by more than 50 percent, and in total over $100 million was given in 2013 and 2014.   Federal cash from the White House as part of an anti-drug grant program has poured into the NYPD’s spy efforts to the tune of at least $135 million since 9/11. And its activities have been helped along by the New York City Police Foundation, a private, donor-driven group originally founded to buy equipment for cops. In recent years, though, it has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to equip the Intelligence Division with eyes and ears overseas in countries like France, the United Arab Emirates and Israel--whose occupation of the West Bank served as a model for the NYPD spy efforts. Bratton has hinted the overseas program will continue, despite the fact that its efforts have garnered no leads on terrorism in New York.

The Demographics Unit has been similarly unsuccessful.  No leads on potential terrorist plots were ever discovered as a result of it.  That fact perhaps made it easy to disband the unit, which cost money but didn’t generate anything.

Sarsour told AlterNet that “the closing of this one unit is a first step to show that the commissioner is at least willing to listen, willing to hear what the concerns are from the community.”  Yet she and other advocates remain troubled by the revelations of the NYPD’s informant program.  The public only recently learned the details of the program from a New York Timesarticle, underscoring criticism that the NYPD’s Intelligence Division is secretive and unaccountable.

The Times reported that a unit called the Citywide Debriefing Team scoured New York City jails for Muslim immigrants.  Many of them were charged with small-scale crimes like driving without a valid license, or arguing with a law enforcement officer for over a ticket. But the police attempted to pull them into the world of counter-terrorism, despite the arrestees having no knowledge of terrorism plots.  Members of the Citywide Debriefing Team pulled the immigrants aside and noted things like what mosque they attended or whether they were Sunni Muslims.  This practice differs from how traditional informant programs work: police ask suspects about crimes they might know about or suspects they have encountered.

The intention is to turn the immigrants into informants who would go into their own Muslim communities and poke around to see if there was anything afoot. City officials defend the program by saying it’s a crucial part of stopping terrorism.  Mayor de Blasio only said he wants to learn more about the program and would discuss informants with Bratton.  The police commissioner strongly defended the program, telling the Jerusalem Post while  he was in Israel that informants are an “essential element of policing.”But civil liberties groups and Muslim community leaders have a much different view, seeing the informant program as a fishing expedition.

“Programs like the Citywide Debriefing Team send a signal that the NYPD is more interested in profiling and exploiting members of the Muslim community than building trust with them,” Diala Shamas, a lawyer with CUNY School of Law’s Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility project, said in a statement after the existence of the unit was revealed.

Another aspect of the spy program the Muslim community is focused on is the practice of launching “terrorism enterprise investigations” into mosques. In August 2013, the AP’s Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman--who won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on the NYPD--revealed that the police department had designated at least a dozen mosques as “terrorist enterprises.”  The designation allows the police to use informants to spy on imams (religious leaders at mosque), and monitor every person who goes into a mosque.  There has been no indication that the new administration has halted the practice.

Advocates for police reform plan to raise NYPD surveillance with Philip Eure, the new Inspector General, who is tasked with investigating police practices and making recommendations for change.  The creation of the position was supported by a large coalition of police reform advocates, including Muslim groups, as well as by de Blasio. Muslim leaders plan to ask Eure to take a hard look at the NYPD’s surveillance program targeting them, and others have already made a request asking the Inspector General to investigate police surveillance of New York-based social justice activists.  In early June, the Huffington Postreported that Communities United for Police Reform, the coalition instrumental in pushing for the Inspector General position, had delivered a wish-list to Eure that included investigating the full extent of the NYPD’s blanket surveillance of Muslims.

“The fight to end NYPD surveillance just started,” said Sarsour.  “We’re not sleeping on this.”

Alex Kane is former World editor at AlterNet. His work has appeared in Mondoweiss, Salon, VICE, the Los Angeles Review of Books and more. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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