The Zone Assessment Unit had been the subject of numerous protests, like this one outside of NYPD headquarters in Manhattan
Elham Asaad Buaras
The New York Police Department (NYPD) confirmed on April 15 that it has disbanded its controversial surveillance unit that tracks the daily lives of Muslims to detect terror threats.
NYPD spokesman, Stephen Davis, confirmed that the Zone Assessment Unit (ZAU) was disbanded and its officers transferred to other division after being target of controversy and civil lawsuits.
“The Zone Assessment Unit, previously referred to as the demographics unit, has been largely inactive since January,” said Davis in a statement. “Recently, as part of an ongoing assessment of Intelligence Bureau operations, personnel assigned to the Zone Assessment Unit were reassigned to other duties within the Intelligence Bureau.”
The statement continued: “Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing information regarding potential threats coming to the attention of the New York City Police Department, it has been determined that much of the same information previously gathered by the Zone Assessment Unit may be obtained through direct outreach by the NYPD to the communities concerned.”
Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, said the move was “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.”
Civil right groups had argued the ZAU was un-Constitutional as it monitored Muslim institutions based on no intelligence. The ZAU mostly spied on mosques and other religious centres, and also kept tabs on Muslim student groups and small business either operated by or catered towards the Muslim New Yorkers.
Additionally, the Unit sent several covert informants to infiltrate these organisations and gather intelligence on their members. Known as “mosque crawlers,” these informants reported on religious gatherings, and other such activities.
After a series of stories by the Associated Press (AP) detailing the extent of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims, two civil rights lawsuits were filed demanding that the department halt the practice.
Since then, a review of the unit – renamed the Zone Assessment Unit in recent years – under the new police commissioner, William Bratton, found the same demographic information could be better collected through direct contact with community groups, officials said.
Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, Donna Lieberman, hailed the decision, saying police-community relations had suffered from the unit’s broad surveillance of Muslims.
“We hope this means an end to the dragnet approach to policing that has been so harmful to police-community relations and a commitment to going after criminal suspicion, rather than innocent New Yorkers,” said Lieberman, whose organisation is involved in lawsuits over the practice.
In Washington, 34 members of Congress had demanded a federal investigation into the NYPD’s actions. The Attorney General, Eric Holder, said he was disturbed by reports about the operations, and the Department of Justice said it was reviewing complaints received from Muslims and their supporters.
The AP’s reporting also prompted an investigation by the CIA’s inspector general. That internal inquiry concluded that the CIA, which is prohibited from domestic spying, had not broken any laws, but criticised the agency for allowing an officer assigned to the NYPD to operate without sufficient supervision.
The Police Commissioner at the time, Ray Kelly, had defended the spying tactics, saying officers observed legal guidelines.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations’ New York chapter (CAIR-NY) welcomed the closure of the unit but said, “The damage of unconstitutional mass spying on people solely on the basis of their religion has already been carried out and must be addressed. 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.”
“In disbanding the ZAU the NYPD admitted that the task force never actually generated a single criminal lead throughout its existence.”