Speaking during a quality of life symposium in New York City Thursday, New York Police Department Commissioner William Bratton defended the decision to shutter the city's controversial Muslim surveillance program.
"Not one single piece of actionable intelligence ever came out of that unit in its years of existence,” Bratton said in response to a question on why Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration killed the program. "This keeps coming up over and over again in the tabloids." The idea that the surveillance was useful, he said, "[is] urban legend, it's urban myth."
The Demographics Unit, later called the Zone Assessment Unit, was launched in 2003. Until the de Blasio administration shut it down in 2014, it was one secretive and highly invasive way for the NYPD to keep tabs on members New York's Muslim community. The New York Times described some of the troubling tactics last year:
The goal was to identify the mundane locations where a would-be terrorist could blend into society. Plainclothes detectives looked for “hot spots” of radicalization that might give the police an early warning about terrorist plots. The squad, which typically consisted of about a dozen members, focused on 28 “ancestries of interest.” Detectives were told to chat up the employees at Muslim-owned businesses and “gauge sentiment” about America and foreign policy. Through maps and photographs, the police noted where Albanian men played chess in the afternoon, where Egyptians watched soccer and where South Asians played cricket.
The program's defenders say it was never supposed to detect specific terrorist plots. In response to Bratton's comments, a spokesperson for former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly told CBS New York that "Bratton saying there were no leads is like saying Derek Jeter never scored a touchdown."
The Muslim surveillance program is back in the news thanks to renewed ISIS threats against New York City following the terrorist organization's deadly attack on Paris last week, and suggestions by the likes of Donald Trump that the NYPD should revive the spying program.
The GOP presidential candidate said on Breitbart News Daily, "There's hatred like nobody's ever seen, and it's obviously emanating from and coming out of, among other places, the mosques… We had a very strong unit, we did a lot of surveillance of mosques in our city… from what I understand we're not doing that anymore. I think that's a terrible mistake." Trump said New York should restart the program immediately, adding (incorrectly) that "good information came out of it."
For Bratton, restarting the program is off the table. "We have the most robust counterterrorism entity in the United States… there is no shortage of ability to get intelligence."
Danielle Wiener-Bronner is a news reporter.