This Tuesday, the New York Police Department said that it disbanded a controversial unit that used covert surveillance tactics to infiltrate local Muslim communities with the intent of detecting terror threats.
Known as the “Demographics Unit” and later the “Zone Assessment Unit," the program employed NYPD officers, under the direction of a CIA employee, to eavesdrop and record conversations in restaurants, mosques and anywhere else Muslims might gather. The program's disbanding signals that the department is beginning to back away from some of the anti-terror initiatives it adopted following the 9/11 attacks. But for those who were targeted by the unit, serious questions remained unanswered.
The unit began its operations around 2002 and was active until January of this year, NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis told The New York Times. After collecting information for over a decade, the department admitted that the surveillance operation netted zero leads for terrorist activity, the Times reported.
“This reform is 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,” New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio said in a statement Tuesday.
During its existence, the program generated sharp criticism from Muslim and civil rights groups. There are several civil liberties lawsuits that stem from the Associated Press’ probe into the unit and the questionable policing tactics that drew outrage from the region’s Muslim community.
One of the lawsuits, Hassan v. City of New York, was dismissed last month by a federal judge who said that Muslims could not prove they were harmed by the tactics. It is currently under appeals.
Farhaj Hassan, the lead plaintiff in that suit, told Fusion that yesterday’s announcement is a “great first step”, but that it still leaves many of his community’s concerns unaddressed.
Four of the mosques Hassan has attended in New Jersey were designated as suspected “terrorist enterprises,” and as a U.S. Army reservist, he is concerned that could be a detriment to his future in the military.
“I am thinking that unless the information gathered is destroyed and/or expunged, nothing has changed because there is still a sizeable amount of information out there that was gathered,” he said. “We want that stuff gone, and we want it destroyed because there was no reason for it to be collected in the first place."
Glenn Katon, legal director of Muslim Advocates, the group that brought Hassan’s case to trial, said he wants the unit's information completely expunged out of fear that it could be used against his clients.
“Right now if someone moved into [greater New York] and they wanted to go to a mosque, they would Google [these mosques] and see them affiliated with terrorism investigations,” Katon said.
“They have released this [information on the closure] to much fanfare, and they will probably be quiet about it for a while after this,” he added. “But the devil is in the details. One of the specific things we are asking for is for the records they have collected to be destroyed or expunged.”
The question of what happens to the data and information gathered brings up an interesting issue: If you unjustly find yourself on an official terrorist watch list of some kind, how can you possibly get off of it?
The closest parallel to the NYPD's the Zone Assessment Unit may be the federal "no-fly list" database.
The no-fly list contains about 21,000 people, and only one individual has successfully challenged a placement on the list.
Rahinah Ibrahim, a visiting doctoral student in architecture and design from Malaysia, was placed on a no-fly list in 2005, when she was handcuffed, detained and questioned for two hours at San Francisco International Airport. This January, a federal judge ruled she was put on the list by mistake.
A group of lawyers handled the case pro bono, but the cost was still high. They attorneys spent $3.8 million in legal fees and $300,000 in court costs, according one of Ibrahim's lawyers, Elizabeth Marie Pipkin. Ibrahim was not seeking any monetary damages — all that she wanted to do was clear her name, Pipkin said in court.
“Why in the United States of America does it cost that much to clear a woman’s name?” Pipkin told Wired.
Considering the fact that the NYPD’s controversial unit yielded exactly zero leads, and the unit itself was just shut down, many in the New York metropolitan area are still wondering the same question.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.