The news: The NYPD announced last month that it finally shut down its Demographics Units, the controversial task force assigned to surveil Muslim communities in New York and its surrounding areas. And while that decision has been lauded by several Muslim advocacy groups and civil liberties organizations, it appears they may have been celebrating prematurely.
According to a new exposé by the New York Times, the Demographics Unit has indeed been shut down for good — but its work is being continued under a different name.
A few years after 9/11, the NYPD decided to assemble a squad called the Citywide Debriefing Team, whose job was to interrogate Muslim immigrants who were in custody and convince them to become police informants, according to the Times. Most of the men they questioned had been arrested for petty crimes, such as parking violations or driving without a valid license. But when detectives from the Citywide Debriefing Team pulled them out for questioning, the interview would have nothing to do with their original infractions:
"The men, all Muslim immigrants, went through similar ordeals: Waiting in a New York station house cell or a lockup facility, expecting to be arraigned, only to be pulled aside and questioned by detectives. The queries were not about the charges against them, but about where they went to mosque and what their prayer habits were. Eventually, the detectives got to the point: Would they work for the police, eavesdropping in Muslim cafes and restaurants, or in mosques?"
The background: Recruiting informants is a rather standard police tactic. But in most cases, police offer deals to low-level criminals in exchange for information, hoping to move up the criminal chain to catch bigger fish.
But the NYPD's Citywide Debriefing Team is different in that it employs a preemptive strategy. Much like with the Demographics Unit, it indiscriminately asks for any kind of information on New York's Muslim community — whether or not there's any suggestion of actual ties to crime.
"We were looking for people who could provide visibility into the world of terrorism," said John Miller, the deputy commissioner in charge of the NYPD's Intelligence Division. "You don't get information without talking to people."
Though Miller described these interviews as "noncoercive sessions where people had the ability to opt out at any time," many on the receiving end don't feel the same. "I say, 'O.K., O.K., O.K., because I want to finish,'" said Bayjan Abrahimi, a food vendor from Afghanistan who was arrested because of a dispute over a parking ticket. He agreed to be an informant after the detectives revealed intimidatingly intimate knowledge of his family background. "At this time, I'm really scared."
Why this is important: Leaving aside the ethical implications of subjecting a community to indiscriminate surveillance, there is also the matter of how effective this approach really is. After over a decade of controversy, the Demographics Unit famously failed to generate a single lead. And it turns out the Citywide Debriefing Team is not much better.
When pressed by the Times, police officials were able to pinpoint exactly one case where a recruited informant provided valuable information: the 2011 arrest of Jose Pimentel.
But they left out that many of Pimentel's incriminating statements were made while he was with the informant, and that the informant actually assisted him with getting the necessary tools for a bomb. In fact, the FBI actually declined twice to take him into custody over fears that the NYPD had entrapped him.
The NYPD added that information from the Citywide Debriefing Team included "individuals providing weapons to the Taliban, as well as fraudulent visas to the United States originating out of Guyana." It confirmed that more than 1,000 interviews were conducted between 2007 and 2008, as well as another 220 in the first quarter of 2014.
It's also important to note that not all the detectives involved were happy with the approach. "We are detectives of the New York Police Department's Intelligence Division," said Bobby Hadid, a former sergeant in the unit and a Muslim immigrant from Algeria. "We are there to collect intelligence about criminal activity or terrorism. Why are we asking, 'Are you Muslim?' 'What mosque do you go to?' What does that have to do with terrorism?"