In 2002, David Cohen retired from the CIA, where he’d been the agency’s operational chief. He took a new job as the NYPD’s intelligence chief, and, driven by post-9/11 safety concerns, aggressively remade the division, which until then had little impact. Cohen took his cues from his former employer, with the blessing of both the NYPD and then-CIA chief George Tenet, according to a blockbuster Associated Press investigation. He hired a deputy, Larry Sanchez, who remained on the CIA’s payroll while training officers in intelligence gathering, with a specific focus on surveilling the city’s Muslim communities.
At first, Cohen bumped up against the NYPD’s rules — officers had to remind him they couldn’t just search someone’s apartment without a warning. But in 2002, he convinced a federal judge to overturn a ruling preventing police officers to wait for “specific information” indicating a crime when it came to intelligence gathering; it mirrored a change in the FBI’s constraints around the same time, a specific response to the heightened concern over terrorism. Cohen was free to pursue his plan, harnessing the diversity of the NYPD officer pool to infiltrate ethnic communities. He supposedly created a division within the intelligence arm known as the “Demographic Unit,” sending Pakistani officers to hang out in Pakistani cafes, bookstores, and mosques, for instance, looking for signs of terrorist involvement. It sounds an awful lot like racial profiling, though the department denies that’s the case. “It’s not profiling,” a spokesman told the AP. “It’s like, after a shooting, do you go 20 blocks away and interview guys or do you go to the neighborhood where it happened?”
Still, there were concerns within the department (especially among the lawyers), since Cohen had moved away from his promise to the judge to stick to FBI guidelines, and was operating under something a whole lot closer to the less stringent CIA practices. Supposedly, the department had officers called “mosque crawlers,” from whom the FBI refused to accept information, concerned the surveillance violated the law. Internal documents were shredded as a regular ritual — often a pretty good sign something’s not entirely on the up-and-up. Outside critics have called the NYPD’s intelligence practices “rogue” in the past, and that was before the full extent of Cohen’s program came to light. The NYPD unit isn’t confined to the city, either: Officers have been deputized as federal marshalls, and have investigated in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and even abroad while following cases or fact-finding. Officers have been stationed in 11 cities overseas, in fact.
Perhaps that’s a new recruiting slogan for the department: See the world.