Haight said his ruling brought the NYPD’s rules in line with the new guidelines Attorney General John Ashcroft had crafted for the FBI. Both sets of rules prohibited authorities from collecting and storing information concerning constitutionally protected activities such as religious and political speech unless related directly to criminal activity.
To accomplish their goals, however, Cohen and Sanchez needed to go far beyond what the FBI could do. They needed to take a broad view of what was related to terrorist activity. As Sanchez would explain to Congress years later: “Part of our mission is to protect New York City citizens from becoming terrorists. The federal government doesn’t have that mission, so automatically, by definition, their threshold is higher,” he said. “So they’re going to have a heck of a lot harder time having to deal with behaviors that run the gamut on First and Fourth Amendment rights and to be able to even look and scrutinize them without having even reached a standard of criminality.”
Far from raising concerns about a police department taking it upon itself to reconsider constitutional rights, Congress enthusiastically embraced Cohen’s views.
The Demographics Unit began simply enough, with a copy of the 2000 U.S. Census. The information was public, and the police used the data the way any sociologist could. They mapped, looking for 28 “ancestries of interest.” Nearly all were Muslim. There were Middle Eastern and South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Syria, and Egypt. Former Soviet states like Uzbekistan and Chechnya were included because of their large Muslim populations. The last “ancestry” on the list was “American Black Muslim.”
At the NYPD, Cohen enjoyed an advantage he’d never had as a CIA analyst: a pool of recruits drawn from New York’s own neighborhoods. The FBI and CIA struggled to recruit native Arabic speakers, in part because it was prohibitively difficult for applicants with strong overseas ties to get security clearances. The NYPD didn’t have that problem. The police force had long been a stepping-stone to the middle class for immigrants. One in five Academy graduates was born overseas. So when Cohen went searching for officers who could blend in to Muslim neighborhoods, he didn’t have to look far. He recruited young Middle Eastern officers who spoke Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. They would be the ones raking the coals, looking for hot spots, and they became known as “rakers.”
Every day, the rakers set out from the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where the Demographics Unit was based, and visited businesses in teams of two. Their job was to look like any other young men stepping in off the street.
The routine was almost always the same, whether they were visiting a restaurant, deli, barbershop, or travel agency. The two rakers would enter and casually chat with the owner. The first order of business was to determine his ethnicity and that of the patrons. This would determine which file the business would go into. A report on Pakistani locations, for instance, or one on Moroccans. Next, they’d do what the NYPD called “gauging sentiment.” Were the patrons observant Muslims? Did they wear traditionally ethnic clothes, like shalwar kameez? Were the women wearing hijabs?
If the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera was playing on the TV, the police would note it and observe how people were acting. Were they laughing, smiling, or cheering at reports of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did they talk Middle Eastern politics? If the business sold extremist literature or CDs, the officers would buy one or two. Was the owner selling fake I.D.’s or untaxed cigarettes? Police would note it. If customers could rent time on a computer, police might pay for a session and look at the computer’s search history. Were people viewing jihadist videos or searching for bomb-making instructions? Who was speaking Urdu?
On their way out, the rakers would look at bulletin boards. Was a rally planned in the neighborhood? The rakers might attend. Was there a cricket league? The rakers might join. If someone advertised a room for rent, the cops would tear off a tab with the address or phone number. It could be a cheap apartment used by a terrorist.
Sanchez carved the city into zones and assigned rakers to visit Muslim businesses in each. They often picked their own targets, with a supervisor sitting in a parked car nearby in case of trouble. Sometimes they were sent to neighborhoods based on world events. If people in a Pakistani barbershop in Queens were enraged over a drone attack that killed civilians, perhaps retaliation was imminent.
About once a week, they filed reports on conversations they’d eavesdropped on. Nobody trained the rakers on what exactly qualified as suspicious, so they reported anything they heard. One Muslim man made it into files even though he praised President Bush’s State of the Union address and said people who criticized the U.S. government didn’t realize how good they had it. Two men of Pakistani ancestry were included for saying the nation’s policies had become increasingly anti-Muslim since 9/11. Muslims who criticized the CIA’s use of drones to launch missiles in Pakistan were documented.