There were those in the NYPD itself who’d begun to doubt the program’s efficacy. Hector Berdecia was one of those. A sturdily built NYPD lieutenant with a shaved head and broad, boyish smile, Berdecia inherited supervision of the Demographics Unit in 2006 after a yearlong tour in Iraq with the Army.
He’d been in Iraq’s Babylon Province near the lawless area south of Baghdad dubbed the “Triangle of Death.” Berdecia had lived in and around New York all his life, but it was only after his tour that he noticed the many Arabic storefronts dotting New York. In Iraq, he had made Muslim friends and started a Cub Scout troop, using his son’s old troop banner. But 9/11 made him suspicious of his neighbors.
“They were here on 9/11,” Berdecia said. “It was just a matter of time before we got hit again.”
Berdecia got his introduction to the Demographics Unit from one of his sergeants, Timothy Mehta. A burly man of Indian ancestry, Mehta ran through PowerPoint slides and reports explaining how it gathered information. Berdecia, who went on to lead a team of rakers, was impressed. As he thumbed through the Demographics reports, looking at shopkeepers identified by name and ethnicity, at restaurants catalogued by the nationality of their clientele, he felt that the city was being made safer by this roster.
Some of the rakers in his unit felt conflicted. They were cops, eager to protect the city. But they also knew they were building files on fellow Muslims—immigrant business owners and members of their communities who’d done nothing wrong.
Berdecia reassured them there was nothing insidious about what they were doing. They weren’t collecting anything that couldn’t be observed by any other member of the public.
“At the very least, we can eliminate this guy from our list if he’s not a terrorist,” Berdecia told his men. “And we can find out who the terrorists are. And that’s your job.”
The truth, though, was that raking didn’t eliminate anybody from a list. It just expanded the NYPD’s files. One Brooklyn business that the NYPD labeled a Bangladeshi hot spot, for instance, was a restaurant named Jhinuk. The list of “alleged activities” included being a “popular location for political activities” and attracting a “devout crowd.”
The Nile Valley Grocery in Brooklyn was noted simply as a “medium-size grocery owned by a person of Syrian descent.” Milestone Park, in Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst neighborhood, was labeled a “location of concern” because it attracted middle-age Albanian men from the neighborhood: “This location is mostly frequented during the early afternoon hours when Albanians get together for a game of chess, backgammon, or just to have a conversation,” the rakers noted.
For one project, the rakers investigated locations where Arabs and South Asians gathered to play or watch sports. Each location was photographed, the ethnicity of the customers documented. The report on the Naimat Kada restaurant in the Flatiron district noted that people might pray downstairs.
Each location was mapped.
“Arabs in this area frequent this park, especially on Sundays, to play pickup soccer games,” the rakers wrote about Astoria Park.
“Various Arabs frequent this location from nearby Yonkers as well as Manhattan College,” they wrote about Fieldston Billiards in the Bronx.
Berdecia told his detectives they were preventing terrorism.
“I believed it,” he said years later. “I drank the Kool-Aid.”
But as the years went on, Berdecia’s enthusiasm for the program gave way to frustration. As a young detective in the Bronx, Berdecia had worked the streets, building informants and dismantling violent drug gangs. Yet his rakers spent their days sipping tea in cafés.
The Demographics Unit had thousands of dollars to spend on meals and expenses so police would look like ordinary customers—costs known as “cover concealment.” Berdecia felt that his officers could eavesdrop just as well over a $2 cup of coffee as over a $30 meal, and he started asking questions about businesses that kept popping up on expense reports.
One frequent destination was the Kabul Kabob House in Flushing, Queens, which was owned by a soft-spoken blonde Persian woman named Shorah Dorudi, who fled Iran after the revolution in 1979. When Berdecia asked officers whether they suspected a threat that should be reported up the chain of command, he was told they were conducting routine follow-up visits. But a look at the reports showed nothing worth following up.
That’s when Berdecia realized that, in the hunt for terrorists, his detectives gravitated toward the best food.
Occasionally, Berdecia would see receipts for up to $40 at Middle Eastern sweet shops. Sometimes, the receipts showed detectives buying a bunch of pastries just before quitting time.