The NYPD’s Demographics Unit, which allowed plainclothes detectives to spy on pretty much any Muslim doing anything in New York at anytime, has been disbanded, the New York Times reported on Tuesday. Since its establishment in 2003, the once-secret program infamously failed to generate any leads or investigations, though former Mayor Bloomberg and former police commissioner Ray Kelly repeatedly defended it as essential to protecting the city from terrorism after the public learned of its existence. (Reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman wrote about the Demographics Unit at length in New York last year.)
Meanwhile, Muslims complained that the widespread eavesdropping on and cataloguing of their mosques, schools, neighborhoods, and activities amounted to racial profiling and violated their civil rights. The NYPD was hit with several lawsuits, as well as criticism from the local FBI, which said that their activities were ruining the relationship between law enforcement and Muslim communities. As a candidate, Mayor de Blasio said he was “deeply troubled” by the surveillance, and the Times notes that the Demographics Unit (which was recently renamed the Zone Assessment Unit) has been “largely inactive” since the new administration’s police chief, Bill Bratton, was put in charge.
“Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing the threat information that comes into New York City virtually on a daily basis,” said NYPD spokesman Stephen Davis of the end of the program. “In the future, we will gather that information, if necessary, through direct contact between the police precincts and the representatives of the communities they serve.” That method can’t be any less effective than what they were doing before.