Last month, the NYPD announced that it was disbanding its Demographics Unit, which practiced widespread, indiscriminate spying on New York’s Muslim communities. Today, the New York Times reports that the NYPD still has at least one program that targets Muslims simply for belonging to the religion: Started a few years after 9/11, the Citywide Debriefing Team is a group of detectives who search New York’s arrest records for people from predominantly Muslim countries and those with “Arabic-sounding names.” The detectives then question those arrestees — most of whom are brought in for minor crimes like traffic violations and petty theft — and try to turn them into police informants.
According to documents obtained by the Times, the Citywide Debriefing Team speaks to jailed Muslims about topics such as whether they “attended mosque, celebrated Muslim holidays or had made a pilgrimage to Mecca.” In addition to gathering information about the suspects’ day-to-day lives, the team’s investigators will ask them if they are aware of any suspicious activity among other Muslims. The officers also ask the people they interview whether they would be willing to spy on their fellow Muslims for the NYPD after they are released.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner John Miller told the Times that the interviews were “noncoercive sessions where people had the ability to opt out at any time.” However, these conversations take place while the Muslim targets are still in police custody, which many might see as an inherently coercive environment. Moro Said, a limo driver who was arrested after pulling over improperly, recalled being questioned by the unit before he saw a judge:
“If you can help us, everything will be O.K.,” Mr. Said recalled the man as saying. When Mr. Said asked what was wanted in return, “He says, ‘You just go to the mosque and the cafe and just say to us if somebody is talking about anything, anything suspicious.’”
“It’s not appropriate,” said Mr. Said. “They’re fishing. You’re in trouble with the law and they are the law.” He said that by agreeing to do some of what the investigator asked him to do, he was simply trying to placate the police, “because I’m in a situation and they can make it bigger, believe me, they can make it bigger.” He said that when a detective called him about a week later to schedule a meeting, he declined, and “then I hang up.”
“I don’t want to be a spy on anybody,” Mr. Said said in a phone interview. “I hate spying.”
According to documents obtained by the Times, the Citywide Debriefing Team conducts roughly 1,000 interviews with jailed Muslims each year. (The NYPD confirmed that have already done 220 in 2014.) Miller told the paper that the group’s goal was not to “conduct an interrogation but to start a conversation and eventually build a relationship.” “It’s not a thing where they sit down and say, ‘Are you a Muslim or a Sunni or a Shiite?’” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that comes up in conversation.” Keep that in mind the next time you think about making small talk with the NYPD.