NYPD Defends Muslim Informant Program

Team assigned to compile databases on where Muslim homes and businesses scrapped after racial profiling accusations - but concerns remain.

Tova Dvorin ,

Muslim men pray outside a mosque in Brooklyn,
Muslim men pray outside a mosque in Brooklyn,

The New York Police Department (NYPD) defended its ongoing use of Muslim informants to stop terrorism Wednesday, amid an ongoing debate on defense and civil rights.

The Demographics Unit, comprised of a team of detectives assigned to create databases on where Muslims lived, shopped, worked and prayed, was officially disbanded in April in the wake of a public media storm over racial profiling.

Civil rights advocates, however, slammed the NYPD despite the move earlier this week, insisting that the department's disbandment did not constitute a commitment to abandon the surveillance project or informant system.

The New York Times, citing internal NYPD documents, reported Sunday that the police department's Intelligence Division is continuing to debrief Muslims arrested for petty offenses to plumb them for information - and offer them positions as informants.

According to the report, 220 different interviews were conducted alone between January and March 2014. The subject of religion has also become a frequent topic in police detective work, raising serious concerns from civil rights groups about the freedom of religion and the separation between Church and State.

City lawyers defended the practice this week, stating that the NYPD puts people under surveillance for "legitimate" reasons that relate to fighting crime - a practice not limited to the Muslim community.

The perfect (legal) storm

NYPD's use of Muslim informants first surfaced in 2011, after the Associated Press first revealed documents related to the close monitoring of Muslim communities.

An inquiry into the Demographics Unit followed. The legal precedent for the Unit stemmed from the post-September 11, 2001 to wage a "War on Terror." Following the attacks, a federal judge relaxed several 1980s civil rights guidelines for the police force, allowing them to isolate a political or ethnic group for investigation without consulting an oversight panel.

Officers were also allowed to visit religious and political institutions without receiving clearance.

A media and legal storm followed, with at least one informant, then-19 year-old Shamiur Rahman, revealing his own involvement with the case to the press.

In 2013, civil rights and Muslim-American groups filed a lawsuit against the NYPD, saying that the program violated Americans' constitutional rights.

“The NYPD has deceived this court and counsel, as well as the public, concerning the character and scope of its activities in violation of the guidelines,” the legal filing states.

Media coverage of the event has focused heavily on the supposed futility of the program, with the Times and other publications noting that the informant program has yielded "little to no results."

Sunday's report notes that part of the program's failure includes the hyperfocus on informants' political or religious affiliation, with virtually no emphasis on what - or whom - a potential informant actually knows.

And the informants are easily persuaded; several are offered the job in exchange for expunging poor criminal records - and cold, hard cash.

Even now, post-lawsuit, serious damage has been done to the Muslim community's trust of the US government - even from within the police force itself.

“We are detectives of the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division,” Bobby Hadid, a former sergeant with the Demographics Unit, stated to the Times. “We are there to collect intelligence about criminal activity or terrorism. Why are we asking, ‘Are you Muslim?’ ‘What mosque do you go to'?

"What does that have to do with terrorism?”