Stephen Nessen, Reporter, WNYC News
Stephen Nessen reports for the WNYC Newsroom and can often be heard live on Morning Edition.
A unit within the New York City Police Department created in the wake of 9/11 to gather information on Muslims has disbanded. The Demographics Unit has been criticized by civil rights groups and the FBI for violating rights and stirring mistrust in Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey.
This once secret division was created in 2003 and built maps of Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey, sending undercover officers to eavesdrop on Muslims. It was exposed by the Associated Press in 2011 and has led to three federal lawsuits.
In February a federal judge in New Jersey threw out one lawsuit, claiming the unit didn't discriminate against Muslims. There are two other lawsuits against the NYPD pending in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair," Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. "This reform is a critical step forward in easing tensions between the police and the communities they serve, so that our cops and our citizens can help one another go after the real bad guys."
Martin Stolar, one of the plaintiffs suing the NYPD, said by disbanding of the Demographics Unit, Mayor de Blasio made good on his campaign promises.
"I don't care what they call the unit, as long as they stop that practice I'm happy," he said. "If that's the case, if that's what they're promising, maybe we're making some forward progress."
Muslim groups are also cheering the news. Zead Ramadan, a board member of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islam Relations, said the NYPD unit badly harmed relations between police and Muslim communities.
"I think that the NYPD is making the rational decision to do its job and protect our constitutional rights, at the same time while doing its job in pursuing criminality and people who commit crimes, not groups," he said.
The Demographics Unit changed its name to the Zone Assessment Unit in recent years. A statement from the police department said this unit has been inactive since January and that officers have been reassigned to duties in the Intelligence Bureau. The department maintains that understanding local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing threats.
"It has been determined that much of the same information previously gathered by the Zone Assessment Unit may be obtained through direct outreach by the NYPD to the communities concerned,” the police statement said.