NEW YORK (AP) — The move by New York City’s new police commissioner to disband a unit that spied on the everyday activities of Muslims could be just the first step in a dismantling of some of the huge post-9/11 intelligence-gathering machinery built by his predecessor.
Among other anti-terror programs that are getting a hard look from Commissioner William Bratton is a unit that stations NYPD officers in foreign cities such as London, Paris, Tel Aviv and Amman, Jordan. Also under review are the protocols for when and how to conduct surveillance in the hunt for terrorists.
Bratton, who has been in office for three months, was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, a liberal Democrat, and given a sweeping mandate to ease tensions between the 35,000-officer department and the city’s minorities.
Over the past few years, Bratton’s predecessor Ray Kelly and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg vehemently defended what has become the nation’s largest intelligence-gathering, anti-terrorism operation outside the federal government, saying the lack of any major attack on the city since 9/11, and the lowest overall crime rate in a generation, are proof it is working.
But Bratton and his allies say the unit-by-unit review of the NYPD’s intelligence and counterterrorism operations is necessary to eliminate possible inefficiencies, better deploy resources and respond to criticism that the department has trampled on civil rights.
The review is expected to bring tighter restrictions on how the department gathers intelligence and make it less secretive.
On Tuesday, the department confirmed the dismantling of the Demographics Unit, which sent plainclothes officers to mingle with Muslims in bookstores, restaurants and mosques and listen for terrorist plots. The secret program was revealed in a series of stories by The Associated Press in 2011.
The program was the target of lawsuits and allegations that the department was violating Muslims’ civil rights and sowing mistrust in the community. A high-ranking NYPD official acknowledged in a deposition made public in 2012 that the unit’s work had never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation in the previous six years.
Under Bratton, the department concluded that the information collected by the unit could be better gathered through direct contact with community groups, officials said.
Another one of Kelly’s initiatives that could be scaled back or eliminated is a program that posted more than a dozen detectives in major cities abroad. It is intended to give the department more timely intelligence on terror plots. But critics have questioned whether the officers have access to any meaningful information.
Critics also have questioned the department’s widespread use of security cameras and have suggested the electronic eyes violate New Yorkers’ privacy.
Former NYPD officer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who has called the overseas program a waste of resources, said Bratton’s willingness to re-examine how the nation’s largest police department combats both terrorism and conventional crime will benefit the city.
Bratton, who also headed the New York force in the early 1990s, “has the ability to sit down and listen to what people have to say,” Adams said. By the end of his 12-year tenure as commissioner, he added, Kelly “had the attitude, ‘I’m not going to explain anything I do, and I’m not going to listen to anyone but me.‘”
Bratton has sought to project himself as a leader who is more accessible and responsive.
“It’s a different tone,” said Linda Sarsour, executive director of the Arab American Association of New York.
Kelly, now a security executive for a global commercial real estate firm, didn’t respond to requests for an interview Wednesday.
Paesh Buhan, who is from India and now lives in Brooklyn, agreed that ending the surveillance program will help restore trust in the police.
“It’s kind of weird. You can’t just randomly start monitoring a certain group of people without any reason,” he said. “I wonder: Who else are they monitoring?”
Adam Wallace, who lives in Manhattan, said he sees merits to the now-disbanded program: “If you’re not doing anything wrong, it doesn’t matter if people are watching you.”
He said that while some aspects of the surveillance could prove troubling, overall he’s with the NYPD: “I’m glad they’re looking out for us.”
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz, Jake Pearson and Michael Sisak contributed to this report.