A controversial NYPD unit created after 9/11 has been disbanded. Created in 2003 amid the widespread panic that gripped the country and perhaps especially New York City after the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Demographics Unit–later the Zone Assessment Unit–was charged with surveilling potentially dangerous political actors. The unit operated in secret and had broad powers–not unlike the broad surveillance powers granted to the NSA and Department of Homeland Security (created around the same time) by the PATRIOT Act. Though surveillance of Muslims was not specifically built into the NYPD unit’s mandate, it was widely believed to be engaged almost exclusively in surveillance of Muslim groups.
The NYPD unit, which constructed elaborate maps of Muslim communities in New York and New Jersey, was brought to public attention in 2011 by the Associated Press. The unit has since been the target of numerous civil rights lawsuits–the first of which have been unsuccessful. Like Stop and Frisk, another controversial NYPD practice that many believed damaged the reputation of the city and its law enforcement, the Muslim spying operation was criticized by Mayor Bill de Blasio when he was a candidate last fall. Earlier this year de Blasio significantly curbed Stop and Frisk, citing tacit racial profiling as a key reason. With the disbanding of the NYPD Zone Assessment Unit, he continues to target profiling, even–as some claim–at the risk of the city’s safety. “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. It’s a balancing act.