The New York police has disbanded a controversial unit that conducted surveillance on Muslim neighbourhoods and monitored the daily lives of people from the community to detect terror plots.
The secretive surveillance squad, which had been set up in 2003, would be shuttered and the unit’s detectives have been recently reassigned, a report in the New York Times said.
The New York Police Department (NYPD) unit, which had been renamed the ‘Zone Assessment Unit’, had been largely inactive since William Bratton took over as the new NYPD commissioner this January, the department’s chief spokesman Stephen Davis said.
“Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing the threat information that comes into New York City virtually on a daily basis,” Davis was quoted as saying.
“In the future, we will gather that information, if necessary, through direct contact between the police precincts and the representatives of the communities they serve,” Davis said.
Under the secret surveillance conducted by New York police, officers in plain clothes were deployed in Muslim neighbourhoods to eavesdrop on conversations, monitor and track the lives of Muslims and build files on where people ate, prayed and shopped.
The programme had come in for sharp criticism from civil rights groups, some of which had filed a lawsuit against the police department, demanding that it bring an end to the practice of spying on mosques and businesses managed by the community initiated in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.
The squad, which consisted of about a dozen members, focused on 28 “ancestries of interest”, the report said.
New York city Mayor Bill de Blasio welcomed the move, calling it a “critical” step to ease tensions between the police and the citizens.
“Our administration has promised the people of New York a police force that keeps our city safe, but that is also respectful and fair. 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,” the mayor said in a statement.
The New York chapter of the rights group Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY) also welcomed the decision, saying that the special unit had conducted widespread “warrantless surveillance” of law-abiding Muslims.
It said the NYPD also recruited informants referred to as “mosque crawlers” to monitor religious sermons.
Police acknowledge that the programme never generated a criminal lead, CAIR-NY Board President Ryan Mahoney said.
The programme was uncovered in 2011 by the media which published documents describing how officers infiltrated Muslim organisations in the New York region to gather intelligence in the post 9/11 scenario.