Last month the New York Magazine reported the disbanding of the NYPD’s Demographics Unit, which allowed plainclothes detectives to spy on all Muslim-related activities in New York. However less than a month later, and prior to the ink drying on the dissolution paperwork, the infamous police department is said to still have at least one program that targets Muslims for “belonging to the religion,” reported the Times Sunday.
The program, which began a few years after the deadly attack on the World Trade Center, is known as the Citywide Debriefing Team. The group consists of detectives who search New York’s arrest records for people from predominately Muslim countries and those with “Arabic-sounding names.” The detectives then question those arrestees — most are brought in for minor crimes like traffic violations and petty theft — and try to convert them into police informants.
According to documents obtained by the New York Times, the Citywide Debriefing Team speaks to imprisoned Muslims about topics related to their religious activities to decipher how active they are within their Muslim communities. Some may believe that the NYPD is overreaching, but the grouped asked questions such as whether they “attended mosque, celebrated Muslim holidays, or had made a pilgrimage to Mecca.” In addition to gathering information about the suspects’ religious, day-to-day lives, the team’s investigators also asked them if they are aware of any suspicious activity among other Muslims. The officers also ask the people they interview whether they would be willing to spy on their fellow Muslims for the NYPD after they are released.
Deputy Commissioner John Miller disagrees with any attempts to disparage his program and said that the interviews were “non-coercive sessions where people had the ability to opt out at any time.” However reports show that these conversations take place while the potential Muslim converts are still in police custody, which many might see as an inherently coercive environment. Moro Said, a limo driver who was arrested after pulling over improperly, recalled being questioned by the group prior to his initial arraignment. Mr. Said told the New York Times that he remembered an officer saying to him, “If you can help us, everything will be O.K.” When Mr. Said asked what the officer wanted in exchange for his help the officer stated, “You just go to the mosque and the cafe and just say to us if somebody is talking about anything, anything suspicious.”
Mr. Said stated that the conversation with the officers was inappropriate and that he felt pressured to work with the authority.
“They’re fishing. You’re in trouble with the law and they are the law… I’m in a situation and they can make it bigger, believe me, they can make it bigger.
Mr. Said reluctantly agreed to inform on his Muslim community he said as a way to “placate the police,” but when a detective called him about a week later to schedule a meeting, he declined, and “then I hang up.”
“I don’t want to be a spy on anybody,” Mr. Said stated in a phone interview. “I hate spying.”
Religion-based profiling has become a normal occurrence at the NYPD on many ethnic groups, but since 9/11, the police department has continued to generate data on Muslims’ praying, eating and shopping habits in an attempt to predict, or get ahead of, “suspicions activity.”
[Photo Credit: Omar Chatriwala]