By Faiza N. Ali
On November 5, 2013, New Yorkers voted overwhelmingly for Bill de Blasio, buying into his vision for a more progressive and fair city. It was de Blasio’s commitment to reform the nation’s largest police department that pulled in a significant percentage of voters from communities of color impacted by the New York Police Department’s most controversial policies like stop and frisk and unwarranted surveillance of Muslims. It was no surprise then that the advocacy world exploded with emails, tweets, and posts in response to the appointment of William Bratton as the next NYPD commissioner. Bratton, who previously ran police departments in Boston and Los Angeles, will return to hold the position of top cop for the second time in New York. Popular for his “broken windows” style of policing, Bratton is known to be all too supportive of the very policies Mayor de Blasio vowed to change.
The de Blasio administration is inheriting a police department from former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Raymond Kelly that has stopped, questioned and frisked over 5 million New Yorkers in the last 12 years. According to the New York Civil Liberties Union, more than 86% of those stopped were black or Latino and about 88% were completely innocent. The dehumanizing experience of stops by the police sends a message that one’s skin color alone is probable cause.
On the west coast, under Bratton’s watch, LA’s stop and frisk program expanded dramatically — 49% to be exact, also disproportionately impacting communities of color. An unapologetic supporter of the policing tactic, Bratton believes, “Any police department in America that tries to function without some form of ‘stop-and-frisk’…is doomed to failure.”
In August, a federal judge ruled NYPD stop and frisks unconstitutional and ordered the department submit to an outside monitor. Despite a stay on the judge’s ruling in Floyd v City of NY issued by the court of appeals in October, de Blasio has promised to withdraw the appeal. In fact, he reiterated his commitment to moving forward with necessary reforms in the appointment of Zachary W. Carter as corporation counsel.
De Blasio is already signaling some changes to the NYPD’s overuse and abuse of stop and frisk, creating a policing framework aimed at curbing racial profiling. Whether that framework extends to other forms of discriminatory policing, including the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program, remains to be seen.
De Blasio and Bratton are taking over a counterterrorism unit, made up of roughly 1,000 officers, that has dedicated many of its resources to conduct widespread surveillance of the Muslim community. Under Commissioner Kelly, the NYPD’s “Demographic Unit” later renamed the “Zone Assessment Unit”, used “rakers” & “mosque crawlers” to monitor over 250 mosques, student groups and businesses, and collect data on 29 “ancestries of interest” void of any criminal suspicion. By the police department’s own admission, zero leads have been produced from years of unwarranted spying.
To the Muslim community, the NYPD’s approach to counterterrorism policing boils down to simply one thing: you are Muslim until proven innocent. By criminalizing an entire faith with its policies, the police department is suppressing constitutionally protected activities like the ability to practice one’s faith and risks chilling free speech. The NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program also alienates and drives a wedge between law enforcement and communities. That breakdown in communication and deepening mistrust compromises the safety of all New Yorkers. A study in 2010 revealed that almost a third of all tips leading to foiled terror plots came from a member of the public. How can community members confide in or seek protection from the very police department that treats them as inherently suspect?
Like the NYPD, law enforcement agencies, both state and federal, have implemented or introduced similar discriminatory policing strategies. In 2007, Bratton and the LAPD introduced a “community mapping” program, almost duplicative of the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program, aimed at identifying “[Muslim] communities…which may be susceptible to violent ideologically based extremism.” Testifying before the U.S. Senate, LAPD’s counterterrorism commanding officer said they would do so by taking a closer look at the “history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic background, socio-economic status, and social interactions” of American Muslims. As criticism and pressure mounted from civil rights groups, Bratton later abandoned the program because the Muslim community “felt that it was inappropriate.” Not because it amounted to profiling.
The LAPD later developed a “Suspicious Activity Reporting” program to collect data on behaviors and activities that may “reveal a nexus to foreign or domestic terrorism.” Under SARs, something as innocuous as taking pictures constitutes “suspicious activity.”
While on the campaign trail, de Blasio said he would end broad surveillance and conduct a review of the intelligence unit. In a nod to reforming stop and frisk, on January 1st at his inauguration, the mayor reiterated his commitment to protecting “the dignity and rights of young men of color, and to give our brave police officers the partnership they need to continue their success in driving down crime.”
Noticeably absent from his post-election remarks was any reference to ending widespread surveillance. Stop and frisk and unwarranted Muslim surveillance are two policies cut from the same cloth—both amount to profiling and are ineffective law enforcement tools. With three pending federal lawsuits challenging the NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program and the implementation of remedies from the landmark Floyd case, Mayor de Blasio certainly has his work cut out for him.
Despite his troubling reputation, at his swearing in ceremony Commissioner Bratton reminded us “police do not act independent of the political leadership.” It is with that, civil rights advocates and community leaders are holding out hope that Mayor de Blasio keeps his campaign promises and brings about necessary reforms that uphold the rights of all New Yorkers.
Faiza N. Ali is a community organizer and police reform activist based in Brooklyn, NY. As the advocacy and civic engagement coordinator at the Arab American Association of NY, she is at the forefront of organizing efforts to end NYPD’s Muslim surveillance program.