NEW YORK — Many of the plainclothes police detectives involved in the New York Police Department’s covert program to spy on Muslims continue to defend its usefulness, if not for the Demographics Unit’s ability to uncover a terrorism lead—which the department admits it never had—then for the “religious journey” it provided.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Associated Press first exposed the department’s attempts to map Muslim “hotspots” and eavesdrop on their conversations in 2011. Since then, outrage from the Islamic community, two federal lawsuits, and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign to rein in police overreach has led the NYPD’s new commissioner to shutter the unit, which later became known as the Zone Assessment Unit.
Others see the unit’s work in a different light. Raymond Kelly, the city’s former police commissioner, has argued that the surveillance was completely legal and helped the department obtain “contextual information about what was going on in the city.”
Kelly claims that the information gleaned by informants known as “mosque crawlers,” who surveilled religious sermons for the department, completely changed his thinking on Islam.
“I found in the religion a sense of purpose and fulfillment I had never before experienced, a real conversion” the former police commissioner who now goes by the name of Raymond X told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.
“I think we have a very strong working relationship with the—certainly the Muslim community. I have a group that we meet with on a regular basis, of opinion formers,” he continued. “We meet in a mosque and talk about the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, upon him peace and blessings.”
X indicated that he was not alone in his religious rebirth. At least six others in the unit, which typically consisted of about a dozen members, took from their pilgrimage through the places where Muslims eat, pray, learn, and shop a more intimate snapshot of Islamic life.
“The Zone Assessment Unit may be no more, but the understanding it brought has forever bound us together as followers of Islam and bona fide members of the community,” said one officer.
Mayor de Blasio said that dismantling the unit represented “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,” and, he hopes, “help them find the one true religion of God.”