The New York Police Department has abandoned a secretive program that dispatched plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped, the department said.
The decision by the nation’s largest police force to shutter the controversial surveillance program represents the first sign that William J. Bratton, the department’s new commissioner, is backing away from some of the post-9/11 intelligence-gathering practices of his predecessor. The Police Department’s tactics, which are the subject of two federal lawsuits, drew criticism from civil rights groups and a senior official with the Federal Bureau of Investigation who said they harmed national security by sowing mistrust for law enforcement in Muslim communities.
To many Muslims, the squad, known as the Demographics Unit, was a sign that the police viewed their every action with suspicion. The police mapped communitiesinside and outside the city, logging where customers in traditional Islamic clothes ate meals and documenting their lunch-counter conversations.
“The Demographics Unit created psychological warfare in our community,” said Linda Sarsour, of the Arab American Association of New York. “Those documents, they showed where we live. That’s the cafe where I eat. That’s where I pray. That’s where I buy my groceries. They were able to see their entire lives on those maps. And it completely messed with the psyche of the community.”
Ms. Sarsour was one of several advocates who met last Wednesday with Mr. Bratton and some of his senior staff members at Police Headquarters. She and others in attendance said the department’s new intelligence chief, John Miller, told them that the police did not need to work covertly to find out where Muslims gather and indicated the department was shutting the unit down.
The Demographics Unit, which was renamed the Zone Assessment Unit in recent years, has been largely inactive since Mr. Bratton took over in January, the department’s chief spokesman, Stephen Davis, said. The unit’s detectives were recently reassigned, he 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,” Mr. Davis said. “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.”
The department’s change in approach comes as the federal government reconsiders and re-evaluates some of its own post-9/11 policies. Although the police department’s surveillance program was far smaller in scope than, say, the bulk data collection by the National Security Agency, a similar recalibration seems to be unfolding.
The Demographics Unit was the brainchild of the Central Intelligence Agency officer Lawrence Sanchez, who helped establish it in 2003 while working at the Police Department and while he was still on the spy agency’s payroll.
The goal was to identify the mundane locations where a would-be terrorist could blend into society. Plainclothes detectives looked for “hot spots” of radicalization that might give the police an early warning about terrorist plots. The squad, which typically consisted of about a dozen members, focused on 28 “ancestries of interest.”
Detectives were told to chat up the employees at Muslim-owned businesses and “gauge sentiment” about America and foreign policy. Through maps and photographs, the police noted where Albanian men played chess in the afternoon, where Egyptians watched soccer and where South Asians played cricket.
After years of collecting information, however, the police acknowledged that it never generated a lead. Since The Associated Press published documentsdescribing the program in 2011, Muslims and civil rights groups have called for its closing.
Mr. Bratton has said that he intends to try to heal rifts between the Police Department and minority communities that have felt alienated as a result of policies pursued during the Bloomberg administration. The meeting last week put Mr. Bratton in the room with some of his department’s harshest critics.
“This is the first time we’ve felt that comfort sitting with them,” said Ahmad Jaber, who resigned from the Police Department’s Muslim advisory board last year to protest the surveillance tactics. “It’s a new administration, and they are willing to sit with the community and listen to their concerns.”
The Demographics Unit was one aspect of a broad intelligence-gathering effort. In addition, informants infiltrated Muslim student groups on college campuses and collected the names, phone numbers and addresses of those who attended. Analysts trawled college websites and email groups to keep tabs on Muslim scholars and who attended their lectures.
The police also designated entire mosques as suspected “terrorism enterprises,” a label that the police claimed allowed them to collect the license plate numbers of every car in mosque parking lots, videotape worshipers coming and going, and record sermons using informants wearing hidden microphones.
As a candidate, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “deeply troubled” by the tactic of surveilling mosques. Despite investigations that stretched for years, the Police Department’s efforts never led to charges that a mosque or an Islamic organization was itself a terrorist enterprise.
The future of those programs remains unclear. The former police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, has said his efforts were lawful and helped protect the city from terrorist attacks. Last month, a federal judge in New Jersey dismissed a lawsuit over the department’s surveillance there, saying Muslims could not prove they were harmed by the tactics.
Two other federal lawsuits continue to challenge the department’s tactics. One legal claim has been brought under a civil rights case that dates back to the Police Department’s surveillance of student groups and protesters in the 1960s and 1970s. Martin Stolar, one of the lawyers who brought that claim, maintains that the post-9/11 surveillance programs violate the court order in that case. A judge has not yet ruled on that question.
Like Muslim community leaders, Mr. Stolar said he wanted to see exactly what the department had planned. Police officials have changed the name of the program before, he said.
“I want them to say that they’re getting rid of not just the unit, but the kind of policing that the unit did,” Mr. Stolar said. “Is it still going to be blanket surveillance of where Muslims hang out? Are they going to stop this massive surveillance?”
Based on Mr. Davis’s remarks, the Police Department appears to be moving its policies closer to those of the F.B.I. Both agencies are allowed to use census data, public information and government data to create detailed maps of ethnic communities.
The F.B.I. is prohibited, however, from eavesdropping on and documenting innocuous conversations that would be protected by the First Amendment. F.B.I. lawyers in New York determined years ago that agents could not receive documents from the Demographics Unit without violating federal rules.
Until Mr. Stolar’s case is decided, the police may not destroy any of the Demographic Unit files, he said. Beyond that decision, the future of the documents is unclear.
Mr. de Blasio said in a statement Tuesday that the closing of the unit was “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.”