The New York City Police Department is curtailing its spying ON the Muslim community, but it will continue spying IN the Muslim community.
And it will do so as part of an ongoing counter-terrorism effort that includes the use of undercovers and confidential informants.
In fact, the department is training more undercovers even now.
So, despite what some may say, the shutdown of the Zone Assessment Unit—previously named the Demographic Unit—is not the first step in dismantling the intelligence operation created under the previous police commissioner, Raymond Kelly.
And, despite what some Kelly fans may fear, the city will not suddenly become more vulnerable to an attack.
In fact, New York may be better defended as the NYPD’s Intelligence Division sharpens its focus on what most demands its attention.
The Zone Assessment Unit has indeed been disbanded. And the plainclothes officers once assigned there will no longer be indiscriminately gathering data on mosques, schools, restaurants, and individuals solely on the basis of their religious affiliation.
But the Intelligence Division itself will be no less energetic when it comes to individuals and groups who appear to merit investigation.
“That’s if you have a reason,” a high-ranking police official said. “A reasonable reason.”
The official compared the change in intelligence strategy to the shift in “stop, question, and frisk” tactics in the street.
Until recently, a policy that measured performance by numbers drove cops to make tens of thousands of stops that were not constitutionally justifiable to conduct.
Similarly, the Zone Assessment Unit gathered huge volumes of intelligence for which there seemed to be no immediate justification.
Both strategies were driven by the same principle.
“More, more, more,” the police official said. “They lost their sense of how to measure these things. They never knew when to pull back.”
And both strategies have been reined in by the new police commissioner, William Bratton.
This does not mean Bratton no longer believes that legitimate stop and frisks are anything but an absolutely essential part of police work. He also believes that legitimate intelligence gathering is vital to keeping New York safe from another terrorist attack.
At the same time, Bratton and the police department are keenly aware that the stakes are considerably higher when it comes to terrorism than it is in everyday crime. The threshold for targeting a possible terrorist is therefore lower than it is for stopping a suspicious person on the street.
“If you miss a gun, maybe you lose a couple of stick-ups,” the official said. “A guy goes down the block with a bomb and two days later he blows up Macy’s.”
The mission itself under Bratton remains the same as it was under Kelly. And, if anything, it is all the more urgent as Islamic extremism appears to be increasing in size and virulence.
The misguided war in Iraq is over and the unwinnable war in Afghanistan is ending, but the threat that was so murderously manifest on 9/11 seems only to have grown as was most recently evidenced by the video that Al Qaeda released on the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing in which the group’s second in command exhorts a crowd of followers in Yemen to mount more attacks on America. The danger is we will become less vigilant, and it is understandable that some people feared that closing the Zone Assessment Unit was a sign that we were letting down our guard for the sake of public relations.
The truth is the NYPD is no less watchful because it is not watching everybody. And the department will still have the U.S. Census data that was the basis for much of the Zone Assessment Unit’s work in the first place.
At the same time, the NYPD is continuing to field undercovers as well as debrief informants. Undercovers are generally more reliable than informants, who are typically motivated by a desire for money or a reduced sentence or both.
“But undercovers do it because they take an oath,” a longtime member of the intelligence division notes.
The undercovers during the Kelly era included one who was sworn in as an officer without even his family knowing and lived a double life for five years before bringing down an Islamic extremist who was recorded saying, “I wanna, like, be the world’s [best] known terrorist.” The officer was only then able to tell his parents and sister that he had been a cop all along. His sister’s response, as was previously reported in The Daily Beast, became part of Intelligence Division legend.
“Oh my God, I thought you were going to tell me you were gay,” the sister exclaimed.
At last report, the former undercover was serving as a handler for other undercovers who continue to lead double lives in the Bratton era.
They all took the same oath and they all place themselves at risk for the same, unchanging reason: so that the rest of the city can proceed through day-to-day life almost as safe as its imagines itself to be.