“Local, state and federal law enforcement agencies all have divisions that target threats like drugs, gangs, human trafficking, and organized crime. … In New York City, Mayor de Blasio succumbed to unfounded criticisms and eliminated the efforts of law enforcement to work with Muslim communities to stop radical Islamic terrorism.”
— Cruz spokeswoman Alice Stewart, statement clarifying Cruz’s statement, March 22, 2016
Terrorism and the threat of extremist groups are back in the spotlight of the presidential campaign, following the March 22 terrorist attacks in Brussels. The Islamic State asserted responsibility for the three explosions that left more than 30 people dead.
In response to the attacks, Cruz called on police in the United States to “patrol and secure” Muslim neighborhoods. When his comment drew criticism, specifically from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, his campaign pointed to the New York Police Department’s practice after 9/11 of spying on Muslim communities for potential terrorist activities. Then the campaign criticized New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for shuttering the surveillance program, saying he “succumbed to unfounded criticisms” and “eliminated the efforts” of NYPD to work with Muslim communities.
How accurate is this characterization?
In 2011, the Associated Press revealed that the Demographics Unit in NYPD’s intelligence division was covertly monitoring Muslim neighborhoods and watching mosques for the “likelihood of them being infiltrated by al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and other terrorist groups.”
NYPD mapped out the city into zones based on Census data, and matched undercover officers to blend into ethnic communities. Undercover officers and informants eavesdropped on conversations and looked for “hot spots” that indicated signs of radicalization.
The program was shut down in 2014. But it is inaccurate to say that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio “succumbed to unfounded criticisms,” or that it “eliminated” the department’s ability to “work with” the Muslim community.
When the practice was revealed, the NYPD received both praise and criticism. Supporters said the tactics were lawful and kept the city safe. Then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg defended NYPD and the program, and NYPD claimed that the department has helped prevent 14 terrorist plots against New York since 9/11. But ProPublica reported the figure “overstates both the number of serious, developed terrorist plots against New York and exaggerates the NYPD’s role in stopping attacks.” In response to ProPublica’s findings, Bloomberg said “we’ll never know” how many plots the department truly thwarted.
The 14 supposedly-prevented attacks were not specifically related to the surveillance program. In fact, NYPD Assistant Chief Thomas Galati acknowledged in a court testimony that the program never generated a lead or triggered a terrorism investigation, the AP reported in 2012. This information surfaced through Galati’s testimony in a federal civil rights case.
“Related to demographics, I can tell you that information that have come in has not commenced an investigation,” Galati testified. But he said the information provided by the unit “does have value” and its reports contain “a lot of bits and pieces of value, of intelligence value.”
The practice angered Muslims in New York, who sued the city. Earlier this year, NYPD settled the two federal lawsuits claiming Muslims were the target of baseless surveillance and investigations because of their religion. The department did not admit wrongdoing. It agreed to pay about $2 million in attorneys fees, and to oversight measures to make sure it is following guidelines to prevent religious profiling.
Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, said to our Washington Post colleagues the program was “divisive and alienated Muslim communities from law enforcement. The settlement in our case should send a forceful message that discriminatory police practices are unlawful and unnecessary.”
The guidelines include mandatory reviews of terrorism investigations and the appointment of a civilian representative (a lawyer who has never worked for NYPD) who can review terrorism investigations and take concerns to the police commissioner or a federal judge.
The unit was largely inactive and its detectives reassigned by early 2014, when NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton took over and disbanded it. Announcing the closing of the unit in April 2014, de Blasio said the decision 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.”
Cruz’s campaign did not respond to our inquiry for an explanation. De Blasio’s deputy press secretary Monica Klein said the claim is “blatantly false.”
The Pinocchio Test
The Fact Checker takes no stance on the merits of NYPD’s surveillance tactics or Cruz’s proposal to patrol Muslim neighborhoods. But his campaign goes much too far saying de Blasio “succumbed to unfounded criticisms and eliminated the efforts of law enforcement to work with Muslim communities to stop radical Islamic terrorism.”
There are two elements to this claim. First is that de Blasio ended the program because he “succumbed to unfounded criticisms.” There was criticism, and whether it was “unfounded” may be a matter of opinion. But by the time that de Blasio and Bratton shuttered it, it was largely inactive. And over its six years, none of the information collected by the Demographics Unit led to a single case. The Cruz campaign’s characterization makes it seem as though de Blasio disbanded an active program because of the criticism, but that is an inaccurate description.
The second part is that de Blasio’s decision “eliminated the efforts of law enforcement to work with” Muslim communities. But this program actually fractured the police department’s relationship with many in the American Muslim community in New York, and a group of Muslims sued the department over it. On both fronts, this characterization is false, and earns Four Pinocchios.
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