After the New York Police Department announced that it was disbanding its Zone Assessment Unit on Tuesday, leaders of Columbia’s Muslim Students Association said they want to use the opportunity to restart dialogue around the surveillance of Muslim students and the administration’s role in protecting students’ privacy.
The Zone Assessment Unit, also known as the Demographics Unit, was one of many divisions within the NYPD that reportedly monitored Muslim residents across the city. Created in collaboration with the CIA following 9/11, officers from the unit followed Muslim residents, eavesdropped on conversations, and tracked where they shopped.
Tuesday’s announcement, however, made no mention of the Cyber Intelligence Unit, which the Associated Press reported in February 2012 regularly checked the websites of Muslim student groups at several Northeastern universities, including Columbia’s MSA. At the time, Barnard President Debora Spar and Columbia President Lee Bollinger both released statements saying they opposed police surveillance of students, but Bollinger was later criticized by the MSA for not providing a University-wide response.
MSA President Hebah Khan, BC ’17, said that she wants the disbandment of the Zone Assessment Unit to act as an impetus for the University to proclaim its protection of students’ privacy from outside surveillance.
“Over the past two years nothing has been said, and this is a moment where we would like the University to reaffirm what they said a couple years ago to ensure that what’s happening and the way that the University deals with it is set,” Khan said.
Former MSA Political Affairs Chair Ramis Wadood, CC ’16 and University senator-elect, said that he wants Public Safety to indicate in its annual report that student surveillance is not accepted on campus. Khan and Wadood were part of a closed-door meeting held by students on Tuesday night to discuss the announcement.
“We want the University to acknowledge and recognize that [the surveillance], and to manifest this position that their stance is against surveillance,” Wadood said.
Daniel Held, executive director of communication for Facilities, which oversees Public Safety, referred an inquiry from Spectator to University President Lee Bollinger’s statements from 2012.
At the time, both Bollinger and Spar said that the schools did not know of or participate in the NYPD’s activities. In an email to students sent on Feb. 24, 2012, Bollinger said there was a need to “reaffirm the University’s commitment to protecting the interests of individual privacy and of free and open discussion on campus.”
Though the Demographics Unit was never reported to have monitored college students, an NYPD statement said that personnel from the unit were reassigned to other duties within the Intelligence Division, which also oversees the Cyber Intelligence Unit.
“Understanding certain local demographics can be a useful factor when assessing information regarding potential threats coming to the attention of the New York City Police Department,” the statement said. “It has been determined that much of the same information previously gathered by the Zone Assessment Unit may be obtained through direct outreach by the NYPD to the communities concerned.”
Wadood said that the disbanding of the unit was “a great step forward that Bill Bratton at the NYPD has taken, but we need to make sure that the disbandment of this unit also means the end of this practice of surveilling Muslims.”
Khan said that she saw the decision as a positive step for the NYPD.
“We are glad that this step was taken and we want to ensure that this is the end to this type of act of religious discrimination,” Khan said.
Still, civil rights activists around the country remain concerned over whether Tuesday’s announcement will actually change NYPD surveillance activities in the city. The department’s statement made no mention about online surveillance of Muslim groups or what will be done with the data that it has already collected.
“It’s kind of a blow to the collective psyche of Muslims both on and off campus that this practice is going on even if we don’t feel it,” Wadood said. “We feel targeted and I guess marginalized as a result of this practice.”
Wadood, however, remains hopeful about the direction of the police department, especially after Commissioner William Bratton took over this year.
“That data existing in itself is uncomfortable. I think that the direction that the Commissioner Bratton is taking with the NYPD will lead to that data not being accessible, it being eliminated,” Wadood said. “I really do have hope that Commissioner Bratton will take the NYPD to a new height, really respecting all of its constituents and the people that they serve.”