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by Peter Moskos

October 17, 2013

The Intellegence of the NYPD's Demographics Unit

I am a day late and a dollar short on this, because these AP reports on the NYPD Intelligence Division "Demographics Unit" came out in 2011 and 2012 (mostly when I was out of the country). The reports are from 2006, but only now am I fully appreciating them. Here's New York Magazine's more recent take on the whole operation. Of course the NYPD has a long tradition of mapping "seditious ethnic groups," so it's not exactly earth-shattering news. (Less traditional is spying on student organization at my school.)

The NYPD went out and collected (very basic) information on groups of Muslim immigrants. Here are the reports on those from Egypt, Syria, and Albania. Some, myself included, might say that the NYPD should know where different groups hang out. Indeed, at a very basic level this should be considered very basic police knowledge. Too bad they get it wrong.

Any actual beat officer would know this information. Just as people who live in the neighborhood do. But apparently the NYPD lacks day-to-day knowledge of the communities they serve and protect, so they have to rely on undercover officers to "rake" the community. This is wrong. As is much of the information the NYPD gathered.

I could have told the NYPD information about the locations in my neighborhood (including a place near me they missed because it's a few blocks away from where "they" usually hang out).

The report expressly says it excluded Egyptian Christians from surveillance. So it's explicitly a religious witch hunt, but the dumb "intel" officers include a lot of Christian places by mistake. Apparently the "rakers" who are supposed to keep us safe from Muslim extremists can't tell the difference between Christians and Muslims. They all look Arab, I suppose.

And the facts about the country in question are so mindlessly copied from the web that we get to read about the "richness of the annual Nile river flood." I'm surprised there wasn't clip art of the pyramids.

Naturally the first place I looked up was the place I know best: Kabab Cafe. The owner, Ali, is a friend of mine.

I can tell you a lot about Kabab Cafe, but I'm not a trained and active "intel" officer. So what did the NYPD's Demographics Unit come up with? For starters, they misspelled the name of the restaurant. It's Kabab with two A's. And they got the address wrong. It's located at 25-12 Steinway. Good work, guys. Maybe next time check out a Zagat Guide.

The "ethnic groups" that might be found at said location of interest? "Egyptian, Palestinians, Syrians, Moroccans, and Lebanese." That's also wrong. Ali does draw a diverse crowd, but his place is not an Arab hangout. Truth be told, at $30 to $50 per person, this place is kind of pricey for Queens. If I had to categorize, I'd say those who dine at Kabab Cafe are predominantly "hipsters" and "Jews."

And the "local flyers and community events posted inside"? No. Not there. Unless you think that's what the anti-Mubarak poster is.

The NYPD lists my friend as an "Egyptian male." That's arguably correct, even though he's non-religious and has been an American citizen longer than I've been alive.

It's amazing that so much incorrect information can be packed into just 35 words of "intel"!

But that's not all. The business is listed as a "take-out restaurant," which happens to be wrong. If you ask politely Ali will do take-out, but it's not really his gig.

You'd learn a lot more reading about his restaurant in the New York Times or New York Magazine. Or perhaps you saw Ali on TV, as he was featured in Anthony Bourdain and Andrew Zimmern's TV show . He also starred in an episode of Jammie Oliver's American Road Trip (an episode that also features my wife, just braggin').

Across Steinway Street is another place, listed as "Egyptian Cafe." My wife tells me that's not the name of the place, which is clearly written in Arabic. But my wife reads Arabic, which apparently the "rakers" didn't (though maybe they did, in which case they're just really really stupid). Also, this Queens location is listed as being in Brooklyn.

Why is Kabab Cafe a "location of interest"? Naturally, "detectives gravitated toward the best food." I would. New York reported:

It nagged [Lieutenant] Berdecia to see his talented detectives sitting around eating kebabs and buying pastries, hoping to stumble onto something. If it was worth writing up a report, it was worth conducting an investigation. “It irritated me to send a lot of second-grade detectives and first-grade detectives to sit in coffee shops with nothing going on. If we hear something, then let’s do more proactive police work. Let’s run plates. Let’s follow guys.” But as the years passed under Berdecia’s supervision, the Demographics Unit never built a single case. “It was a bunch of bullshit,” Berdecia said.
Now of course my friend isn't a terrorist, and he's got nothing to hide. So no harm done, right? Except the information gathered by the NYPD is completely and comically wrong. And that is potentially harmful.

So I don't know what bothers me more, that the NYPD spies on people solely on their perceived religion and nothing else, or that the NYPD has done so with such complete and total incompetence. I mean, how can I focus on the morality and constitutionality of the Demographics Unit if they can't even spell the names right and write down the correct address?!

But short of some fact checking (have they heard of google?), this police work should not be done undercover. No police work should be done undercover unless it has to be. Not only does does a uniform or badge make the difference between honest police work and a secret state security apparatus, but undercover officers are less effective. If you want basic information, you need a beat cop (or a resident) who has an eye, an ear, and half a brain.

But how, you might say, would police discover terrorist plots while walking the beat in uniform? Good question. First, good people might actually talk to police, if only they saw police to talk to. This is how the NYPD foiled the 1997 subway bombing that wasn't. People snitch. This is how most big arrests are made. And it's a bit harder to feel the love if you're being spied on, which is what you call secret police work based on no actual suspicion of criminal wrong doing.

Second, the secret Demographic Unit didn't uncover any plots. The latter point is important -- perhaps not a moral and constitutional level -- but certainly an operational and police level.

The only actual "intel" from this report seems to be which of these places believed to be run by or cater to Muslims watch Arabic-language Al-Jezeera news on TV. Well, I hate to break it to you Fox News believers, but Al-Jezeera is an actual news channel. And truth be told, it's a pretty good one.

Just because Al-Jezeera has an Arabic name does not mean it is a terrorist organization. That might be the real take-home lesson.

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