Tag Archives: The Demographics Unit

Monday Long Read: The NYPD Division of Un-American Activities

Photo via New York Magazine

This New York Magazine feature about the Big Brother-esque eye on the NYC Muslim community reminds us that Stop And Frisk isn’t all that’s wrong with the NYPD:

The Demographics Unit began simply enough, with a copy of the 2000 U.S. Census. The information was public, and the police used the data the way any sociologist could. They mapped, looking for 28 “ancestries of interest.” Nearly all were Muslim. There were Middle Eastern and South Asian countries such as Pakistan, Iran, Syria, and Egypt. Former Soviet states like Uzbekistan and Chechnya were included because of their large Muslim populations. The last “ancestry” on the list was “American Black Muslim.”

At the NYPD, Cohen enjoyed an advantage he’d never had as a CIA analyst: a pool of recruits drawn from New York’s own neighborhoods. The FBI and CIA struggled to recruit native Arabic speakers, in part because it was prohibitively difficult for applicants with strong overseas ties to get security clearances. The NYPD didn’t have that problem. The police force had long been a stepping-stone to the middle class for immigrants. One in five Academy graduates was born overseas. So when Cohen went searching for officers who could blend in to Muslim neighborhoods, he didn’t have to look far. He recruited young Middle Eastern officers who spoke Arabic, Bengali, Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. They would be the ones raking the coals, looking for hot spots, and they became known as “rakers.”

Every day, the rakers set out from the Brooklyn Army Terminal, where the Demographics Unit was based, and visited businesses in teams of two. Their job was to look like any other young men stepping in off the street.

The routine was almost always the same, whether they were visiting a restaurant, deli, barbershop, or travel agency. The two rakers would enter and casually chat with the owner. The first order of business was to determine his ethnicity and that of the patrons. This would determine which file the business would go into. A report on Pakistani locations, for instance, or one on Moroccans. Next, they’d do what the NYPD called “gauging sentiment.” Were the patrons observant Muslims? Did they wear traditionally ethnic clothes, likeshalwar kameez? Were the women wearing hijabs?

If the Arabic news channel Al Jazeera was playing on the TV, the police would note it and observe how people were acting. Were they laughing, smiling, or cheering at reports of U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan? Did they talk Middle Eastern politics? If the business sold extremist literature or CDs, the officers would buy one or two. Was the owner selling fake I.D.’s or untaxed cigarettes? Police would note it. If customers could rent time on a computer, police might pay for a session and look at the computer’s search history. Were people viewing jihadist videos or searching for bomb-making instructions? Who was speaking Urdu? Read More