May 25, 2014

New York City’s police commissioner, William Bratton, made the right decision last month when he said he would disband a unit used by his predecessor, Raymond Kelly, to spy on law-abiding Muslims as they worshiped or patronized businesses in their communities. Beyond proving useless for intelligence purposes, the Demographics Unit undermined the fight against terrorism by alienating Muslims who were understandably angry about being singled out, not for illegal conduct but because of their religious affiliation.

This problem has yet to be fully resolved. As The Times’s Joseph Goldstein reported, the department is still running a program that singles out Muslims in a problematic way, this time to recruit them as informants. The department says the program, run by a squad of detectives euphemistically known as the Citywide Debriefing Team, has led to breaks in important cases. But the department has a long history of trampling on people’s rights during investigations of political activity, while making inflated claims about the value of its intelligence operations.

The program has not yet been challenged in court. But the Federal District Court in Manhattan criticized a similar set of practices more than a decade ago, in a case brought on behalf of protesters who had been swept up in an antiwar demonstration in 2003 in New York City. As in the questioning of Muslims, the police in that case wandered far afield — asking those arrested about their political affiliations, their feelings about the president, their opinions about the war in Iraq. The police also held people in custody for extended periods, so that they could be made available to specific detectives who were not there at the time.

The judge ridiculed the city for describing this obviously coercive arrangement as an innocuous “debriefing,” saying protesters had been subjected to “custodial interrogation” — which meant that steps needed to be taken to protect their rights. The Police Department is right to develop informants that would help them foil terrorist plots. But it would be counterproductive to do so in ways that violate the Constitution or make more people fear the police.

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