When Bratton quit Muslim mapping

when-bratton-quit-muslim-mapping
William Bratton. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
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In the fall of 2007, amid an uproar over his plan to construct a detailed map of the city's Muslim community, Los Angeles police commissioner Bill Bratton publicly abandoned the program, just two weeks after a top deputy had touted its importance in a hearing before the U.S. Senate.

“We will never do anything to the Muslim community, we will only do things with the Muslim community,” Bratton told a group of Muslim community leaders the day he announced his decision, recalled Salam al-Marayati, president and founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who attended the meeting.

For Bratton, who was tapped last week as the next commissioner of the New York Police Department, the abrupt shift represented a commitment to his own ideals of community policing, and the importance of maintaining good relations with an important subset of L.A.'s minority population.

Bratton's decision to scrap the program would seem to signal a substantive contrast with Ray Kelly, the current NYPD commissioner, who has also preached the need to connect with local communities, and was once seen as a forerunner of community policing, before he became a target of criticism in this year's Democratic primary for mayor.

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The LAPD program, outlined by one of Bratton's top lieutenants in a 2007 hearing before the Senate's Homeland Security Committee, echoed a more comprehensive program that was already quietly underway in New York.

“We probably have over 700,000 American Muslims throughout the Los Angeles region but we don’t really know where they live, or what they do or how they’re structured," testified Michael Downing, the LAPD’s commanding officer for Counterterrorism and Special Operations. "We have great outreach and we’ve got great relationships, but the idea here is to actually map out, to find out where the Pakistani Muslims live, the Somalians, the Chechnyans, the Jordanians.”

In the hearing on Oct. 30, 2007, Downing described a mapping project that would essentially serve two purposes: help the LAPD gather intelligence to prevent a terrorist attack, but also, help the department minimize the influence of “extremists” who could prey on angry, isolated Muslims.

The LAPD planned to do this by infusing government resources and social service programs into Muslim neighborhoods, Downing said, as a means of preventing the kind of alienation and resentment seen in European cities where Muslims clustered in what amounted to ghettos. In the process, the LAPD also wanted to form a bond with Muslims, and promote the idea that they shared a responsibility for preventing terrorism, he said.

“American Muslim neighborhoods and communities have a genuine responsibility in preventing any form of extremism and terrorism,” Downing said. He added, “we have aligned our resources to focus on the motivational side of the terrorist equation,” and “raising the moderate Muslim voice to prevent extremists from making inroads.”

The proposed “extensive community mapping project” could be “a pilot project for what the rest of the nation could look like,” Downing told senators.

Downing also endorsed a controversial, and expensive project already underway in New York: stationing local police officials in cities around the world in order to bring home valuable intelligence the federal government might not be passing along to local law enforcement.

“I know New York is criticized for having their people out in foreign lands, but I think it’s a good idea because it gives a local perspective that the federal government does not have here," he said. "If they’re in Jordan, what is the intelligence in Jordan telling them about the local community in New York? And that’s what’s so crucial to us.”

At the time, Kelly's aggressive international efforts were generally known, but the extent of the NYPD's surveillance of the local Muslim community was not.

Kelly's spokesman initially denied that an NYPD unit was specifically dedicated to surveilling Muslim communities in the New York area. Later, following a series of Pulitzer prize-winning stories by the Associated Press, Kelly defended the program by saying it was part of a broader, proactive approach to preventing another terrorist attack.

Kelly has not announced any changes to that program in response to criticism from local leaders, including some in the Muslim community.

A spokeswoman for de Blasio who is fielding inquiries for Bratton declined to say whether his decision on the mapping program factored into his vetting for the NYPD job, and said no final decision has been made about the surveillance operation, stationing NYPD officials overseas, or any related program.

During the campaign, de Blasio initially supported Kelly's efforts, before signaling his skepticism about the program.

In April, de Blasio said “I spent a lot of time with Commissioner Kelly reviewing the situation and I came to the conclusion the NYPD had handled it in a legal and appropriate manner with the right checks and balances.” He said he would also monitor it going forward.

In September, days before the primary, de Blasio changed his position, following the latest A.P. story, saying, “We have not been leveled by the NYPD,” and that “the kind of surveillance happening is much broader and not based on specific leads.” He added, “anything that is not based on specific leads should not continue.”

In his decision on the LAPD program, Bratton seemed more closely aligned with de Blasio's subsequent position than Kelly's reflexive defense of the program.

Sixteen days after Downing's testimony, Bratton declared the program "dead on arrival."

According to a press release, Bratton said “it would have required shared cooperation between the Department and members of the Muslim community” and that cooperation simply wasn't forthcoming.

The LAPD had hoped that the two goals could coexist.

During the hearing, one senator asked if the stated goal of socializing Muslim residents into civic life would be undermined if LAPD officials were also gathering intelligence. 

“We were right up front and told them we’re not out here to knock on your door to have you tell us about terrorism, who wants to do bad things to good people," Downing testified. "We’re here, we want to talk to you about what community problems can we solve in your neighborhood: the trees trimmed, the potholes filled, the lighting good. We want to integrate you in our advisory boards, our neighborhood watch programs, business chambers of commerce that’s the kind of dialogue we’re having.”

On November 9, Downing pressed his case further. He told the Los Angeles Times “We are seeking to identify at-risk communities.” The story was headlined: “LAPD to build data on Muslim Areas.”

Although he told the senators the outreach to Muslim had been underway for 18 months, Downing told the paper that “physically the work was not begun” in terms of generating maps.

On November 15, Bratton held a press conference to announce the mapping program would not commence.

Shakeel Syed, executive director of the Shura Council of Southern California, was one of many in attendance for a meeting with Bratton that day. He told Capital he learned of the mapping program from the L.A. Times story, even though he had been in regular contact with the LAPD, as an active participant in the community relationships Bratton had touted.

A week before the mapping story, Syed said he had lunch with Jim McDonnell, “one of [Bratton’s] top assistants at the Los Angeles Police Department,” according to the paper, and the issue never came up.

Syed also said he met with Downing to voice his opposition to the program, and Downing defended the program as constitutional.

“I walked out," said Syed, who is an outspoken defender of the Muslim community.

I asked Salam al-Marayati, the president and founder of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who also attended the Nov. 15 meeting with Bratton, how much pressure was applied before the LAPD cancelled the mapping program.

“Was there opposition? Absolutely,” he said.

“My point is: Bratton listened," he added, without prompting. "Unlike Ray Kelly or other people in the NYPD, where there was never an effort to get feedback in the community.”

Al-Marayati, whose group has the stated purpose of helping Muslims integrate into American society, said in the wake of the mapping debate, the LAPD created the Chiefs Muslim Forum, which holds public forums so police and Muslim residents can communicate.

“Even though the mapping was a difficult time, it proved community engagement was Bratton’s policy,” he said.