The LAPD on Wednesday abruptly scrapped a program to map the city’s Muslim population, a major retreat for a department that said the system was needed to identify potential hotbeds of extremism.
The reversal comes after a week of protests from Muslim groups and civil libertarians, who equated the mapping with religious profiling. Others questioned whether it was possible for the LAPD to accurately map the city’s far-flung Muslim community.
Los Angeles Police Department Deputy Chief Michael P. Downing said Wednesday that in the wake of the protests, officials would drop the mapping aspect of the plan but continue their efforts to reach out to the Muslim community. Downing and other police officials plan to outline the new strategy to Muslim American activists at a meeting today.
The decision met with praise from some activists, who said they would welcome greater involvement by the LAPD in their communities as long as mapping was off the table.
“Muslim Americans were very disturbed and concerned about the ramifications of the plan and having their privacy invaded,” said Salam Al-Marayati, executive director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Downing’s statement that he’s pulling the plan says the LAPD is very open to positive community engagement, input and participation. It’s the first step to very healthy dialogue between Muslim Americans and the city of Los Angeles.”
The LAPD has not provided details about how it planned to build the Muslim database. But in a document reviewed by The Times last week, the department’s counter-terrorism bureau proposed using U.S. census data and other demographic information to pinpoint Muslim communities and then reach out to them through social service agencies.
Originally, the LAPD planned to partner with USC’s National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events in building the mapping program. But after details of the effort were made public last week, USC officials said they were carefully studying whether to join the endeavor and stressed that no deal had been made.
During Oct. 30 testimony before Congress, Downing described the plan as an attempt to “mitigate radicalization.”
Downing and other law enforcement officials said police agencies around the world are dealing with radical Muslim groups that are isolated from the larger community, creating potential breeding grounds for terrorism. He cited terror cells in Europe as well as the case of some Muslim extremists in New Jersey arrested in May for allegedly planning to bomb Ft. Dix.
But in a statement, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said that “while I believe the department’s efforts to reach out to the Muslim communities were well intentioned, the mapping proposal has created a level of fear and apprehension that made it counterproductive.”
Beyond the issue of “religious profiling,” some critics said it would be impossible for the LAPD to create an accurate map of where Muslims live.
The Census Bureau is barred by law from asking people for their religious affiliation. As a result, there is no scientific data on the size of the nation’s Muslim population, let alone its location, with estimates of totals ranging from about 1.4 million adults in a Pew Research Center study this year to the 7 million or more claimed by some community organizations. Census data on ancestry would also fail to yield accurate Muslim estimates, because large numbers of people with Iranian backgrounds are Jewish and many people with Lebanese, Palestinian and Syrian roots are Christian.
Some critics said the LAPD plan seemed based on the European experience of isolated and often-distressed Muslim enclaves, a model they said doesn’t apply to the United States, where the Muslim population is far more dispersed.
Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said Wednesday that the LAPD’s reversal “shows what community outrage can do. . . . We are going to be watchful that they don’t try again to bring this mapping plan forward with another name.”
The ACLU on Wednesday filed a public records request for details of the mapping project.
Downing and other LAPD officials have stressed for days that the mapping program was not a form of profiling or targeting but rather a way to better understand the Muslim community.
But until Wednesday, the department had stood by the effort and insisted that critics would accept the idea once officials could provide details.
Al-Marayati said he sent a letter to Downing on Monday telling him the plan should be withdrawn before the LAPD’s scheduled meeting today with Muslim American leaders. Then on Wednesday, Al-Marayati said Downing called him to say the LAPD was putting the plan aside. “Unfortunately, I think there’s been damage to the relationship in terms of trust,” Al-Marayati said. “But we feel we can repair that.”
Mary Grady, the LAPD’s public information director, said Wednesday that it made sense to remove the mapping element from the plan. “The whole purpose of this initiative was to bring together the department with the Muslim community” she said. “The word ‘mapping’ gave the impression it was about profiling when it was not.”
Times staff writer Steve Hymon contributed to this report.