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New York police secretly profiled immigrants

The grainy photographs look like they could have come from any undercover police file: A man in jeans talking on his cellphone. Another in a windbreaker walking past patrons at a coffee shop. A car parked outside a grocery store.

But the photos were not part of a criminal case. They were snapped as part of a secret New York Police Department intelligence program that singled out people and businesses based on their ethnicity.

Police documents obtained by the Associated Press show how the city's rich heritage as a place where immigrants can blend in and build their lives now clashes with today's New York, where police see blending in as one of the priorities for would-be terrorists. The documents describe in extraordinary detail an NYPD program to build a database of daily life, cataloging where people ate, worked and prayed.

It started with one group, Moroccans, but the documents show police intended to build intelligence files on other ethnicities.

Undercover officers photographed restaurants frequented by Moroccans, including one that was noted for serving "religious Muslims." Police documented where Moroccans bought groceries. While visiting an apartment used by new Moroccan immigrants, one officer noted in his reports that he saw two Qurans and a calendar from a nearby mosque.

"A lot of these locations were innocent," said an official involved in the effort, who, like many interviewed by the AP, spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive police operations. "They just happened to be in the community."

It was called the Moroccan Initiative.

The goal, officials said, was a database so complete that if police ever received a tip about a Moroccan terrorist, they would have the entire community at their fingertips.

Police monitored the path that generations of immigrants followed: getting an apartment, learning English, finding work, assimilating into the culture. Activities such as haircuts and gym workouts were transformed from mundane daily routines into police data points.

"In America, you don't put people under suspicion without good reason," said Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., who has urged the Justice Department to investigate the NYPD. "The idea that people in a group are suspect because of being members of a group is profiling, plain and simple."

The AP previously revealed the NYPD intelligence unit's efforts to map the Muslim community, monitor ethnic neighborhoods and scrutinize mosques.

Such programs began with help from the CIA under President George W. Bush and have continued with at least the tacit support of President Obama, whose administration repeatedly has sidestepped questions about them. It is unclear whether Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg oversaw the programs. He has refused to comment directly about them.

Documents, many of which were marked "secret," include a list of "Moroccan Locations," with photos and notes from plainclothes officers, known as rakers, who quietly kept tabs on ethnic neighborhoods and eavesdropped on conversations.

"The majority of the customers are religious Muslims," a report on a local sandwich shop said.

Some business owners in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens were frustrated and angry about being included in police documents. "All I want is the best for my daughter and my community and to be treated like a new American citizen," said Sanaa Bergha, whose travel agency was among the businesses photographed.

Using the documents, police located and interviewed Moroccans and, when possible, the families they were visiting. Often, that would take them to the homes of U.S. citizens.

At a barber shop in Queens, Amine Darhbach said he agrees police should keep the city safe. But he also said that, as an American citizen, he feels his business shouldn't be listed in police files just for serving Moroccan customers. Still, like many of his neighbors who grew up under the oppressive police forces of the Middle East and North Africa, he said things could be worse.

"In Morocco," he said, "police just come and take you away."