(Today's guest post is by Jennifer Hunt, author of "Seven Shots". You can read our review here. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.
Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)
The day after the World Trade Center disaster on 9/12, 2001, I got on the subway near 59th street. I was relieved to discover that there weren’t police or soldiers, armed with rifles and submachine guns, asking to see IDs. Democracy was intact. New York hadn’t turned into a police state.
These days I’m not so sure.
The NYPD and Democracy
“I’ve never seen anything like this in more than twenty years on the job. It’s a police state down here!” My friend in the NYPD told me over the phone. It was the summer of 2004. He was calling from his post at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan. I was ensconced in my apartment in Morningside Heights.
Having been warned by police friends that chaos could rein in midtown, I didn’t go out. By this time, I was beginning to question the police commissioner’s leadership and some of the changes he’d instituted.
Before the convention, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had authorized detectives from the Intelligence Division to spy on nonviolent groups in other states without the knowledge of local cops and in violation of the law. During the RNC, he had approved mass arrests of peaceful demonstrators and any civilian who happened to be passing by. Nets were used to help capture large groups and transport them to a makeshift detention center until after the convention was through.
Although 90% of the arrests that took place during the RNC were thrown out of court, the NYPD continued to take photographs of peaceful protest groups. Later, the city denied the rights of nonviolent demonstrators to march against the war in Iraq in Central Park, a location that had a history of peaceful protest since the 1960’s, at least.
The police actions around 2004 and after effectively stifled dissent. Protesters were arrested or not allowed to march or gather in mass. As a result, the media could not capture their image and spread it across the globe.
Black-ops in the NYPD?
According to police journalist Lenny Levitt in a recent column, David Cohen, the CIA transplant who Kelly bought in to head the Intelligence Division, appears to have developed a squad officers who are allowed to act above the law. One of Levitt’s sources suggests that a “mini-CIA [exists] within a municipal agency without the safeguards to ensure that it does not break the law….What mechanisms are in place to ensure that the NYPD does not become a rogue organization?”
Detectives in Intelligence have been sent to other countries to gather “real time” intelligence, duplicating efforts by the FBI and escalating tensions with U.S agencies that have jurisdiction overseas.
In an incident in 2009, the NYPD undermined an FBI investigation of a serious Al Qaeda plot and forced the premature arrest of some of the conspirators. This included Najibullah Zazi who drove to New York City, planning to join his friends and detonate bombs in the subway. Without informing the FBI, officers in the NYPD’s Intelligence Division contacted one of its informants and showed him a picture of Zazi. The informant then tipped off Zazi to the NYPD’s inquiries, prompting him to abort the plot. The FBI only learned of the NYPD’s interference because it had wire-tapped Zazi’s father’s phone and thus heard the warning call.
Despite the presence of multiple NYPD units 24-7 in the summer of 2010, a van carrying explosives entered the Times Square area undetected by police. Fortunately, the bombs didn’t detonate but turned to smoke and venders alerted the police. The FBI took over from there.
There are some practical solutions that would help address some of the problems that are plaguing the intelligence and counterterrorism efforts in the NYPD today, although politics will inhibit their being realized anytime soon.
l. Replace David Cohen as Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence. We do not need “a spook” in a position of power in the NYPD. There are other intelligence experts who respect the limits of law and can better negotiate important relations between local police and federal agencies. Communication and the sharing of intelligence.
2. Ray Kelly should step down. Kelly has been police commissioner for three consecutive terms. He has become besotted with his own power and influence and he is responsible for authorizing Cohen’s every move.
3. The Justice Department should begin an investigation of the NYPD Intelligence Division to determine if its bosses have ordered detectives to take action that violate the constitution and other state and federal laws.
4. Create transparency in the NYPD. Since Kelly took office in the wake of 9/11, the NYPD has been closed to scholars and journalists who are not willing to write what he wants the public to know.
5. Recognize that New York has a history of terrorism that proceeded 9/11. At some point there will be another terrorist attack. However, the victory for terrorists will not come from more lives lost but from the way such acts have effectively undermined democratic policing in New York. Let us do what we can to maximize preparedness for terrorism while maintain a democratic police.
Jennifer Hunt PhD is a sociologist and the author of Seven Shots An NYPD Raid on a Terrorist Cell and its Aftermath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). In addition to Seven Shots, she has written a book on ethnography and numerous articles in scholarly journals and popular magazines.