John Whitehead's Commentary
New York City: Prototype of the American Police State?
“I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world. I have my own State Department, much to Foggy Bottom’s annoyance. We have the United Nations in New York, and so we have an entree into the diplomatic world that Washington does not have.”—Michael Bloomberg, Mayor of New York
“There are no safeguards to ensure that the NYPD doesn’t break the law. So far as I know, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure that the NYPD does not become a rogue organization.”—Leonard Levitt, author of NYPD Confidential: Power and Corruption in the Nation’s Greatest Police Force
New York City has long been celebrated as the cultural capital of the world, renowned for its art, music and film. Presently, however, the “city that never sleeps” is serving as the staging ground for a futuristic police state operated, in large part, by Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Police Department (NYPD). Although the NYPD was recognized for its countless acts of bravery during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the department has gained notoriety in recent years for its overt racial profiling, a spying program which targets Muslim communities and political activists, and a stop-and-frisk program that has targeted more than 4 million New Yorkers—the majority of whom were black or Latino and had done nothing wrong—over the course of the past seven years.
Boasting a $4.5 billion budget, a counterterrorism unit that includes 35,000 uniformed police officers and 15,000 civilians, and a $3 billion joint operations center with representatives from the FBI, FEMA, and the military, the NYPD operates much like an autonomous Department of Homeland Security—only without the constraints of the Constitution.
The capabilities of the department are astounding. The NYPD has radiation detectors on their boats, helicopters, and officers’ belts that are so sensitive they alert officers to citizens who have had radiation treatment for medical reasons. Moreover, the NYPD has a $150 million surveillance system, a network of 2000+ cameras, which is monitored by an advanced computer system. This computer system can detect suspicious packages and perform tasks such as pulling up all recorded images of someone wearing a red shirt, thus streamlining the process of tracking New Yorkers. The NYPD’s latest toy is Terahertz Imaging Detection, which allows police officers to peek under people’s clothing as they walk the streets. The NYPD cooperated with the US Department of Defense in creating this portable scanning technology. The NYPD even has the capability to take down an aircraft should the need arise.
The NYPD not only employs the latest technologies but also utilizes crackdowns and scare tactics that keep New Yorkers in a state of compliance. A 60 Minutes report describes the police state atmosphere: “At random, 100 police cars will swarm part of town just to make a scene. It happens with complete unpredictability. Cops signal subway trains to stop to be searched. And sometimes they hold the trains until they've eyeballed every passenger.”
One increasingly invasive NYPD tactic is the practice of stopping and frisking everyday people on the street without any evidence of wrongdoing. These activities are a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. In 2011 alone, 684,330 people were stopped and frisked by the police, a 14% increase since 2010. 88% were totally innocent. 59% were black. 26% were Latino. 9% were white. 41% of the stops were men of color between the ages of 14 and 24, but they only account for 7.2% of the city’s population. Less than one percent of the stops led to an arrest for firearm possession. The fact that the vast majority of people stopped are racial minorities indicates that the NYPD is executing a punitive policy against regular New Yorkers based upon racial profiling.
The radical increase in stop-and-frisks has occurred entirely under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s watch. In his first year in office, fewer than 100,000 people were stopped. That number has now ballooned to over 600,000 per year. Yet the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy is not its only controversial program. The Associated Press recently released a report documenting the NYPD’s expansive and illegal spying program which has targeted Muslim communities in and around New York in the years following 9/11.
Despite the fact that the city explicitly forbids profiling based upon religion, police officers in New York initiated a spying program which includes amassing data on New York Muslims, such as where they buy groceries and which cafes they visit. The NYPD relies on so-called “mosque crawlers” that document the activities at mosques and “rakers” that spy on Muslims in cafes and bookstores within the Muslim community. Documents discussing rakers have often been shredded by the police so as to avoid public knowledge of the program. And the NYPD has attempted to forcibly recruit informants by fabricating reasons to pull people over in Pakistani neighborhoods and threatening them with arrest unless they comply with police demands to become informants. Ethnic officers as well have been instructed to surreptitiously blend in with local communities.
The NYPD has also spied on an academy for African-American Muslim children in 1st through 4th grades. Incredibly, the program was modeled in part on how Israeli intelligence operates in the West Bank. Based upon information from the program, the NYPD prepared an analytical report on all the mosques within a 100-mile radius of NYC. Yale, Columbia, and Rutgers, among other universities, have opposed the program, which also involves having police infiltrate Muslim student groups. During the spy program, FBI agents were actually directed not to accept intelligence gathered by NYPD officers, because if the FBI pursued such a program, it would be a violation of federal law.
There was, however, a degree of collusion between the federal government and the NYPD in executing the spy program. Federal money intended for the War on Drugs helped fund the program, though the White House claims that since the money was simply a grant, it has no responsibility for what happened to it once it left federal coffers. Also, despite the fact that the CIA is not allowed to spy on Americans, CIA operatives helped set up the program.
Outside of spying on innocent people, the NYPD is also infamous for its crackdowns on protesters. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, 1,806 protestors were arrested, but most of the arrests were thrown out of court and the subsequent litigation cost the city $8 million. More recently, when Occupy Wall Street protestors were cleared out of Zucotti Park on November 15, 2011, the NYPD prevented the media from accessing the park. Police asked to see press credentials (which are not necessary for public areas such as Zucotti) and those who showed their press credentials were herded off into a penned in area. Later on, a photographer tried to take a picture of a bloodied protestor being dragged away by police, only to have officers slam a barricade into his body while telling him that he wasn’t allowed to take photos.
As with any other police force, NYPD suffers from a fair amount of corruption. One officer, Michael Dargjati, was arrested for a racially motivated stop-and-frisk and false arrest of a black man on Staten Island. He had allegedly been caught bragging to a female friend that he had “fried another nigger… no big deal.” Officer Stephen Anderson as well admitted in court to routinely planting drugs on people so as to meet department quotas, a practice that he claimed was common amongst police officers. And in 2011, 12 people, including five NYC police officers, were arrested for smuggling $1 million worth of cigarettes, guns, and slot machines into the city.
In short, the civil liberties of all those, including tourists, who walk the New York streets, particularly if they belong to ethnic and religious minorities, are being trampled upon in order to maintain an illusion of safety. NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, like many other government officials, uses the specter of terrorism to haunt the citizens of New York, in order to justify his department’s disregard for civil liberties. Kelly says, “What we’re trying to do is save lives, and the tactics and strategies that we’ve used on the streets of this city have indeed saved lives.” As of May 2011, 89% of New Yorkers approve of these heavy-handed tactics.
But some New Yorkers can see the dangerous leviathan that is wrapping its tentacles around the Bill of Rights. Representative Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn notes, “We’re quickly moving to an apartheid situation here in the city of New York where we don’t recognize the civil liberties and the civil rights of all New Yorkers.” Without a massive response to the NYPD abuse, Americans will most likely see the rise of rogue police organizations all across the country as civil liberties are thrown aside in favor of brute government force.
One thing is for sure: what’s happening in New York illustrates how easily people are led into the illusion that security should trump freedom. However, as past regimes illustrate, such security measures eventually become tools of terror against the citizens themselves.