Wednesday, October 10, 2012
NYPD, Spying, and Civil Liberties
The writer Michael Greenberg has a pair of very good articles this month (Oct. 11 & 25) in the N.Y. Review of Books on the NYPD and especially its Intelligence Division. The office is essentially a clandestine spying operation rebuilt in the wake of 9/11 to focus primarily on potential “home grown” domestic “lone wolves,” rather than members of established terrorist groups that federal authorities concentrate on.
Greenberg raises some good questions about this operation, with a thoughtful recognition that we can never really know how much good such operations do, especially how much harm they prevent. In the second article he describes the three prosecutions that the NYPD unit takes explicit credit for, noting that all three are problematic in multiple ways: all three involved mentally deficient defendants with whom undercover agents established long relationships that raise questions of entrapment. The FBI and federal prosecutors declined to get involved in two, concluding the suspects posed little threat.
Additionally, he describes and questions the attention devoted by the NYPD, through its intelligence unit and more broadly, to the Occupy Wall Street protesters and even journalists and observers who seem sympathetic to it. (He also notes woefully self-defeating tactics by OWS activists in refusing to negotiate with the NYPD for parade permits and the like.) I take away from this account a reminder of the difficulty in assessing the balance of intrusive security strategies and civil liberties; the enduring tendency of bureaucracies to justify themselves and seek new projects and problems; and the importance of internal professional culture as well as outside monitoring in keeping such units within proper bounds.
Worrisomely, the NYPD seems a good example of why *democratic* monitoring per se isn’t necessarily a reliable check. Public opinion strongly supported the NYPD’s clandestine operations in New Jersey once they came to light (and briefly drew criticism from Gov. Christie, until the polling data came out). And regarding an NYPD practice that Greenberg does not mention but which is well known—aggressive street frisks of young minority men for weapons and pot—popular/political/democratic pressure have done little to change NYPD practice.
Posted by Darryl Brown on October 10, 2012 at 08:32 AM | Permalink
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Self-defeating or doomed to failure? I read recently that OWS has tried to secure permits, but the police don't negotiate in good faith. The explanation was that after the G20 protests in Seattle, police decided that protesters needed to be suppressed not managed.
Posted by: Repeating Hearsay | Oct 10, 2012 9:24:04 PM
That may well be; I only know what Greenberg reports, and he doesn't seem overly sympathetic to the NYPD. He quotes the ACLU's Norm Siegel, who has negotiated for many protest groups with the NYPD, and Siegel suggests that OWS missed opportunities by refusing to negotiate with those "in power."
Posted by: Darryl Brown | Oct 11, 2012 4:36:17 AM
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