Commentary Magazine


Topic: William Bratton

Turning a Blind Eye to Homegrown Terror

On Tuesday, Americans commemorated the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing with solemn ceremonies and appropriate vows to not forget the victims. But in an ironic juxtaposition that few noted, the anniversary fell on the day when it became known that the New York City Police Department had abandoned an effort that was directly aimed at preventing more such instances of homegrown Islamist terrorism. As the New York Times noted in a news story and then celebrated in an editorial, the administration of new Mayor Bill de Blasio has disbanded the NYPD’s Demographics Unit that had the responsibility of monitoring extremists in the local Muslim community. For the Times and de Blasio, the decision by Police Commissioner William Bratton is a campaign promise vindicated and a victory for civil rights. They viewed the surveillance activities of the NYPD as a violation of the rights of Muslims and an unnecessary intrusion into that community’s affairs that amounted to illegal profiling.

But the notion that the NYPD’s efforts “undermined the fight against terrorism” is a noxious myth promulgated by radical Muslim groups who regard any scrutiny of Islamists as a threat to all Muslims rather than a prudent measure aimed at keeping tabs on preachers and groups that help incite hatred and violence. The decision of the NYPD to abandon the intelligence work that had helped keep the city safe in the last decade is not only yet another indication of the country’s return to a September 10th mentality. It is a case of willful blindness about the roots of homegrown terrorism that may, as the slip-ups in the investigation of the Boston bombers demonstrated, prove to be a costly mistake.

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On Tuesday, Americans commemorated the first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing with solemn ceremonies and appropriate vows to not forget the victims. But in an ironic juxtaposition that few noted, the anniversary fell on the day when it became known that the New York City Police Department had abandoned an effort that was directly aimed at preventing more such instances of homegrown Islamist terrorism. As the New York Times noted in a news story and then celebrated in an editorial, the administration of new Mayor Bill de Blasio has disbanded the NYPD’s Demographics Unit that had the responsibility of monitoring extremists in the local Muslim community. For the Times and de Blasio, the decision by Police Commissioner William Bratton is a campaign promise vindicated and a victory for civil rights. They viewed the surveillance activities of the NYPD as a violation of the rights of Muslims and an unnecessary intrusion into that community’s affairs that amounted to illegal profiling.

But the notion that the NYPD’s efforts “undermined the fight against terrorism” is a noxious myth promulgated by radical Muslim groups who regard any scrutiny of Islamists as a threat to all Muslims rather than a prudent measure aimed at keeping tabs on preachers and groups that help incite hatred and violence. The decision of the NYPD to abandon the intelligence work that had helped keep the city safe in the last decade is not only yet another indication of the country’s return to a September 10th mentality. It is a case of willful blindness about the roots of homegrown terrorism that may, as the slip-ups in the investigation of the Boston bombers demonstrated, prove to be a costly mistake.

As I wrote last year when former NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly came under fire for these surveillance tactics as a result of a lawsuit and a book that claimed the department had wronged Muslims, the charges were unfounded. Not only was the work of the Demographics Unit all authorized by the courts and completely legal, much of the criticism of its efforts stemmed as much from a rivalry with the FBI, some of whose agents resented the fact that the NYPD was infringing on what they considered to be their turf. Such turf battles were part of the reason that the 9/11 plotters succeeded, but years later the same lamentable trends in American law enforcement have resurfaced. Yet rather than sit back and wait for the feds to do their jobs, after 9/11 New York cops rightly decided they had to do whatever was necessary to ensure that they were not surprised again.

What the NYPD did was not an effort to besmirch all American Muslims, the vast majority of whom are law-abiding citizens. But it did seek to go after Islamists who do pose a threat to U.S. security where they congregate: at religious institutions led by individuals who encourage support for extreme Islamist views. Though the FBI has been heavily influenced by criticism from radical groups like CAIR—which masquerades as a civil-rights group despite its origins as a political front for Hamas terrorist fundraisers—and has treated homegrown Islamists with kid gloves, the NYPD was more tough-minded. As the Wall Street Journal noted earlier this week, this effort paid off to help make New York safer. But the department was lambasted by those who regard counter-terrorism intelligence work as intrinsically wrong because it is directed at the minority of Muslims who do pose a threat to public safety.

Much of this stems from the much-ballyhooed myth of a post-9/11 backlash that alleged American Muslims were subjected to discrimination and a wave of attacks. Though there is no proof that such a backlash ever existed, the notion that attention paid to the actual sources of Islamist hate is somehow intrinsically prejudicial has taken hold and helped to chip away at support for necessary police work. Even as Americans sadly remembered the horrors of the Boston bombing, the demonization of counter-terrorism continued on various fronts. Edward Snowden’s collaborators won a Pulitzer for their help in undermining U.S. intelligence work. But the celebration of the disarming of the NYPD demonstrates just how insidious the myth of the post-9/11 backlash has been in treating commonsense precautions as an affront to all those who wish to pretend that radical Islam is not a threat.

New Yorkers must now pray that their security has not been sacrificed on the altar of misguided political correctness based in fictions spread by radical apologists for terror. If homegrown terrorists like the Boston bombers slip through the fingers of the police in the future, de Blasio, Bratton, their supporters at the Times, and others who have waged war on counter-terrorism will bear a great deal of responsibility for what follows.

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Progress on Crime

According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report (see here and here), compared with data from 2008, violent crime in America decreased by 5.5 percent; property crime declined by 4.9 percent; and arson offenses declined by 10.4 percent.

When disaggregating the data, we find that all four violent crime offenses — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — declined. Robbery dropped by 8.1 percent; murder by 7.2 percent; aggravated assault by 4.2 percent; and forcible rape by 3.1 percent. Violent crime declined by 4 percent in the nation’s metropolitan counties and by 3 percent in non-metropolitan counties. And all four regions in the nation showed decreases in violent crime in 2009 compared with data from 2008. Violent crime decreased by 6.6 percent in the South, 5.6 percent in the West, 4.6 percent in the Midwest, and 3.5 percent in the Northeast.

In addition, all property crime offenses — burglary, larceny-theft, and motor-vehicle theft — decreased in 2009 compared with 2008 data. Motor-vehicle theft showed the largest drop in volume, by 17.2 percent, larceny-thefts declined by 4.2 percent, and burglaries decreased by 1.7 percent.

The figures, which are still preliminary, indicate a third straight year of crime decreases, along with a sharply accelerating rate of decline.

The New York Times begins its story by saying, “Despite turmoil in the economy and high unemployment, crimes rates fell significantly across the Unites States in 2009.” Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, “That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions.”

Actually, it’s not all that remarkable. Crime rates, for example, fell significantly during the Great Depression. As David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois has pointed out, if you chart homicide beginning in 1900, its rates began to rise in 1905, continued through the prosperous 20s, and crested in 1933. They began to decline in 1934, as the Great Depression began to deepen. And between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped by nearly 40 percent, while property crimes revealed a similar pattern. One possible explanation is that times of crisis, including economic crisis, create greater social cohesion.

The drop in all levels of crime since the early 90s has been staggering and counts as a truly remarkable success story. There are undoubtedly many explanations for it, from higher incarceration rates to private security to improved technology. But surely advances in policing deserve a healthy share of the credit. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York has said: “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that at a time when faith in many public institutions, including government and the media, is almost nonexistent, two institutions that command public trust are the military and law-enforcement officials. It’s no surprise, either, as they have impressive results to show for their efforts — from the battlefields in Iraq to the streets of New York.

One final thought: one of the things that characterized the 70s was a deep distrust of authority and of symbols of authority. Animus and disrespect were directed against our military and our cops. The former were accused of war crimes because of their service to our country in Vietnam; the latter were called pigs. Today the situation is dramatically reversed and dramatically better. In that sense, and in many other respects, our nation is a great deal better off than in the 70s.

We certainly have our share of social challenges. But in addressing them, we shouldn’t forget about the progress we have made, both practically and in terms of some of our social attitudes.

According to the FBI’s Preliminary Annual Uniform Crime Report (see here and here), compared with data from 2008, violent crime in America decreased by 5.5 percent; property crime declined by 4.9 percent; and arson offenses declined by 10.4 percent.

When disaggregating the data, we find that all four violent crime offenses — murder and non-negligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault — declined. Robbery dropped by 8.1 percent; murder by 7.2 percent; aggravated assault by 4.2 percent; and forcible rape by 3.1 percent. Violent crime declined by 4 percent in the nation’s metropolitan counties and by 3 percent in non-metropolitan counties. And all four regions in the nation showed decreases in violent crime in 2009 compared with data from 2008. Violent crime decreased by 6.6 percent in the South, 5.6 percent in the West, 4.6 percent in the Midwest, and 3.5 percent in the Northeast.

In addition, all property crime offenses — burglary, larceny-theft, and motor-vehicle theft — decreased in 2009 compared with 2008 data. Motor-vehicle theft showed the largest drop in volume, by 17.2 percent, larceny-thefts declined by 4.2 percent, and burglaries decreased by 1.7 percent.

The figures, which are still preliminary, indicate a third straight year of crime decreases, along with a sharply accelerating rate of decline.

The New York Times begins its story by saying, “Despite turmoil in the economy and high unemployment, crimes rates fell significantly across the Unites States in 2009.” Richard Rosenfeld, a sociologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said, “That’s a remarkable decline, given the economic conditions.”

Actually, it’s not all that remarkable. Crime rates, for example, fell significantly during the Great Depression. As David Rubinstein of the University of Illinois has pointed out, if you chart homicide beginning in 1900, its rates began to rise in 1905, continued through the prosperous 20s, and crested in 1933. They began to decline in 1934, as the Great Depression began to deepen. And between 1933 and 1940, the murder rate dropped by nearly 40 percent, while property crimes revealed a similar pattern. One possible explanation is that times of crisis, including economic crisis, create greater social cohesion.

The drop in all levels of crime since the early 90s has been staggering and counts as a truly remarkable success story. There are undoubtedly many explanations for it, from higher incarceration rates to private security to improved technology. But surely advances in policing deserve a healthy share of the credit. As William Bratton, the former police chief in Los Angeles and New York has said: “We’ve gotten better at spotting crime trends more quickly. We can respond much more quickly.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that at a time when faith in many public institutions, including government and the media, is almost nonexistent, two institutions that command public trust are the military and law-enforcement officials. It’s no surprise, either, as they have impressive results to show for their efforts — from the battlefields in Iraq to the streets of New York.

One final thought: one of the things that characterized the 70s was a deep distrust of authority and of symbols of authority. Animus and disrespect were directed against our military and our cops. The former were accused of war crimes because of their service to our country in Vietnam; the latter were called pigs. Today the situation is dramatically reversed and dramatically better. In that sense, and in many other respects, our nation is a great deal better off than in the 70s.

We certainly have our share of social challenges. But in addressing them, we shouldn’t forget about the progress we have made, both practically and in terms of some of our social attitudes.

Read Less