In Defense of the NYPD

The Associated Press has a long, ominous-sounding article about the New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division and its efforts to prevent a recurrence of 9/11. I would suspect that 99.99 percent of New Yorkers are grateful for the department’s work, which has helped keep the city safe, but the AP suggests we should fear the cops–not the terrorists. Writes the AP’s Adam Goldman:

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the New York Police Department has become one of the nation’s most aggressive domestic intelligence agencies, targeting ethnic communities in ways that would run afoul of civil liberties rules if practiced by the federal government, an Associated Press investigation has found.

You would think the AP had blown the lid on Watergate. In point of fact, while it’s possible the AP story has a few details not reported elsewhere, the basic contours of the NYPD’s efforts–which includes the use of undercover officers, informants, and liaison officers working with intelligence services and police departments both at home and abroad–have long been well-known. They have even been chronicled in books such as Securing the City by Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey.

It is unclear what the AP means when it suggests neither the federal government nor the city council “is told exactly what’s going on”: Does that mean the NYPD doesn’t file the names of its confidential informants and undercover officers? Or is  it that neither the city council nor the federal government is aware of the broad contours of what’s going on? It’s difficult to see how the latter could be the case given the existence of the Dickey book and numerous other such reports.

Indeed, although it contains the obligatory scare quote from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (“this is potentially illegal what they’re doing”), there is scant cause to believe the NYPD is guilty of anything beyond tough, proactive policing designed to head off terrorist attacks. Naturally, the bulk of its efforts are focused on the Islamic community: Where else would a potential al Qaeda terrorist hide? Among Hasidic Jews? If the NYPD weren’t focusing its efforts on Muslims, it would be guilty of gross negligence. But there is nothing to indicate it has violated the rights of law-abiding Muslims.

By all accounts, the NYPD has remade itself since 9/11 to become one of the most effective counter-terrorist forces in the country–maybe the most effective.

That is an achievement for which it should get kudos, not damning innuendo from sneering reporters.

No doubt reading this article has raised the blood pressure of the dedicated analysts and detectives working diligently to protect New Yorkers. They can take solace from reading Kipling’s classic poem “Tommy,” which eloquently captures the public’s ambivalent attitude toward its protectors:

I went into a public-‘ouse
to get a pint o’ beer,

The publican ‘e up an’
sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”

The girls be’ind the bar
they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,

I outs into the street
again an’ to myself sez I:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’
“Tommy, go away”;

But it’s “Thank you, Mister
Atkins”, when the band begins to play,

The band begins to play, my boys, the band
begins to play,

O it’s “Thank you, Mister
Atkins”, when the band begins to play.

In short, there is nothing new about damning soldiers–in this case, the soldiers of the war on terror–while we feel safe in our homes. The irony is the sense of safety that has been precariously achieved during the past decade is the product of the very efforts now decried by the AP.