NYPD Update: Stop-And-Frisk Now Under Federal Oversight; Muslim-Spying 'Demographics Unit' Disbanded
from the somewhere,-Mike-Bloomberg-is-choking-on-his-own-indignation dept
Time for an update on the NYPD scene. As you’ll recall, both Mayor Bloomberg and Police Chief Ray Kelly exited their respective offices in their respective huffs, claiming the city would fall apart if the sanctity of the NYPD’s Constitution-skirting programs (stop-and-frisk, the Muslim-watching Demographics Unit) weren’t preserved.
The legal battle over the constitutionality of the stop-and-frisk took several turns, including the removal of the presiding judge for “appearances of partiality.” Incoming mayor Bill de Blasio promised to drop the city’s appeal of Judge Scheindlin’s ruling, and oddly enough, actually did.
An attempt to keep the appeal going was filed by the union representing the NYPD, but this was shot down by the appeals court. It did, however, allow it to be part of the final negotiations. The end result was the installation of five years of oversight over the NYPD’s controversial program in order to move it towards something more resembling compliance with the Constitution.
The apocalypse Bloomberg and Kelly claimed was unavoidable if stop-and-frisk was curbed has failed to materialize. Even before the ruling was handed down, the program had been scaled back, with 86% fewer stops being recorded in the first quarter of 2014 than in the same quarter of 2012. Despite this lack of pushing random people up against the wall, crime is down 13% compared to 2013. Was stop-and-frisk ever truly essential? Or was it simply something that became an all too easily abused “tool” of the NYPD? At this point, the numbers seem to indicate that stop-and-frisk had very little real effect on criminal activity.
More good news on the NYPD v. Constitution front: the infamous Muslim-spying wing of the NYPD — the stupidly-named “Demographics Unit” — has been disbanded. This program, started by a former CIA officer who leveraged the city’s post-9/11 anxieties to craft major changes to guidelines governing the surveillance of New Yorkers, spent a considerable amount of time infiltrating and surveilling entire mosques under the pretense that each and every member was somehow related to ongoing counterterrorism investigations.
The investigations performed by this unit did considerable damage to the civil liberties of mosque attendees over the last decade, but failed to turn up any credible suspects, much less terrorism-related arrests. The unit’s pervasive surveillance so thoroughly violated First and Fourth Amendment protections that the CIA and FBI were unable to avail themselves of the “intelligence” collected by the NYPD without violating federal guidelines. When even the CIA can’t look at your investigative results for fear of violating its own minimal civil liberties protections, you know you’ve got a problem.
Bill Bratton, returning to the NYPD commissioner’s office, seems to have realized that programs like the Demographics Unit ultimately do more harm than good. When heading the Los Angeles Police Department, he was approached with a similar idea for tracking that city’s Muslim community. He had this to say then:
“A lot of these people came from countries where the police were the terrorists,” he said at the time. “We don’t do that here. We do not want to spread fear. We want to deal with criminals.”
The NYPD, before his return, had no such concerns. If anything, the NYPD actively created distrust — both in the New York Muslim community and around the world, sending its officers uninvited to peer over the shoulders of local police and investigative units at scenes of terrorism activity in countries like Kenya and Bali.
The new NYPD is still staffed with the old NYPD, which means change will be slow and likely fought every step of the way. Muslims are understandably concerned that the public disbandment of the Demographics Unit will just result in the level of surveillance being unchanged, if only a bit more unfocused. Bratton seems to be nudging the department towards a more FBI-esque set of rules, which isn’t ideal, but is certainly much better than the abusive behavior permitted under the NYPD’s internal guidelines.
It does appear the NYPD will be moving towards something resembling an actual police force, rather than a law unto itself. Without Kelly and Bloomberg around to defend its every overstep, the NYPD can no longer expect to skirt the Constitution with impunity. But there’s a long way to go to fix things, so any optimism must be tempered by the fact that good habits are tough to instill and bad habits are extremely hard to break. Five years of oversight is a start, but the city — meaning the mayor and the police commissioner — must be willing to hold its officers accountable.