I can state without hesitation that I love the New York Police Department. When New York City was plagued by sky-high crime rates and over 2,000 murders a year in the early 1990s, it was the NYPD that turned things around. The
city owes a debt of gratitude to the men and women who drove crime to historic lows and did much to make the city the way it is today.
So it is as a friend that I say that the NYPD is going off the rails. We caught the latest glimpse of this disaster this week when it was reported that the NYPD has been spying on Muslim student associations (MSAs) at colleges across the Northeast, including Yale. The actions officers took to gather intelligence on the Yale MSA might seem fairly harmless: They trawled public websites. Even in Buffalo, where an officer went undercover on a rafting trip with Muslim students, you might think that such spying shouldn’t concern you unless you have something to hide. But failure to be concerned implies an endorsement of unchecked government spying on people based on their religion or politics. And that kind of power, even with the best intentions, can too easily lead to the suffocation of free thought.
What the NYPD did to the Yale MSA was blatantly in violation of federal rules, not because officers looked at websites, but because of what they did afterwards. Even though officers uncovered no hints of criminal activity, names and facts about students were recorded in NYPD intelligence files. Under the federal rules that govern the NYPD’s investigations of such activity, officers may visit and, yes, spy on things such as public websites or gatherings, but they cannot retain any information gathered unless it is related to criminal activity. The NYPD’s MSA reports clearly broke those rules.
Police spying on organizations because of their political views was endemic in New York City in the 1960s. A lawsuit in 1971 finally led to the creation of federal guidelines in 1985, in which federal Judge Charles S. Haight ’52 LAW ’55 set strict limits on how and when police could investigate political and religious activity. After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the NYPD asked Haight to modify the rules. In 2003, Haight agreed to significantly water down the rules, allowing the types of spying activities that we have now seen extended to college campuses across the entire region.
Unfortunately, that is just the tip of the iceberg. Jethro M. Eisenstein was one of the lawyers who filed the original lawsuit in 1971, which remains open to provide a constant check against NYPD abuses. Eisenstein told me he is currently trying to get information on how extensive the NYPD’s spying is on Muslim communities in the city, in adjacent states and even in non-adjacent states — an expansion he called “unbelievable.”
Here’s what is already known. The NYPD has a Demographics Unit whose mission has been to collect data on the city’s Muslims. A secret NYPD document that was leaked to the press noted that the unit, whose existence officials had publicly denied, was identifying and mapping “ethnic Areas of Concern” based on which ethnicities police felt would be most likely to produce or harbor terrorists. The NYPD sends undercover officers into such areas to mine for information in local schools, mosques, restaurants and anywhere else frequented by Muslims. In the secret report, the NYPD made clear that none of this was connected to investigations of specific plots or persons, but just for the sake of gathering intelligence on the people officers felt most likely to be up to no good. As one former ranking NYPD official told me, this type of “raking” and general surveillance of entire communities is a tactic common in the intelligence community and is thanks to the NYPD’s cooperation with current and former CIA officials.
What’s most concerning has been the lack of checks against the NYPD’s attempt to start marching backward to the 1960s. The 2003 rule change eliminated the need to tell an oversight body when police spy on political activities, and no other independent body has the authority and subpoena power to investigate the NYPD — except for the City Council, which, out of a fear of being labeled soft on terror, has largely kept silent. Most of the media has been self-censoring as well.
The ones leading the charge to rein in the abuses have been the Associated Press and the veteran independent police reporter Leonard Levitt. As he described it to me in an email, the department’s spying, done hundreds of miles away from the city and without the cooperation of the FBI, “makes it appear as though the NYPD has become a rogue agency.”
As Levitt has written, so long as the NYPD lacks oversight, abuses will inevitably plague it and prevent it from remaining the bastion of both security and the rule of law that it has been. Here’s hoping that by spying on Yalies, the NYPD will attract the negative attention necessary to make it clear to all that it is on a dangerous path and needs an intervention from its concerned friends.
Colin Ross is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.