New York City: Prototype of the American Police State?

By John W. Whitehead

New York City has long been celebrated as the cultural capital of the world, renowned for its art, music and film. Presently, however, the “city that never sleeps” is serving as the staging ground for a futuristic police state operated, in large part, by Mayor Bloomberg and the New York Police Department (NYPD). Although the NYPD was recognized for its countless acts of bravery during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the department has gained notoriety in recent years for its overt racial profiling, a spying program which targets Muslim communities and political activists, and a stop-and-frisk program that has targeted more than 4 million New Yorkers—the majority of whom were black or Latino and had done nothing wrong—over the course of the past seven years.

Boasting a $4.5 billion budget, a counterterrorism unit that includes 35,000 uniformed police officers and 15,000 civilians, and a $3 billion joint operations center with representatives from the FBI, FEMA, and the military, the NYPD operates much like an autonomous Department of Homeland Security—only without the constraints of the Constitution.

The capabilities of the department are astounding. The NYPD has radiation detectors on their boats, helicopters, and officers’ belts that are so sensitive they alert officers to citizens who have had radiation treatment for medical reasons. Moreover, the NYPD has a $150 million surveillance system, a network of 2000+ cameras, which is monitored by an advanced computer system. This computer system can detect suspicious packages and perform tasks such as pulling up all recorded images of someone wearing a red shirt, thus streamlining the process of tracking New Yorkers. The NYPD’s latest toy is Terahertz Imaging Detection, which allows police officers to peek under people’s clothing as they walk the streets. The NYPD cooperated with the US Department of Defense in creating this portable scanning technology. The NYPD even has the capability to take down an aircraft should the need arise.

The NYPD not only employs the latest technologies but also utilizes crackdowns and scare tactics that keep New Yorkers in a state of compliance. One increasingly invasive NYPD tactic is the practice of stopping and frisking everyday people on the street without any evidence of wrongdoing. These activities are a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches and seizures. In 2011 alone, 684,330 people were stopped and frisked by the police, a 14% increase since 2010. 88% were totally innocent. 59% were black. 26% were Latino. 9% were white. 41% of the stops were men of color between the ages of 14 and 24, but they only account for 7.2% of the city’s population. Less than one percent of the stops led to an arrest for firearm possession. The fact that the vast majority of people stopped are racial minorities indicates that the NYPD is executing a punitive policy against regular New Yorkers based upon racial profiling.

The radical increase in stop-and-frisks has occurred entirely under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s watch. In his first year in office, fewer than 100,000 people were stopped. That number has now ballooned to over 600,000 per year. Yet the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy is not its only controversial program. The Associated Press recently released a report documenting the NYPD’s expansive and illegal spying program which has targeted Muslim communities in and around New York in the years following 9/11.

Despite the fact that the city explicitly forbids profiling based upon religion, police officers in New York initiated a spying program which includes amassing data on New York Muslims, such as where they buy groceries and which cafes they visit. The NYPD relies on so-called “mosque crawlers” that document the activities at mosques and “rakers” that spy on Muslims in cafes and bookstores within the Muslim community. Documents discussing rakers have often been shredded by the police so as to avoid public knowledge of the program. And the NYPD has attempted to forcibly recruit informants by fabricating reasons to pull people over in Pakistani neighborhoods and threatening them with arrest unless they comply with police demands to become informants. Ethnic officers as well have been instructed to surreptitiously blend in with local communities.

Outside of spying on innocent people, the NYPD is also infamous for its crackdowns on protesters. During the 2004 Republican National Convention, 1,806 protestors were arrested, but most of the arrests were thrown out of court and the subsequent litigation cost the city $8 million. More recently, when Occupy Wall Street protestors were cleared out of Zucotti Park on November 15, 2011, the NYPD prevented the media from accessing the park. Police asked to see press credentials (which are not necessary for public areas such as Zucotti) and those who showed their press credentials were herded off into a penned in area. Later on, a photographer tried to take a picture of a bloodied protestor being dragged away by police, only to have officers slam a barricade into his body while telling him that he wasn’t allowed to take photos.

In short, the civil liberties of all those, including tourists, who walk the New York streets, particularly if they belong to ethnic and religious minorities, are being trampled upon in order to maintain an illusion of safety. But some New Yorkers can see the dangerous leviathan that is wrapping its tentacles around the Bill of Rights. Representative Yvette Clarke of Brooklyn notes, “We’re quickly moving to an apartheid situation here in the city of New York where we don’t recognize the civil liberties and the civil rights of all New Yorkers.” Without a massive response to the NYPD abuse, Americans will most likely see the rise of rogue police organizations all across the country as civil liberties are thrown aside in favor of brute government force.

One thing is for sure: what’s happening in New York illustrates how easily people are led into the illusion that security should trump freedom. However, as past regimes illustrate, such security measures eventually become tools of terror against the citizens themselves.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org. Information about the Institute is available at http://www.rutherford.org.

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