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Guest Post: NYPDCIA: Counterterrorism and the NYPD

(Today's guest post is by Jennifer Hunt, author of "Seven Shots". You can read our review here. If you would like to guest write for us, please check out our guest post guidelines. We look forward to publishing reader posts on future Thursdays.

Quick note: The views of guest writers are not necessarily the view of Michael C or Eric C. For our take, please check out the comments below.)

The day after the World Trade Center disaster on 9/12, 2001, I got on the subway near 59th street. I was relieved to discover that there weren’t police or soldiers, armed with rifles and submachine guns, asking to see IDs. Democracy was intact. New York hadn’t turned into a police state. 

These days I’m not so sure.

The NYPD and Democracy

“I’ve never seen anything like this in more than twenty years on the job. It’s a police state down here!”  My friend in the NYPD told me over the phone. It was the summer of 2004. He was calling from his post at the Republican National Convention in Manhattan. I was ensconced in my apartment in Morningside Heights.

Having been warned by police friends that chaos could rein in midtown, I didn’t go out. By this time, I was beginning to question the police commissioner’s leadership and some of the changes he’d instituted.

Before the convention, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had authorized detectives from the Intelligence Division to spy on nonviolent groups in other states without the knowledge of local cops and in violation of the law. During the RNC, he had approved mass arrests of peaceful demonstrators and any civilian who happened to be passing by. Nets were used to help capture large groups and transport them to a makeshift detention center until after the convention was through.

Although 90% of the arrests that took place during the RNC were thrown out of court, the NYPD continued to take photographs of peaceful protest groups. Later, the city denied the rights of nonviolent demonstrators to march against the war in Iraq in Central Park, a location that had a history of peaceful protest since the 1960’s, at least.

The police actions around 2004 and after effectively stifled dissent. Protesters were arrested or not allowed to march or gather in mass. As a result, the media could not capture their image and spread it across the globe.

Black-ops in the NYPD?

According to police journalist Lenny Levitt in a recent column, David Cohen, the CIA transplant who Kelly bought in to head the Intelligence Division, appears to have developed a squad officers who are allowed to act above the law. One  of Levitt’s sources suggests that a  “mini-CIA [exists] within a municipal agency without the safeguards to ensure that it does not break the law….What mechanisms are in place to ensure that the NYPD does not become a rogue organization?”

Detectives in Intelligence have been sent to other countries to gather “real time” intelligence, duplicating efforts by the FBI and escalating tensions with U.S agencies that have jurisdiction overseas.

In an incident in 2009, the NYPD undermined an FBI investigation of a serious Al Qaeda plot and forced the premature arrest of some of the conspirators. This included Najibullah Zazi who drove to New York City, planning to join his friends and detonate bombs in the subway.  Without informing the FBI, officers in the NYPD’s Intelligence Division contacted one of its informants and showed him a picture of Zazi. The informant then tipped off Zazi to the NYPD’s inquiries, prompting him to abort the plot. The FBI only learned of the NYPD’s interference because it had wire-tapped Zazi’s father’s phone and thus heard the warning call.

Despite the presence of multiple NYPD units 24-7 in the summer of 2010, a van carrying explosives entered the Times Square area undetected by police. Fortunately, the bombs didn’t detonate but turned to smoke and venders alerted the police. The FBI took over from there.


There are some practical solutions that would help address some of the problems that are plaguing the intelligence and counterterrorism efforts in the NYPD today, although politics will inhibit their being realized anytime soon.

l. Replace David Cohen as Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence. We do not need “a spook” in a position of power in the NYPD. There are other intelligence experts who respect the limits of law and can better negotiate important relations between local police and federal agencies. Communication and the sharing of intelligence.

2. Ray Kelly should step down. Kelly has been police commissioner for three consecutive terms. He has become besotted with his own power and influence and he is responsible for authorizing Cohen’s every move.

3. The Justice Department should begin an investigation of the NYPD Intelligence Division to determine if its bosses have ordered detectives to take action that violate the constitution and other state and federal laws.

4. Create transparency in the NYPD. Since Kelly took office in the wake of 9/11, the NYPD has been closed to scholars and journalists who are not willing to write what he wants the public to know.

5. Recognize that New York has a history of terrorism that proceeded 9/11. At some point there will be another terrorist attack. However, the victory for terrorists will not come from more lives lost but from the way such acts have effectively undermined democratic policing in New York.  Let us do what we can to maximize preparedness for terrorism while maintain a democratic police. 

Jennifer Hunt PhD is a sociologist and the author of Seven Shots An NYPD Raid on a Terrorist Cell and its Aftermath (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010). In addition to Seven Shots, she has written a book on ethnography and numerous articles in scholarly journals and popular magazines.

seven comments

@ Jennifer Hunt, Have you seen the Wire?

Eric, I love the Wire and so do cops. It is extraordinarily realistic in its depiction of politics and the politics of compstat (the computerized mapping of crime statistics) and the pressures they put on cops. It is extraordinarily revealing about the issues involved in policing drug infested areas (as one police officer explained… “its like shoveling sh…t against the tide.” The depiction of the different characters is right on the money. The Wire is one reason I get so irritated by programs like Bluebloods. David Simon one of the Wire’s producers wrote an excellent book called Homicide: Life on the Street that is also about policing in Baltimore.

First on these comments, I think “compstat” has the same problem as “metrics” in the US Army. In either case, no one metric should ever be relied on too heavily. In the police case—and this comes from the wire—it is murders and serious crimes that garner the most attention. In most army units, it is casualties—enemy and friendly—that command the most attention. Units won’t admit this, but it is true.

As for the article, I just want to say that I appreciate giving commonsense recommendations at the end. I wish every opinion piece I read did that.

As for the larger issue of intelligence in police, it worries me. Even the general militarization of policing is worrying.

Haha, Eric, I had the exact same thought when I finished reading. Fascinating post Jennifer, I’m gonna have to check out your book.

Speaking of police shows, I’d be interested in hearing your take on The Chicago Code (which is relatively new) and The Shield, in terms of portraying the realities of police work. Both are relatively more fanciful than The Wire, but don’t seem as bad as Bluebloods to me. David Simon and Ed Burns both do a great job portraying the issues of bureaucracies and hierarchies involved in life or death occupations. I thought they did rather nicely with Generation Kill (the HBO miniseries) as well.

Addressing your post Jennifer, seems like a lot of this is fallout from the public’s willingness to accept wholesale suspension of rights in exchange for “improved security.” In the last 10 years it’s taken longer and longer to address those who have overstepped. I have a lot of issues with the judicial and legal system as it is, but it really seems like we’ve been rolling back a lot of the progress we made in the last 40 years.

Nick, I’ve not seen the Chicago Code but will as soon as I can. I love David Simon so the chances are I’ll like the C. Code.

I enjoyed The Shield, largely because of the characters and the excellence of the technical advise given to the program. However, a corruption operation of the level of Vick Mackey’s would not last long in most and, perhaps all police departments today. It was different in the 1970’s when systemic corruption existed. Now corruption tends to operate like in the Shield, in gangs of cops (not necessarily in the same unit). But once they get to the level of killing undercovers and doing the other thing Vick Mackey does, they would be exposed. One or another investigation would be successful.

Michael, There are a few sociologists who have come out strongly against the militarization of policing that they root in the 1960’s but I see more as a product of the changes that occurred after 9/11. I too find certain aspects of the militarization frightening, although not increased expertise in tactics and weapons training for specialized units like Emergency Service as that can reduce loss of life and “accidental” shootings.

Along those lines, a friend described an interesting series of event to me that occurred in the wake of the disaster in New Orleans. He is a former Army Ranger. He opened his house to the police in the wake of the hurricane. He went on on patrol with them during the chaotic days that followed. When he saw the aggressive way they were dealing with people, I told them essentially to stop – these people need water and food and help etc etc. That seemed ironic to me; a former Ranger should be the one insisting local police engage in rescue and community work at least while he was in the car.

I guess I have questions about why Compstat is a bad thing. I feel like if compstat were used to target high crime areas, it would be beneficial to all involved.

Look at other social reform areas. I just read an article in the new yorker about how 5 of the care; cut down on those patients via preventative medicine, and you cut costs. Or the homeless; 5 of the cost.

Isn’t crime the same? Target the 5% high crime areas, cut down on the crime?

As conceptualized in the 1990’s when Bill Bratton was P.C. in the NYPD and Jack Maple was a Deputy Commissioner, Compstat was a good idea. First it occurred within a department that empowered precinct commanders and made them responsible from crime in their area of operation. It facilitated their ability to map crime and develop plans that would deploy their police officers strategically to deal with the relevant problems. It also cut out one layer of command at the top and that further empowered precinct commanders to do their job.

Compstat meetings were difficult because senior commanders sometimes abused their authority in the way they handled presentations about crime statistics by precinct commanders. Some commanders thus experienced Compstat meetings as a “degradation ceremony” in which they were interrogated unfairly by senior officers.

On the other hand, the meetings allowed precinct commanders to hear the ideas of senior officers while providing them an opportunity to explain the trajectories of crime in their AO and how they planned to deal with particular problems.

Since Kelly took office in the wake of 9/11 and even before, Compstat has changed and, as a result, changed policing profoundly. The most valued personnel are no longer good street cops. Instead they are computer savy desk jockeys who know how to play the numbers.

Compstat was expanded to the Traffic Division (Tafficstat) Narcotics and to almost every unit in the NYPD (not just uniformed patrol). Most recently its been expanded to the detective division although other changes have produced the major problems there.

In precincts, compstat figures are no longer collected on the precinct as a whole but extend down to the level of squads, creating a situation where low level supervisors are pressured to come up with numbers that make them as well as their commanders look good less the lose face (and their jobs) to those above.

At the same time, Ray Kelly is a control freak who runs the Department from the top down and precinct commanders are not longer empowered as they were under Bratton. Instead, they are afraid to make moves that aren’t approved or don’t come from above. Creativity in crime management has been replaced by lie low and let your precinct statistician do his work.

To please the PC and other bosses, cops are pressured to downgrade categories of crime, refuse to take crime reports in some cases, and give out summonses and/or make arrests in situations in which alternative modes of resolution (discretion) would be more appropriate (to meet quotas and compstat goals).

The Village Voice had a four part series that exposed some of the numbers games that Compstat as it is executed now demands.

After all Ray Kelly want to assure the public that he still has control of crime even though he has transferred substantial manpower out of uniformed patrol and into, for example, the Counterterrorism Division, where I’m told a substantial number of detectives sit in front of computers with little or nothing to do.

The main problem with Compstat in a nutshell is that it is resulting in the falsification of statistics and changing police work into a numbers game to make the administration look good rather than really deal with crime and other community problems.