Does New York City Really Need Hundreds of Cops Devoted to Fighting the Islamic State?

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton thinks the city needs 450 new cops to focus on the latest terrorist threat. Is he right?

May 19 2015, 3:55pm

Photo via Flickr user mpeake

Since September 11, 2001, New York City has left the rest of America in the dust when it comes to assembling a massive counterterrorism apparatus.

Known as the the New York Police Department (NYPD) SHIELD program, the extent of the city's Counterterrorism Bureau's power can be seen everywhere, from the M16-strapped Hercules units stationed at train hubs like Grand Central and Penn Station, to the Critical Response Vehicles that are fixtures at protests and major public events all over the city.

So when NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton announced on the radio Sunday that he wants 450 cops to fight the Islamic State, he wasn't saying anything particularly shocking so much as latching on to the latest threat.

"I'm going to put another 450 police officers—if we get the approval... into our counterterrorism operations to increase the ability of our officers to protect critical sites around the city," Bratton said, according to the Daily News.

But with a bevy of counterterrorism initiatives that can often seem more dystopian than practical, it's not easy to distinguish what's necessary to protect New Yorkers, and at which point it veers into overkill. There are already about a thousand cops assigned to the terrorism beat in New York City, and another 350 in charge of monitoring protests. Are 450 more cops really necessary to fight the emerging Islamic Caliphate?

"Once again, there are questions as to who does NYPD oversight and whether they are spending existing resources prudently," Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a retired Brooklyn cop and prosecutor, told me in an email. "Beyond that, what are the details about how these officers would be deployed? The Department has said it has 1,000 officers deployed in anti-terrorism roles already. Does anyone know their roles and the results we are getting?"

Related: How does the NYPD compare to Ferguson's police department?

Since Bratton was appointed commissioner in January 2014, he has stressed counterterrorism as his top priority, as did his predecessor, Raymond Kelly, who— tellingly—was in the running for the Secretary of Homeland Security job at one point. But Bratton has done things a bit differently. While Ray Kelly's force basked in post-9/11 overreach, like spying on Muslims and baiting informants, Bratton has decided to streamline the Bureau's efforts and boost community outreach.

It's kinda like going from George W. Bush to Barack Obama—the overall strategy is the same, but the tactics used to achieve those ends have undergone a cosmetic and tonal shift.

And though the specific groups that are supposedly threats to the country have changed—it's safe to say the Islamic State is the new al Qaeda—the idea that America as a whole and New York in particular are in danger has remained the same. With the death sentencing of Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev fresh in our minds, the terrorist menace lingers in the popular imagination. After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, Bratton told a roomful of reporters, myself included, that the event was "very concerning." And at the ASIS Security Expo in Manhattan last month, I watched the Commissioner tell the crowd that we were living in a new world of threats that demand new and improved strategies to keep New Yorkers safe.

On the radio this week, Bratton reiterated that urgency. "We need to be very concerned about terrorism," he said. "That threat has expanded significantly in the now 16 months I've been police commissioner."

Even O'Donnell, who called himself a skeptic, admitted that "the threat of young Americans going overseas to be radicalized is quite real." It's not crazy to believe that Islamic State really does threaten New York City—recently, an Islamic State fighter told VICE co-founder Shane Smith that the NYC subways were a target. After all, three Brooklyn men were arrested in February for allegedly plotting to join the Islamic State, and another two women—possibly influenced by al Qaeda—were arrested in Queens for allegedly planning to build a bomb just last month. (It's worth remembering that just because the feds arrest someone for flirting with the Islamic State, they also often prod suspects into taking action with undercover officers.)

But these arrests were led by the FBI, an agency that—crazy as it sounds—is smaller than the NYPD, which now counts about 35,000 officers in its ranks. Also involved was the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF), an interagency collaboration between municipal police forces and the feds that serves as just another symbol of how intertwined local cops and the upper rungs of the national security state have become.

Watch: Journalist Radley Balko on the militarization of America's police.

At that same security conference at which Bratton spoke, Naureen N. Kabir, a senior intelligence research specialist in the NYPD Counterterrorism Bureau, told a seminar room that the department was hard at work beefing up security. A maritime unit is being built to detect drones. Open-sourced data from social media is continuously analyzed around the clock, to keep the force aware of any "lone wolf" threats. And another initiative is tasked with monitoring several thousand cameras installed across Lower Manhattan.

So again, it's not easy to discern what 450 more cops would actually do in the grander scheme of things.

"Whenever NYPD wants to expand programs or practices, it's never clear to us what exactly the role of these additional... officers are in the fight to counter terrorism," Linda Sarsour, the head of the Arab-American Association of New York and a well-known critic of police practices, told me. "How will we ensure that the NYPD will not expand unwarranted surveillance and targeting of American Muslim communities in New York City and beyond?"

VICE reached out the NYPD for comment regarding the intended use of the hundreds of additional cops, and have yet to hear back. Until then, the precise focus of this proposed Islamic State squad remains murky, as does the fate of the NYPD's program to spy on Muslims. (Although Bratton loudly disbanded a centerpiece of that surveillance scheme, the city is still defending the program's legality in court.)

Regardless, the "approval" Bratton mentioned will have to come from Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council. Last month, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito called for the hiring of 1,000 more cops in her proposed budget, although she didn't tag any of them explicitly for going after the Islamic State. Mayor de Blasio balked at the request and didn't include it in his executive budget. So this 450 figure from Bratton is presumably meant to be a compromise: fewer cops, with a more specific mission. The proposal could corner the mayor given the way our politics works; being blasé about national security is just not cool.

Final budget negotiations are set to wrap up by late June. A budget spokesperson for the mayor's office pointed to recent comments made by de Blasio in which he appeared open to hearing out the other parties. Meanwhile, a Council spokesperson told VICE that they look forward to hearing more about the proposal at the next budget meeting slated for May 21. But perhaps because being terrified of the Islamic State is now an American pastime, Bratton seems to think it's just a matter of time before he gets his new unit.

"Politics is the art of negotiation," he said on Sunday. "I think there's going to be common ground.

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