The NYPD Needs Policing

January 30, 2012

Published in The New York Times.

The Police Department has the formidable responsibility of keeping New Yorkers safe from a terrorist attack. It is entrusted with significant powers and broad discretion in how to use them. It has done an admirable job in preventing violence. But last week, we were reminded that no government entity with such powers should operate free from independent oversight.

The controversy centers around the department’s use of a 2008 documentary film, “The Third Jihad,” in training officers. The film aims to scare Americans into thinking that the United States is under attack from a shadowy conspiracy of Muslim groups that, it claims, pretend to be part of mainstream society while plotting its downfall. The film features cameo appearances by a number of officials, including Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly. Its use in training set back relations with the city’s Muslim community, which is estimated at around 800,000 and whose members have been vital partners in combating terrorism.

After The Village Voice first reported, a year ago, on the film’s use in training, the police claimed that it had been shown only once or twice and that the clip of Mr. Kelly had been lifted from previous film footage. Faced with newly released documents demonstrating that the film was viewed by nearly 1,500 police officers and that Mr. Kelly was in fact interviewed by its producers, the department now acknowledges the truth, but maintains that the decision to show the film was the isolated error of a single sergeant.

A similar pattern was evident when The Associated Press revealed last August that the Police Department had been spying on Muslims as they prayed, ate and went about daily life. The police flatly denied the existence of the program. After The A.P. released documents about a “Demographics Unit” assigned to map Muslim communities, the police were forced to acknowledge the program, but minimized its significance. At a City Council hearing, Mr. Kelly gave few details about the program and said the police were following the law.

Contrast this response with the reaction of the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. when recently presented with similar issues. When it came to light that the F.B.I. had been using anti-Muslim training materials, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. denounced their use and immediately ordered a comprehensive review. In response to allegations that the C.I.A.’s cooperation with the police had blurred the line between foreign and domestic spying, the C.I.A.’s inspector general reviewed the relationship and concluded that a C.I.A. officer embedded with the police hadn’t been sufficiently supervised. On Friday, Mr. Kelly said the officer would leave in April.

History is filled with examples of law enforcement and intelligence officials overreaching during moments of perceived national security crisis. In the 1970s, the Church Committee investigated both the F.B.I. and C.I.A. for spying on the political activities of Americans during the Vietnam War. These investigations led to the creation of oversight mechanisms: the F.B.I., for example, has benefited from Congressional oversight and a robust inspector general who has uncovered a number of illegalities in the F.B.I.’s counterterrorism programs.

The Police Department is a different story. Unlike other major city agencies, it is exempt from the jurisdiction of the Department of Investigation, which investigates corruption, incompetence and unethical or other forms of misconduct. The Internal Affairs Bureau, which investigates allegations of corruption and misconduct, and the Civilian Complaint Review Board, which looks into complaints from the public about police mistreatment, focus on individual accusations of wrongdoing. The City Council has shown little interest in examining police counterterrorism or using its subpoena power to force disclosure of information, in part because some politicians are fearful of appearing soft on crime.

History shows that any attempt to oversee the police will be met with great resistance by the department and its political allies. But no agency is immune from mistakes. When the stakes are as high as they are in fighting terrorism, there must be a mechanism to identify excesses and wrongdoing.

We need an independent inspector general for the Police Department. Such an official would have seen the film scandal for what it is: not the error of one sergeant, but an indication that procedures for authorizing training materials are lacking. Oversight makes government stronger, not weaker.

In November, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg described the Police Department as “the seventh biggest army in the world.” Effective oversight of such a potent force is a necessity — not a luxury — for the country’s largest city.