The New York City Police Department (NYPD) has a vexed relationship with civil liberties. The department’s long and troubled history with minority populations is perhaps the best indicator of a kind of systematic confusion in its training institutions, its rank-and-file, its leadership, and thus, in its deeply-ingrained institutional culture, about the very notion: “Civil liberties? You talkin’ to me?” Its current whole-hearted embrace of a new role as member of the domestic intelligence apparatus, dedicated to aggressively conducting surveillance on NYC and NJ’s Muslim population, add to the list of its previous achievements such as coerced confessions, stop-and-frisk, over-enthusiastic deployment and use of deadly weapons, corruption, and sometimes even rape. The NYPD is also the police department that shows racist films in its academy and publishes creepy maps showing the locations of Muslim businesses and houses of worship. A rap-sheet this long would condemn most to life without parole; in New York City’s case, we seem to be the ones destined to never receive relief from the NYPD’s policing.
Yesterday, a petition signed by four hundred fifteen faculty members–“the first nationwide faculty response to the AP’s revelations of widespread NYPD surveillance on college campuses”–was sent to Mayor Bloomberg, calling for the resignation of Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne, in whose reign rights-abusing practices appear to have bloomed. The petition and the list of signatories is available online. Yesterday too, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an Op-Ed by Saskia Sassen and Jeanne Theoharis, which explains why this petition was necessary. Kelly’s response, thus far, to the furore over the NYPD’s malfeasance, has revealed deep ambivalence and confusion and, of course, Mayor Bloomberg’s defense of the surveillance program has been disappointing, especially for a man ostensibly committed to civil rights in other domains.
(On a side note: AP’s ‘revelations’ such as they are, only came about once it became clear that surveillance of Muslim students was not restricted to say, grubby public institutions like the City University of New York, but also extended to ‘prestigious’ Ivy-League campuses such as Penn and Yale. One reaction among CUNY faculty was, “Well if it takes surveillance of the Ivy League to get this to be noticed, then so be it.” But another reaction is a little less sanguine: Had this remained confined to the nation’s less-privileged pockets would it ever have been noticed or cared about?)
The NYPD, perhaps more than any other police force in the nation, does not so much see itself as a part of the community that it polices, as much as it sees itself set over, above, and against it. This aggressively, offensively, and destructively adversarial posture is what contributes to its continued abuses of city resident’s civil rights. Unless its leadership changes, unless it changes its training practices, indeed, unless it engages in a fundamental ‘overcoming’ of itself, it remains destined to be locked into a pattern of behavior that will continue to do damage, sometimes deadly, to the citizens that are controlled and regulated by it.
The first step in this institutional reform should be the resignations of Kelly and Browne.
Update: Alex Vitale, in comments, clarifies that AP’s response came earlier, and that it was the nation-wide faculty response that came later, in response to news of the surveillance taking place all over the North-East. Still, civil liberties violations get noticed more when they take place in pockets of privilege.