9/11, the NYPD, and Public Reverence for Police

Posted on September 12, 2011

When young black men start wearing “NYPD” caps, as they did in the aftermath of the attacks, you know something dramatic and slightly reason-defying has happened. This was noted by Melissa Harris-Perry at The Nation magazine’s 9/11 anniversary event last week. But those caps were nevertheless out in full force, she observed, even though black men predictably continued to receive disproportionately punitive treatment from police over the following decade. Today, even black members of the city government get roughed up on the streets. Tens of thousands are arrested annually for petty marijuana-related infractions every year, with blacks and Latinos targeted overwhelmingly.

And despite this, deciding to wear a symbolically-dubious cap was a wonderfully rational decision compared with other overblown responses to 9/11. There was something admirable about our unification post-attacks, and many people wore the cap in support of officers who acted heroically that day — not out of solidarity with every aspect of NYPD patrolling procedures. But the excesses of the past decade suggest that all this ubiquitous reverence for police after 9/11 may have partially enabled a troubling change in police culture. Tragically, fears of terrorism amplified and entrenched worrying trends in policing that had been underway since the 1980s.

As Radley Balko documents in the Huffington Post, local departments everywhere from southwest Idaho to Chattanooga, Tennessee have received Department of Homeland Security grants, allowing them to purchase brand new grenade launchers, armored vehicles, military-grade assault rifles, and other high-powered weaponry. New York City alone now has its own army, navy, tanks, and submarine fleet. Heavily-armed National Guardsmen still patrol sites in Manhattan, like the Port Authority Bus Terminal. NYPD officers routinely collaborate with the CIA on elaborate spying missions and other counter-terror operations. Even inspection stickers for cars in New Jersey display an injunction: “Put the phone down, FIGHT TERRORISM”:

Further, the introduction of militarized equipment concurrently breeds a militarized institutional mentality. More and more cops are ex-military, needing employment after serving tours in any one of our foreign occupations. With never-ending wars on drugs and terror to wage domestically, they become conditioned to guffaw at the notion of Constitutional protections for citizens. Officers tend to show little regard for the Fourth Amendment, often manipulating people into consenting to searches and seizures. In May, the Indiana Supreme Court essentially abolished that pesky amendment, ruling “if a police officer wants to enter a home for any reason or no reason at all, a homeowner cannot do anything to block the officer’s entry.”

This is indicative of a troubling shift in policing tactics. Balko cites the reflections of a former police chief for San Jose, CA and Kansas City, MO, who wrote, “Simply put, the police culture in our country has changed. An emphasis on ‘officer safety’ and paramilitary training pervades today’s policing, in contrast to the older culture, which held that cops didn’t shoot until they were about to be shot or stabbed.”

With law enforcement now heavily militarized even in the most rural corners of America, departments are armed with bountiful resources, but not much to do. Far more Americans die of dog bites each year than terror attacks. Most post-9/11 threats, like the “underwear bomber” or the Times Square bomber, have been pathetic in both scope and operational viability — usually they amount to nothing more than botched criminal fantasies dreamed up by teenaged extremist nobodies. Yet somehow instances of this get trumpeted as evidence of a grand Al-Qaeda killing network, about which citizens must remain vigilant, because terrorists could turn up anywhere — even in your quiet little neighborhood.

The lack of terrorism to combat in America has led “legal enhancements” like the PATRIOT Act to be used resoundingly more often for enforcing drug prohibition than uncovering Al Qaeda plots. Occasionally, the FBI has been so desperate to gin up bonafide terrorism cases that they’ll just go ahead and fabricate one themselves. As a judge who presided over the infamous prosecution of two men caught chattering about bombing Brooklyn synagogues said: “There would never have been any case if the government had not made one up.”

Perversely, widespread reverence for police has also endowed many officers with the perceived license to forgo any pretense of public accountability. After Councilman Jumaane Williams was wrongly arrested at the West Indian Day Parade, he said, officers made “bald-faced lies and distortions” and “misrepresented what actually happened” to save face, following what every witness described as an instance of unwarranted aggression by police. “They’re concocting stories because they’re not capable of engaging in a constructive dialogue,” Kirsten John Foy, an aide to public advocate Bill DeBlasio who was arrested with Williams, said in a TV interview. The two men have since called for systemic changes to the NYPD, because most young black men who get detained for no reason can’t call the city’s public advocate to come negotiate them out of custody.

Of course, many of these problems existed before 2001, and militarization trends began under the Reagan administration. But abundant patriotic reverence for officers post-9/11 and endless talk about their heroism was probably not constructive when it came to thinking about how police conduct ought to be governed. Sadly, the legacy of 9/11 instilled this reverence in generations of Americans. No doubt, many officers did display great heroism at the World Trade Center and were worthy of our thanks and admiration ten years ago. But that goodwill was somehow marshaled into a blank check go-ahead for police departments around the country to adopt counterproductive, military-based philosophies of public safety, corroding citizens’ relationship with law enforcement and diminishing overall quality of life.

The transformation of policing also caused something harmful to seep out into the broader culture, and it’s not clear there’s any recourse. Citizens have simply accepted surveillance, constant terror alerts, full-scale degradation of civil liberties, “no-knock searches,” medical marijuana dispensary raids, “stop-and-frisk” policies, bottled water bans on airplanes, FBI setups, extra-judiciary trials, and all manner of heavy-handed police tactics as necessary facts of life. Fortunately, the Justice Department has opened investigations into some of the country’s most notorious city departments, like New Orleans, Seattle, and Newark, NJ, but it’ll take a much more fundamental reevaluation of policing in America to make any headway on reversing 9/11′s deleterious consequences.

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