The Problem With the NYPD's Interstate Spy Squad

The precedent it sets is worrisome because it puts police officers in jurisdictions where the populace has no means of keeping them accountable.

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The fact that the September 11 attacks targeted New York City, the ongoing threat of Islamic terrorism, and the fact that many hold the civil rights of Muslim Americans in lower regard than the rights of other citizens all contributed to the dearth of condemnation heaped on Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD for spying on countless innocent Muslims, sometimes far outside their jurisdiction.

The Associated Press is out with new details about the operation, which included a safe house in New Brunswick, New Jersey, that NYPD officers used to spy on Muslim university students. "Detectives infiltrated mosques, eavesdropped in cafes and kept tabs on Muslim student groups, including at Rutgers," the news organization reports. "The NYPD kept files on sermons, recorded the names of political organizers in police documents, and built databases of where Muslims lived and shopped, even where they were likely to gather to watch sports. Out-of-state operations, like the one in New Brunswick, were one aspect of this larger intelligence-gathering effort."

Polls suggest some of you think this spying was prudent, while others regard it as an abomination. What I'd urge is zooming back a bit. Whether or not you think spying by the NYPD was desirable in this particular instance, think about the larger precedent that is being set when Bloomberg defends "the police department's right to go anywhere in the country in search of terrorists without telling local police." I can think of some other ways that precedent might be used.

How would Mayor Bloomberg react if Sheriff Joe Arpaio set up a secret safe house in New York City, where he spied on Latinos in order to expose illegal immigration and drug smugglers?

What would Texans think if Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray secretly sent a task force to several locations in the Lone Star State to spy on gun merchants, hoping to uncover illegal sales?

Municipal police departments are accountable to residents of the cities they serve by way of mayors and city councils -- bodies made up of elected officials who are directly accountable to voters. Anyone can see how this system of accountability breaks down when officers are sent to operate in secret, miles outside their proper jurisdiction, where they police a population with no way to rein them in should they overstep their bounds. The United States has county sheriffs, state police, and the FBI to take on law enforcement tasks that municipal governments cannot handle. By going it alone, Bloomberg ensured that the officers spying on Muslim Americans would be less accountable than law enforcement officials operating within their own jurisdictions. He therefore increased the chance that the rights of various police targets would be violated, even though non-New Yorkers haven't chosen to live under a mayor who consistently elevates his own judgments about how to keep people safe above respecting their liberty.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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