Nine terrifying facts about America's biggest police force

The NYPD has expanded into a massive global anti-terror operation with military capabilities

Published September 28, 2012 1:17PM (EDT)

 NYPD officers             (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
NYPD officers (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.

The NYPD is the biggest police force in the country, with over 34,000 uniformed officers patrolling New York's streets, and 51,000 employees overall -- more than the FBI. It has a proposed budget of $4.6 billion for 2013, a figure that represents almost 15 percent of the entire city’s budget.

NYC's population is a little over 8 million. That means that there are 4.18 police officers per 1,000 people. By comparison, Los Angeles, the second largest city in the U.S. with 3.8 million people, has only 9,895 officers--a ratio of 2.6 police per 1,000 people.

What has the NYPD been doing with all that cash and manpower? In addition to ticketing minorities for standing outside of their homes, spying on Muslims who live in New Jersey, abusing protesters, and gunning down black teens over weed, the NYPD has expanded into a massive global anti-terror operation with surveillance and military capabilities unparalleled in the history of US law enforcement.

In an email published by WikiLeaks, an FBI official joked about how shocked Americans would be if they knew how egregiously the NYPD is stomping all over their civil liberties. But what we already know is bad enough. Here's a round-up of what the department has been up to lately.

1. “I Have My Own Army”

Last fall, Mayor Bloomberg famously bragged, "I have my own army in the NYPD, which is the seventh biggest army in the world." So far he's refrained from imposing military rule on the city, at least in the white neighborhoods, but the department nevertheless boasts an impressive arsenal.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told "60 Minutes" that the NYPD could shoot down a plane last year. When asked for details at a press conference, Mayor Bloomberg basically told reporters to fuck off, saying, "The NYPD has lots of capabilities that you don't know about and you won't know about."

The New York Times has reported that the department's Harbor unit has 6 submarine drones; four cost $75,000 and the two others cost $120,000, according to the Times. They are developing a portable radar that can see under clothes in order to search for weapons. Militaristic "Hercules teams," are deployed to random parts of the city armed with automatic weapons and body armor. Their explicitly stated role is to terrify people. In a piece by Popular Mechanics, detective Abad Nieves described the unit's job thusly: "The response we usually get is, 'Holy s---!' [...] That's the reaction we want. We are in the business of scaring people--we just want to scare the right people."

Last year, one of us asked a heavily armed Hercules team member what they were up to at the Lincoln Center. "Keeping you safe!" he barked, rolling his eyes at our unbelievable stupidity.

2. Relentlessly Expanding Their Global Presence

Whether you’re overseas or across the river in Jersey, there’s no longer any need to watch "NYPD Blue" for a glimpse at the famed officers. You can simply walk outside. The force operates in 11 foreign cities, including London, Lyons, Hamburg, Tel Aviv and Toronto. This year they added Kfar Saba, Israel, to their list of conquests -- there, the NYPD has its own office complete with a department insignia and a banner inside which reads, “The New York Police Department. The Greatest Police Department in the World.”

NYPD officers have flown to Afghanistan, Egypt, Yemen, Pakistan, and Guantanamo, where they have been known to conduct “special interrogations,” according to New York Magazine. Domestically, the NYPD collaborates with the FBI in Washington. Under Commissioner Kelly’s watch, and with the blessing of the CIA, the force has also built a hidden counterterrorism bureau, complete with a Global Intelligence Room and a security area protected by ballistic Sheetrock.

3. Spying on Muslims and Fabricating the Results

In a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative series the AP revealed a NYPD surveillance program that makes the FBI and CIA look like civil liberties crusaders. To recap: for years, the department has been monitoring mosques, restaurants where Muslims eat, Muslim student organizations, and combing through the electronic communications of Muslim students at more than 13 colleges. Their investigations revealed such insightful observations as the fact that adherents to Islam pray 5 times a day.

The department insisted that their blanket surveillance of whole communities based entirely on their religion was perfectly legal. Apparently even members of the FBI disagreed. A new book by journalist Ronald Kessler (reported in the Daily News) reveals:

“What never came out is that the FBI considers the NYPD’s intelligence gathering practices since 9/11 not only a waste of money but a violation of Americans’ rights,” wrote Kessler [...] “We will not be a party to it,” an FBI source told Kessler.

The Mayor's response was so glib that 10 House Democrats called it "underhanded and unprofessional," reported the AP. When asked about criticisms by College Presidents about department surveillance of Muslim student websites, Bloomberg said, among other dismissive things, "I don't know why keeping the country safe is antithetical to the values of Yale."

Any time that the department is criticized for their civil liberties abuses, the mayor and police commissioner solemnly point to the number of terror attacks they've foiled since 9/11 -- 14, a number trustingly repeated in the media. But ProPublica investigative reporter Justin Elliot went through the trouble of looking into the administration's claim and found that of the 14 successes cited, only two could be credited to the NYPD. In the other instances, the plots were stopped by other agencies, or weren't serious threats at all, or were instigated by NYPD informants providing alleged terrorists with money and bomb-making materials.

Meanwhile, a deposition on the Muslim surveillance program revealed that in six years of spying, the NYPD's demographics unit had not come up with a single lead.

4. Targeting Activists

“They said they’d make me a deal,” Diego Ibañez, a 23-year-old Sunset Park resident, tells AlterNet. The deal, barked at him while he was in handcuffs, was that he erase the footage he’d captured of the cops arresting two young African American boys in the subway or that he could join them in jail. The “Cop Watch” initiative, in which New Yorkers exercise their legal right to film the police, has grown in response to increased police brutality, but the NYPD has been targeting anybody who tries to hold them accountable.

After spending nearly an hour under arrest, Ibañez walked away from his interaction with the police with a summons for blocking pedestrian traffic, a catch-all summons that, given that New York has a massive population crammed into the five boroughs, the police can literally use whenever they choose, which was more than 35,000 times last year. When he complained that a summons wasn’t part of the deal, the police said the deal was that he wouldn’t go to jail--that night.

“They said that filming the police was illegal, which it isn’t. But if it were illegal, then why didn’t they charge me for that?” Ibañez asked.

For more established Cop-Watchers, the police are more aggressive. One Cop Watch duo, Christina Gonzalez and Matthew Swaye, found fliers with their photos posted in police precincts criminalizing them as “professional agitators.” The NYPD targeted another long-time Harlem Cop Watcher, Joseph Hayden, slapping him with a charge of criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree, which means he faces two to seven years of jail time. The alleged weapons, according to Hayden and his laywer, were a souvenir Yankees baseball bat and a broken penknife that the police found in Hayden’s car after they scoured it for any excuse to nail him.

The suppression of Cop Watch is just the tip of the iceberg. The NYPD has used counter terrorism tactics including monitoring, targeting and mass arrests against activists involved in nonviolent social movements across New York City.

5. Constant Intrusion and Surveillance

In the decade after 9/11, Americans' privacy rights have been violated in a variety of technologically intrusive ways, with the help of everything from spy drones to wiretaps. But few programs package together so many potential privacy infringements as ambitiously as the Domain Awareness System, (DAS) created by the NYPD in partnership with Microsoft.

24/7, DAS collects footage from CCTV cameras all over the city, checking the information against multiple databases, arrest records and 911 calls, and running it through license plate reader software that can track the movement of cars, and even take radiation readings. The department decides what information to archive and for how long. "Video will be held for 30 days and then deleted unless the NYPD chooses to archive it. Metadata and license plate info collected by DAS will be retained for five years, and unspecified “environmental data” will be stored indefinitely," writes Fast Company.

Said Mayor Bloomberg at a press conference, "What you're seeing is what the private sector has used for a long time. If you walk around with a cell phone, the cell phone company knows where you are…We're not your mom and pop's police department anymore."

But they promise not to spy on Muslims or anything crazy like that! The information is analyzed at a centralized location in downtown Manhattan. Pam Martens reported last year that the surveillance control center has spots for representatives of those famous crime-fighters, Wall Street's big banks. Reporter Neal Ungerleider from Fast Company also says he saw seats reserved for the Federal Reserve, Bank of New York, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer, and Citigroup.

At a press conference, Bloomberg also said that the department has plans to export the technology to other police departments, for a profit. So, the tax money spent enriching Microsoft will be recouped if all goes according to plan and the entire nation falls under DAS surveillance in a timely manner.

The DAS system is the logical culmination of a years-long campaign to load up Manhattan with surveillance cameras. Impressed by how thoroughly the city of London tracks the movements of its citizens, Mayor Bloomberg initiated the lower Manhattan security initiative in 2005 -- expanded to midtown a few years later -- whose primary objective was to cover Manhattan, underground and above ground, with cameras.

6. Police Brutality

Last winter, NYPD officer Richard Haste murdered an 18-year-old unarmed boy named Ramarley Graham in his bathroom. Video footage shows the teenager calmly walking into his parents’ home in the Bronx, quickly followed by a team of police officers who broke down the door without a warrant. According to witnesses, the police officers then rushed into the bathroom and shot and killed Graham at close range.

Graham’s case is but one of thousands of police brutality cases leveled against the NYPD. Over the last decade, brutality lawsuits and other claims against the NYPD have cost NYC taxpayers nearly $1 billion in settlements, reports the AP. One officer was sued seven times for using excessive force and brutality during arrests.

In one video taped assault in the Bronx last year, a police officer punched 19-year-old Luis Solivan in the face while another restrained him. According to Solivan, the police duo followed him to his house from the corner store, broke down the door without a warrant, pepper sprayed him, punched him in the face, and then handcuffed him and threw his head into the wall so hard that it left a hole.

In May, the police made headlines over the brutal beating of 19-year-old Bronx resident named Jateik Reed. A video captured four police officers kicking, punching and beating the the teenager with a police baton as he lay on the ground handcuffed (read Kristen Gwynne's reporting on the incident here.)

Some of the cases of brutality are more creative, if not less sadistic. Another cop “strangled” a man’s penis with the drawstring of his pants, causing lacerations along the shaft that required emergency room attention. And, just in case you thought police brutality was limited to the human species, think again. Two NYPD officers were recently caught on camera in September shooting a homeless man’s dog.

But if you call death what it is--murder--the police take to the slanderous allegations none too kindly. In July, a duo of plainclothes officers wielded a pair of paint brushes to cover over a mural in Inwood that called the NYPD murderers, because, according to the wall’s property owner, “the police were upset about the mural and wanted it changed.”

7. Just a Numbers Game

For four friends in Brooklyn, it was supposed to be a relaxing 4th of July--just a few beers outside on the stoop--until the undercover police car showed up. In a desperate effort to hit their quotas, the two officers ticketed all four for public drinking--on their own front steps.

The NYPD’s quota system, which it claims it has already abolished, is rife with such absurdity. Recently, one cop was busted citing dead people with traffic violation tickets in an effort to meet his quotas. Another picked up a grandmother, who had never been arrested in her life, for prostitution when the woman was on her way to the hospital for an asthma attack.

Most insidiously, one former NYPD narcotics detective testified last year that he regularly watched fellow police officers plant drugs on people in order to hit their arrest quotas.

In April, a Federal judge agreed to a class action lawsuit filed against the NYPD under the allegation that the quota system “leads street cops to hand out summonses even when no crime or violation has occurred just to meet productivity demands from their bosses.”

Quotas lead to an absurdly high number of summonses--a half million per year--many of which are so ridiculous that about half are dismissed the moment the accused arrives at the courthouse. But the real problem is that they are racist. Think about it. You impose an absurdly high “goal” for the number of people police officers must stop in a multiracial city where power and money is still concentrated in the hands of whites, and you get racism faster than a Black man gets busted for shoplifting in Bloomingdales. Even a criminal court judge in Brooklyn admitted this fact when faced with yet another defendant charged with drinking in public this past June.

“As hard as I try,” he wrote, “I cannot recall ever arraigning a white defendant for such a violation.”

In 2011, the NYPD issued nearly 125,000 summonses for drinking in public--some issued against people who were sitting in the doorway of their own homes. Drinking in public was the most-issued summons and about a quarter of the half-million summons the force issued in total.

And then there were the additional 700,000 "stop and frisks", more than 80 percent committed against black or brown residents. The department has defended the practice as an effective way to get guns off the street, but guns are found in a minuscle number of cases, less than 0.2 percent according to the NYCLU. Nine out of 10 people stopped have been innocent. What the practice does accomplish, is "corrode trust between the police and communities, which makes everyone less safe," as the NYCLU points out. The searches are often abusive, violent and demeaning.

Then again, sometimes the police harassment isn’t motivated by quotas at all. Sometimes it’s just the result of men suffering from the NYPD badge’s most common side effect: a twisted Napoleonic complex. Such was the case when two NYPD officers found 14-year-old Rayshawn Moreno tossing eggs on Halloween in his Staten Island neighborhood. To teach the child a lesson in crime and punishment, the cops picked him up, drove him to a swamp, took off his shoes and shirt, beat him a little, and then dumped him in the water. Good thing the boy knew how to swim.

8. Above the Law

In July, the police discovered a missing man bound and gagged in a Queens garage owned by NYPD detective Ondre Johnson. The evidence was staggering: the police traced a ransom call to a phone line in Johnson’s house. The kidnapped man’s hands were were bound with zip ties, a common substitute for handcuffs used by the NYPD. But despite the considerable suspicion, Johnson wasn’t even called in for questioning. Instead, everyone else connected with the house was hauled off to the precinct, while the police simply took their fellow officer at his word.

This case was far from the first time that a police officer has enjoyed the privilege of being protected by his fellow police officers when he may have broken the law. The Blue Shield of Silence is still well in effect in New York City, as a New York state Supreme Court justice recently discovered firsthand. After being karate-chopped in the throat by an enraged police officer during a protest, the judge tried to press charges, only to find that all the other officers on scene lied to protect the assaulting officer.

"For this to happen, for me to be attacked by a cop -- and for the cops to do this huge cover up -- it's really changing my view of the force," judge Thomas Raffaele told The Huffington Post.

Sometimes the extent of the cover ups are shocking. In 2001, for example, police officer Joseph Gray killed a four-year-old boy, a pregnant mother, and the boy’s aunt when he drove drunk through the streets of Sunset Park in a police van after hours of marathon drinking in a police precinct’s parking lot. He was eventually charged with manslaughter, much to the chagrin of his fellow officers, who had botched or destroyed various pieces of evidence throughout the investigation, including leaving full sections of the accident report blank, destroying on-the-scene photographs, and asking Gray which blood alcohol test he thought he could “beat.”

Another NYPD officer was recently arrested for trafficking firearms out of his precinct in the East Village, stealing guns from the lockers of his fellow officers in order to sell them to a police informer who then sold the guns right back to the department at a profit.

When police officers’ misconduct does actually land them in a jury trial, they are rarely convicted. Last summer, an NYPD officer was found not guilty of rape after he walked a woman home while he was on duty, tucked her into bed, snuggled with her while she was naked, and then, when she woke up the next morning with the memory of having been raped, assured her that he’d used a condom in a tape recorded conversation.

Police officers who break the code of silence often encounter fierce repercussions. When police officer Adrian Schoolcraft captured internal corruption on a hidden video camera and leaked the tapes to the press, the NYPD locked him up in a psychiatric ward.

9. Protecting Wall Street from Women Wielding Underwear

The Sunday before last, the NYPD arrested Code Pink member Rae Abileah for waving a pink bra over her head outside of a Bank of America branch during a protest against Spectra Pipeline, which the bank is allegedly financing, according to the Raw Story. As a diarist on the Daily Kos quipped, "An anonymous source, who quoted an anonymous city official, said that Wall Street criminals are now safe to wreak havoc on our financial system without fear of reprisal from women who toss underwear." On the anniversary of OWS last Monday, police arrested around 200 protestors.

At least Wall Street has paid for the favor! JP Morgan’s $4.6 million donation to the NYPD got attention last year because of its proximity to the Occupy protests (although the bank actually made the donation before the start of OWS), but donations by 1 percent corporations to the force are an annual part of the companies’ gift-giving. In 2009-2010, Goldman Sachs, Barclays Capital, Bank of America and Murdoch’s News Corp all gave over $75,000 to the force.

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