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Handcuffing the Good Guys

eye on the news

Handcuffing the Good Guys

A federal judge just moved to make New York City less safe. November 4, 2016
Public safety
New York

It’s been only two months since New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood was rocked by a powerful homemade bomb. Twenty-nine people were injured on September 17 when the device exploded in a West 23rd Street dumpster. Heaven only knows what the butcher’s bill would have been had an equally powerful device, planted nearby, gone off. It wasn’t Orlando, San Bernardino, or Fort Hood, Texas—though not for lack of trying on the part of the young jihadist who authorities say built the bombs.

No city has been treated more roughly by Islamist terrorism than New York. It suffered the 1993 World Trade Center truck-bombing before 9/11, and has been the target of at least 17 plots since the towers came down—the most recent being the Chelsea attack. Linden, New Jersey, police arrested 28-year-old Ahmad Khan Rahami—an Afghanistan-born, naturalized American citizen who authorities described as an Islamist extremist—following a shootout. He’s been charged with the dumpster bombing and others on the Jersey Shore that same weekend.

Bitter experience suggests that while Rahami may have been a so-called lone wolf, the threat he represents is by no means unique. Simple prudence dictates that New York City should now double down on public safety. But that’s not how U.S. District Court Judge Charles Haight sees it. The 86-year-old jurist has embraced NYPD inspector general Philip Eure’s claim that the department has abused court-mandated protocols governing covert police investigations—deep-sixing the pending settlement of a lawsuit brought by Muslim activists who claim that their civil rights had been violated. But there simply is no evidence that substantive violations have occurred.

NYPD intelligence-gathering, including surveillance and other covert activities, is governed by a 1971 federal court consent decree known as the Handschu Guidelines—an agreement that was tightened up after 9/11 by Judge Haight himself. As such techniques go, NYPD practices are beyond benign, and governed by exceptionally restrictive reporting requirements. Undercover officers essentially are sent to public places to listen for problematic rhetoric. But some object to surveillance of any sort—including, it would appear, Eure. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Eure makes his living nitpicking cops. He headed the Washington, D.C., police complaint bureau for 14 years before becoming NYPD inspector general in 2014 and promising to help lead the department out of what he termed “the dark ages.”

With a few notable exceptions, Eure has scarcely been heard from since—suggesting, at the very least, that the NYPD needs far less oversight than activists claim. The two exceptions—critical reports on quality-of-life policing and the terror-surveillance program—are readily falsifiable teapot tempests, but they did generate attention.

Judge Haight paid particular attention to the terror-surveillance report. He seized on it to overturn the pending civil-rights lawsuit settlement. Never mind that Eure had found no substantive abuse of anybody’s rights; it was enough that the IG had discovered occasional, albeit inconsequential, failures to meet reporting deadlines. The judge termed the delays evidence of a “near-systemic failure” by the NYPD to follow the Handschu Guidelines. It’s a preposterous assertion. Even Eure hasn’t made such a claim.

The judge’s proposed remedy is even more otherworldly. He’s seeking the appointment of yet one more monitor for the NYPD—this one charged with specific oversight of the department’s antiterror investigative practices. Those efforts are already under Haight’s thumb, per the terms of the original Handschu agreement. They also are subject to review by Eure, the NYPD’s Civilian Complaint Review Board, and a city council unrelentingly hostile to even modestly aggressive police activity.

Again, all of this proceeds without any evidence that anyone’s rights have even been bruised by the NYPD since 9/11, let alone violated. On the other side of the ledger is the fact that the department has cracked, or assisted in taking down, 16 terror plots aimed at New York City. Why Judge Haight chooses to stand with the purveyors of nihilist, anti-police prejudice is a mystery, though the potential consequences of what he’s proposing seem clear enough. New York City remains a prime target for terror, and the next bomb stands to do more than wreck a Chelsea dumpster. Why make it any easier?

Photo by Bryan Thomas/Getty Images

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