THOUSANDS of people plead guilty to crimes every year in the United States because they know that the odds of a jury’s believing their word over a police officer’s are slim to none. As a juror, whom are you likely to believe: the alleged criminal in an orange jumpsuit or two well-groomed police officers in uniforms who just swore to God they’re telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but? As one of my colleagues recently put it, “Everyone knows you have to be crazy to accuse the police of lying.”
But are police officers necessarily more trustworthy than alleged criminals? I think not. Not just because the police have a special inclination toward confabulation, but because, disturbingly, they have an incentive to lie. In this era of mass incarceration, the police shouldn’t be trusted any more than any other witness, perhaps less so.
That may sound harsh, but numerous law enforcement officials have put the matter more bluntly. Peter Keane, a former San Francisco Police commissioner, wrote an article in The San Francisco Chronicle decrying a police culture that treats lying as the norm: “Police officer perjury in court to justify illegal dope searches is commonplace. One of the dirty little not-so-secret secrets of the criminal justice system is undercover narcotics officers intentionally lying under oath. It is a perversion of the American justice system that strikes directly at the rule of law. Yet it is the routine way of doing business in courtrooms everywhere in America.”
The New York City Police Department is not exempt from this critique. In 2011, hundreds of drug cases were dismissed after several police officers were accused of mishandling evidence. That year, Justice Gustin L. Reichbach of the State Supreme Court in Brooklyn condemned a widespread culture of lying and corruption in the department’s drug enforcement units. “I thought I was not naïve,” he said when announcing a guilty verdict involving a police detective who had planted crack cocaine on a pair of suspects. “But even this court was shocked, not only by the seeming pervasive scope of misconduct but even more distressingly by the seeming casualness by which such conduct is employed.”
Remarkably, New York City officers have been found to engage in patterns of deceit in cases involving charges as minor as trespass. In September it was reported that the Bronx district attorney’s office was so alarmed by police lying that it decided to stop prosecuting people who were stopped and arrested for trespassing at public housing projects, unless prosecutors first interviewed the arresting officer to ensure the arrest was actually warranted. Jeannette Rucker, the chief of arraignments for the Bronx district attorney, explained in a letter that it had become apparent that the police were arresting people even when there was convincing evidence that they were innocent. To justify the arrests, Ms. Rucker claimed, police officers provided false written statements, and in depositions, the arresting officers gave false testimony.
Mr. Keane, in his Chronicle article, offered two major reasons the police lie so much. First, because they can. Police officers “know that in a swearing match between a drug defendant and a police officer, the judge always rules in favor of the officer.” At worst, the case will be dismissed, but the officer is free to continue business as usual. Second, criminal defendants are typically poor and uneducated, often belong to a racial minority, and often have a criminal record. “Police know that no one cares about these people,” Mr. Keane explained.
All true, but there is more to the story than that.
Police departments have been rewarded in recent years for the sheer numbers of stops, searches and arrests. In the war on drugs, federal grant programs like the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program have encouraged state and local law enforcement agencies to boost drug arrests in order to compete for millions of dollars in funding. Agencies receive cash rewards for arresting high numbers of people for drug offenses, no matter how minor the offenses or how weak the evidence. Law enforcement has increasingly become a numbers game. And as it has, police officers’ tendency to regard procedural rules as optional and to lie and distort the facts has grown as well. Numerous scandals involving police officers lying or planting drugs — in Tulia, Tex. and Oakland, Calif., for example — have been linked to federally funded drug task forces eager to keep the cash rolling in.
THE pressure to boost arrest numbers is not limited to drug law enforcement. Even where no clear financial incentives exist, the “get tough” movement has warped police culture to such a degree that police chiefs and individual officers feel pressured to meet stop-and-frisk or arrest quotas in order to prove their “productivity.”
For the record, the New York City police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, denies that his department has arrest quotas. Such denials are mandatory, given that quotas are illegal under state law. But as the Urban Justice Center’s Police Reform Organizing Project has documented, numerous officers have contradicted Mr. Kelly. In 2010, a New York City police officer named Adil Polanco told a local ABC News reporter that “our primary job is not to help anybody, our primary job is not to assist anybody, our primary job is to get those numbers and come back with them.” He continued: “At the end of the night you have to come back with something. You have to write somebody, you have to arrest somebody, even if the crime is not committed, the number’s there. So our choice is to come up with the number.”
Exposing police lying is difficult largely because it is rare for the police to admit their own lies or to acknowledge the lies of other officers. This reluctance derives partly from the code of silence that governs police practice and from the ways in which the system of mass incarceration is structured to reward dishonesty. But it’s also because police officers are human.
Research shows that ordinary human beings lie a lot — multiple times a day — even when there’s no clear benefit to lying. Generally, humans lie about relatively minor things like “I lost your phone number; that’s why I didn’t call” or “No, really, you don’t look fat.” But humans can also be persuaded to lie about far more important matters, especially if the lie will enhance or protect their reputation or standing in a group.
The natural tendency to lie makes quota systems and financial incentives that reward the police for the sheer numbers of people stopped, frisked or arrested especially dangerous. One lie can destroy a life, resulting in the loss of employment, a prison term and relegation to permanent second-class status. The fact that our legal system has become so tolerant of police lying indicates how corrupted our criminal justice system has become by declarations of war, “get tough” mantras, and a seemingly insatiable appetite for locking up and locking out the poorest and darkest among us.
And, no, I’m not crazy for thinking so.
Michelle Alexander is the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images
In September, New York Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly explained that, after 9/11, “I knew we needed to buttress our defenses of the city. We couldn’t rely on the federal government alone. I believed that we had to create our … own counter terrorism division.” And so he did. The effort now employs 1,000 officers and in the last decade has cost $3 billion—about the GDP of Fiji. Kelly built himself a $150 million movie-set control room, filled with feeds from thousands of cameras set up around New York and a brigade of spectacularly armed soldier-cops. From there, he commands an anti-terror infrastructure that outsizes numerous federal agencies. New York became a fortress.
Little wonder that this massive military-style bureaucracy has proven unwilling and unable to be accountable to the public it serves.
In recent months, news reports have revealed NYPD program’s to surveil, spy on and infiltrate Muslim communities across the northeastern United States. Kelly’s agents have attached cameras to telephone polls outside of mosques and catalogued the license plate numbers of everyone who enters for prayer. The cops spied on Muslim student groups on 16 college campuses in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania and created a database of every Muslim owned business in the greater New York Area; Gawker referred to the documents, released by the Associated Press, as a “Zagat Guide to Newark’s Best…Muslim Restaurants.”
Kelly and his spokesperson Paul Browne have claimed over and over again that the cops only follow legitimate leads and that their activities do not amount to religious or racial profiling. All evidence is to the contrary. And with each new detail that AP unearths, the evidence of religious and racial profiling mounts. In one document, released by the AP, the NYPD went so far as to take note of a small African American Muslim preschool in Newark.
Much of the money to fund this spying program came from the federal government.
On Monday, the AP reported that the program to map the location of Muslims and surveil them, J. Edger Hoover-style, also drew directly on federal funding, in the form of a grant direct from the White House.
Since September 11, 2001, AP reported, the “Bush and Obama administrations have provided $135 million to the New York and New Jersey region through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, known as HIDTA.” Neither the White House nor Congress are given details of how the money is spent. But the AP reports the drug war-era funds have been used at least in some part to pay for “cars that plainclothes NYPD officers used to conduct surveillance on Muslim neighborhoods and … for computers that stored” information of the targets of the NYPD’s Muslim mapping program.
The ACLU and other groups have demanded a federal probe into the legality the spending.
“We’re concerned that federal resources may be used to map Muslims with no evidence of wrongdoing,” said Nusrat Choudhury, an attorney with the ACLU’s National Security Project. “There are federal protections against this and what disturbs is that there’s a revelation that the White House may have supported it.”
But the White House money came in addition to a much larger pool of funds from the federal government. According to New York City documents, nearly $1 billion came to the NYPD directly from the Department of Homeland Security in just the last seven years to pay, in part, for the sprawling anti-terrorism program.
And to pay the salaries of its officers scattered around the world—Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Amman, Toronto, etc…—NYPD draws from private money. The New York Police Foundation, a privately funded independent entity set up to support the NYPD, pays for the department’s International Liaison Program. These officers gallop around the globe unwatched, with no oversight by Congress or any other federal entity, acting in the name of New York City residents.
Liza Goitein is co-director of the National Security Program at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York. “This is the front line of counter terrorism today and yet very little is known in terms of what local cops are doing,” she said. “The NYPD has become a its own little FBI. But then you contrast the oversight of FBI, which is overseen by congress, and has an internal inspector general. There is nothing like that in the NYPD.”
A Closer Look at Kelly’s Claims
The billions of dollars in public and private money pumped into the department has created an infrastructure that resembles Hollywood. Indeed, in a September interview with 60 Minutes, Kelly told a story to a smitten Scott Pelley about how he hoped his anti-terrorism machine would deter terrorists. “If you see the movie Casablanca and you have Humphrey Bogart talking to Col. Strasser,” said Kelly, “and he says that he would advise the Nazis to think twice about invading certain parts of New York City, that’s our message: stay away.”
Since September 11, only one reported act of terrorism has been carried out to its end in New York City. A man named Faisal Shahzad drove his Nissan S.U.V. into Times Square with explosives in the back and lit a fuse. The car smoked, but nothing exploded and nobody was hurt. In that case, Kelly says, “we were lucky.” In his filmic view, the army he’s built has kept the city safe from other attacks by building its massive infrastructure to spy on Muslim American restaurants and college students.
“There have been 13 plots against New York that have been thwarted by either the great work of our federal partners, NYPD officers, just plain luck, or a combination of all three,” Kelly wrote in an August piece for the NY Daily News, before the most recent crop of AP revelations. He’s since added a 14th foiled plot to this list.
NYPD has provided very little information about the plots on Kelly’s list, but Colorlines.com dug through old new reports to try and figure out what he was talking about.
What’s notable is that none of the cases we identified were prevented by the city’s program of indiscriminate spying on Muslims. The NYPD’s widespread racial and religious profiling program, from this view, has done nothing to keep the city safer. It would be troubling even if it were effective, to be sure, but Kelly’s core argument for unchecked authority to surveil doesn’t appear to hold up, when measured against the list of accomplishments he cites.
Moreover, that very program may in fact have helped create a handful of the plots that the NYPD claims to have foiled.
Kelly attributed the department’s undoing of the Times Square bombing attempt to luck. Of the 13 other plots, at least five appear to have involved the use of informants—cops who infiltrate communities and pretend to have connections to terrorist organizations. As has been widely reported at this point, those informants systematically target young, economically strapped, often disgruntled and sometimes mentally ill men and push them to participate in plans to attack New York. The plots exist only because NYPD, or in some cases the FBI, have made them up and recruited the young men to participate, often in the most vague ways. But once the young men agree, the cops pounce, charge the men with conspiracy, send them away to several decades in jail and hold a press conference announcing our narrow escape from danger.
In at least two of these informant-led cases, the practices were so concerning that even the FBI—which usually handles terrorism cases and has itself engaged in behavior that amounts to entrapment—refused to prosecute.
In the most recent case—the 14th plot on Kelly’s list—Jose Pimentel, a young New Yorker described by people who knew him as “unstable,” is accused of building a bomb to explode in the city. Pimentel was indicted on terrorism charges yesterday. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in jail.
The New York Times reports that Pimental used the NYPD informant’s apartment to build a bomb. The NYPD “informer provided companionship and a staging area so Mr. Pimentel, a Muslim convert, could build three pipe bombs while the Intelligence Division of the New York Police Department built its case” against him.
According to the Times, “the informer’s role, and that of his police handlers…have now been cited as among the reasons the F.B.I., which had its own parallel investigation of Mr. Pimentel, did not pursue the case.” Two sources told the Times that federal “investigators were concerned that the case raised some entrapment questions.”
The FBI similarly refused to participate in another investigation of two young men convicted recentely of lesser charges. Mohamed Mamdouh and Ahmed Ferhani were targeted by a police informant and the FBI expressed concerns about entrapment. A law enforcement official told The Associated Press that “the FBI had reservations about how the probe was conducted and concluded the allegations weren’t worthy of a federal terrorism case.”
Another plot listed by Kelly is that of Shahawar Martin Siraj and James Elshafay, which Colorlines.com covered previously. The two men were convicted of 2004 charges to detonate a bomb in New York’s Herald Square. The plot never existed before NYPD informants were involved in the case.
Despite its rejection of entrapment tactics in several NYPD cases, the FBI has used informants as well. According to a 2010 investigation by “Democracy Now!,” an FBI informant allegedly entrapped four black Muslim men from a poor neighborhood in Newburgh, N.Y., convincing them to participate in a fake attack on a synagogue. Federal prosecutors argue that their participation in the plot proves that they were predisposed to terrorism. But the defense contends that the men would never have committed any act of violence were it not for the FBI’s fabrication of a plot and its concerted campaign to convince them to join it. The case is on Kelly’s list as well.
In a fifth case where informants may have been used, Najibullah Zazi drove from Denver toward New York City in 2009 in a car reportedly filled with explosives. Unlike the other four, the Zazi case may have developed independtly from the informants involvement, but it appears to be federal investigators, not the NYPD, that thwarted the plan. On his way to New York, Zazi received a tip that the FBI was watching him and he turned his car around. The FBI soon arrested the man.
None of the remaining eight plots appear to involve the NYPD in substantive ways. Rather, they’re mostly a list of reported plots to attack the city drawn from the federal government’s global war on terrorism. Several of the plots, none of which were acted upon, were gleaned from interrogations of men detained in Guantanamo Bay.
One involved a reported plan by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to attack the Brooklyn Bridge. The plan was reportedly called off by Al Qaeda after an operative “found that security at the bridge made it too difficult to attack,” wrote Kelly. There’s no reported evidence that the NYPD was involved in foiling the alleged plot.
Similarly, a reported “December 2002 plot to disperse cyanide gas in the subway system … was called off at the last minute,” according to Kelly. Again, there was no reported evidence that the NYPD was involved in foiling the plot.
In a 2004 plot to blow up corporate headquarters in New York and New Jersey—which was covered at length by the press but about which there remains very little public information—according to the AP at the time, the plot was gleaned “from Pakistan’s capture of an al-Qaeda operative several weeks ago, a U.S. counterterrorism official said, speaking only anonymously.”
An Al Quaeda plot to smuggle explosives into Manhattan that was apparently concocted by Saifullah Paracha, an alleged Al Qaeda operative, was gleaned from interrogations of Paracha in the Guantanamo Bay prison.
The list goes on: A plot thought up and apparently foiled in England; a plot that never made it out of Afghanistan; a plot to attack JFK Airport that was investigated and prosecuted by the FBI; a plot gleaned from federal surveillance of chats and web exchange between people not in the United States. None of it suggests NYPD’s widespread and indiscriminate surveillance of Muslim Americans serves an urgent public purpose.
The question is not whether the federal government and even the NYPD should be engaged in anti-terrorism work. There have surely been real plots to attack the New York since 9/11. The question is what kind of work the NYPD is doing, with what oversight and to what ends.
The NYPD has succeeded in incarcerating a small group of cash strapped, sometimes mentally ill young men who never intended to commit acts of terrorism before the NYPD informants devised the plan. In these cases, the city for all intents and purposes built fantasy bombs and attached to them ticking clocks, handed the fakes to troubled and confused men and then arrested the men as terrorists.
The city’s broader practices of spying, surveillance and mapping based on religion and race raise fundamental concerns about civil rights and constitutional violations that precede questions about whether the practices indeed keep the city safer. For the Muslim Americans who have been spied on, the program has not brought safety. Last week, a Columbia University student who is a member of the Muslim Student Association there told Colorlines.com, “I’ve spent the last four days rethinking every single interaction I’ve had here. Everything I’ve said in Middle East Studies class … in the cafeteria.”
The spying and use of informants, the convictions and the lists, all serve a function that’s less tangible, but for Kelly just as necessary: justifying his infrastrucrture. Indeed, as long as Kelly can demonstrate a homegrown threat, he’s got fodder to defend his spying and infiltration—and the billions of dollars and unchecked authority he wields. It’s a program that has expanded his own reach and the institutional power of the NYPD beyond precedent and struck fear into communities without any demonstrable benefit to public safety.
2:21 pm Feb. 21, 2012
Responding this morning to a question about the NYPD’s reported surveillance of Muslim student groups, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “I don’t know why keeping the country safe is antithetical to the values of Yale.”
“Yale’s freedoms to do research, to teach, to give people a place to say what they want to say is defended by the law enforcement throughout this country,” said the mayor during the question-and-answer portion of a press conference at the Brooklyn Public Library’s main branch this morning.
A recent A.P. report revealed that the N.Y.P.D. had monitored Muslim student groups, including at institutions like Yale, and had “even sent an undercover agent on a whitewater rafting trip, where he recorded students’ names and noted in police intelligence files how many times they prayed.”
The president of Yale, Richard Levin, has since written a letter saying that “police surveillance based on religion, nationality, or peacefully expressed political opinions is antithetical to the values of Yale, the academic community, and the United States.”
The mayor said he saw nothing wrong with any of it.
“If going on websites and looking for information is not what Yale stands for, I don’t know,” said Bloomberg. “It’s the freedom of information … Of course we’re gonna look at anything that’s publicly available and in the public domain. We have an obligation to do so. And it is to protect the very things that let Yale survive.”
A reporter pointed out that recent reports indicate that the NYPD did more than look on websites, including the rafting trip.
The mayor responded: “The only whitewater rafting I’ve done I did with my daughter. I don’t think she has a lot of information that I was interested in in terms of her political views. It was a long time ago. I’m not sure at that time she had political views. She certainly does now.”
The reporter persisted, asking if perhaps accompanying students on a such a trip might have gone one step too far.
“No,” said the mayor. “We have to keep this country safe. This is a dangerous place. Make no mistake about it. It’s very cute to go and to blame everybody and say we should stay away from anything that smacks of intelligence gathering. The job of our law enforcement is to make sure that they prevent things. And you only do that by being proactive. You have to respect people’s right to privacy. You have to obey the law. And I think the police officers across this country, at the federal level, state level, the city level, do that. But having said all of that, you are not going to survive, you will not be able to be a journalist and write what you want to say if the people who want to take away your freedoms are allowed to succeed.”
When asked by another reporter whether he was aware that the N.Y.P.D. was sending personnel out of state for such purposes, the mayor again talked about his daughter.
“You know, I’ve been on a white rafting trip,” said Bloomberg. “I went down the Rogue River with my daughter years ago. It’s the last time I went whitewater rafting or probably ever talked about it.”
There was another follow-up.
“Mr. Mayor, you spoke of the need for surveillance to secure freedom and liberty. The Muslim community feels it’s being surveilled a lot more than any other communities,” said a reporter.
“Well I don’t know how anybody would know that,” countered the mayor.
“Well there’s no indication that you’re in synagogues and churches,” the reporter said.
“Isn’t that what you would want?” said Bloomberg.
“You are in churches and synagogues as often as mosques?”
“I didn’t say that,” said Bloomberg. “You said that.”
The mayor’s press secretary, Stu Loeser, interjected to point out that in the ’70s and ’80s, the NYPD conducted surveillance on groups like the Jewish Defense League and organizations affiliated with the Irish Republican Army.
Then the mayor jumped back in.
“The police department goes where there are allegations, and they look to see whether those allegations are true,” he said. “That’s what you would expect them to do. That’s what you want them to do. … You have your job because there were young men and women who’ve been giving their lives overseas for the last 200-plus years, so that we would have freedom of the press. And we’d go after the terrorists. And we’re going to continue to do that. And the same thing is true for those people that work on the streets of our cities.”