Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Oh the Horrors of Knowledge About a Specific Community

New York City is putting some effort into getting to know its Moroccan Muslim community. The NYPD Demographics unit is gathering basic intelligence about the social netowrk in the community. Whcih stores, mosques, and services are frequented by the New York Moroccan population. Juan Cole notes that the 'targeting' of Moroccans is odd as a group to surveil. It would only make sense if it were part of a larger effort to map the social networks of a large number of immigrant communities. The NYPD can easily gain insight into groups' social patterns through recruitment of officers from those communities, but it's possible that immigrant groups pose a greater challenge for some reason.

You would think that this research and study of communities that the NYPD serves would be seen as a positve development. The more information about how a community operates, the better the NYPD would be able to recruit effective allies. Lev Levitt is determined to see this move as purely sinister. In his defense, the NYPD says that the social mapping is in service of counterterrorism goals. It may be a waste of resources, but there's nothing particularly sinister about it. NB: the entire islamophobic direction of law enforcement resources has been sinister and problematic, but this instance is probably one of its least problematic expressions.

Len Levitt wonders
Where's the outrage? Where's the concern? Where's the lawsuit?
Len Levitt is a police reporter, so he can be forgiven for not knowing the first thing about civil litigation. The missing lawsuit would require that the police action has caused an injury (or is likely to cause an injury) to a specific individual. It appears that police studying population-level details of a specific immigrant group is actually harmless. Levitt is crying fire, but there's no smoke.

Here comes the real doozy of Levitt's article: the lack of harms to specific individuals (i.e. brutality, unwarranted arrests, harassment) proves that the program is illegal. Here is how Levitt puts it:
Browne also said that officers only follow criminal leads when investigating terrorism, a claim belied by the NYPD's own documents, which detail the sweeping nature of its spying despite no indication of criminality.
There are no active terrorism investigations ongoing in the community. No one has faced (or will face) criminal prosecutions for actions that have been observed over the course of the intelligence-gathering operation. And as to the "spying" that Levitt reports, he cites examples of the NYPD Demographics unit creating a list of Moroccan cab drivers and designating locations that are important to the Moroccan community.
The Intelligence Division's Demographics Unit assembled all this information so that if police received a tip about a Moroccan terrorist, officers would know details of the community, the AP said.
Despite using the word "spy" and its derivations 15 times in the article, there doesn't appear to be any allegation that the NYPD has even approached a 4th Amendment barrier. Taxi operaters apply for licenses from the city, and that is publicly available knowledge. People using public streets have since the dawn of time been subjected to public (including police) scrutiny. Levitt seems to understand "spying" to entail any information about the city that the government collects outside of an active investigation. To eliminate "Spying" for Levitt, police would have to begin each investigation from a blank slate, arriving on the scene with no information backed by empirical observation or prior knowledge of the community in which a crime happens.

I hope that NYPD is using the Demographics unit to create social network maps of all communities, and that the information will be used to create smart policing strategies that build alliances and place the police on the side of the communities they are supposed to serve. That's a leap of faith, and we need to pay attention to how this information is used, and whether the resources invested into the program are worthwhile. I think Juan Cole is right that the funds would better be spent mapping social networks of immigrants from more volatile areas (or from rural Michigan for that matter). That's a matter of whether police are using resources intelligently. Levitt, on the other hand, wants police to not only be dumb, but blind.

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