Police Overreach

It is a sad but unavoidable reality of life in the early 21st century: The New York Police Department has become more than the enforcer of law and order in the city’s streets. It has become—and not for the first time—part of a broader effort to protect Americans from the nation’s enemies.

That assignment requires—yes, requires—the surveillance of organizations and individuals suspected of inciting or of plotting attacks on the streets of New York. This is hardly an abstract threat, as any glance at the downtown skyline will confirm. But 9/11 was hardly the last plot against New York. Several other planned attacks have been thwarted; one, a car bomb in Times Square, came dangerously close to success. And surely there were other threats dismantled quietly but effectively, without public disclosure.

It should not be considered impolite or politically incorrect to note a simple fact: New York faces a threat from Islamic terrorists who have tried repeatedly to bring more bloodshed and mayhem to the city. The threat is not, frankly, from right-wing militias in Idaho, or from the Basque separatist movement, or from IRA dissidents. The threat is from men and women who claim to be acting in the name of Islam. It stands to reason, then, that the NYPD’s surveillance gives special attention to Islamic organizations or individual Muslims whose activities warrant that attention. This is not about demonizing Muslims. It is about identifying threats.

While the NYPD’s efforts are entirely justified by facts that critics prefer to ignore, it does seem that the department has engaged in jurisdictional overreach. According to recent reports, the NYPD has spied on Islamic organizations or individuals in New Jersey and elsewhere in the metropolitan area far beyond the city’s borders. It apparently has done so without giving local law-enforcement a heads-up.

The department’s intelligence unit is not the FBI. It is not a national law-enforcement organization. While it should be able to go where the evidence leads it in the case of suspected plots against New York, the department needs to be respectful of political boundaries and other jurisdictional issues.

But the NYPD does not need to apologize for engaging in surveillance. The nation’s enemies have made it clear that they will do everything they can to bring death and destruction to New York—indeed, they have done so already. The NYPD is duty-bound to identify and thwart new plots against New York. But it must do so within the rules.