The NYPD Sees Coordination in Protests. It’s Incentivized To.

Since 9/11, federal funding for counterintelligence has shifted the way New York and other cities are policed.

Demonstrators denouncing systemic racism in law enforcement face off with a line of NYPD officers hours after violating a citywide curfew on June 4 in New York City.
Demonstrators denouncing systemic racism in law enforcement face off with a line of NYPD officers hours after violating a citywide curfew on June 4 in New York City. Scott Heins/Getty Images

As protests over the killing of George Floyd, in which a Minneapolis police officer has been charged with murder, stretched into their seventh day on Monday, the top terrorism official at the New York City Police Department (NYPD) held a press conference on outside interference in the protests. “Demonstrations … were successful and peaceful and orderly until outside groups showed up and changed the tenor and tone and began to act with disorder and violence,” said John Miller, the deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism, and a former FBI public affairs specialist.

Miller alleged that the disorder was orchestrated by “outside groups” because the unspecified agitators had a “complex network of bicycle scouts” to scope out areas ahead of the protests and used “encrypted communications” and to coordinate looting, vandalism, and attacks against the police. In the following days, the NYPD hypothesized that a crate of rocks found on a street in south Brooklyn had been placed there by anti-fascist protestors, and news outlets reported that the FBI was questioning detained protesters in New York about their ties to anarchist groups.

New York’s was not the only U.S. police department to suggest there was some conspiracy behind the violence that accompanied some of the protests: Officials in Minneapolis blamed the mayhem on outside agitators, and the governor of Kentucky said on May 30 he had intelligence that protests would become violent.

Yet in reality, there is scant evidence that the outbursts of violence across the country are coordinated. In New York, the demonstrations have been spontaneous and leaderless. But Miller’s comments reveal how the NYPD and other police departments approach protest and dissent, in a pattern eerily familiar to students of intelligence and its failings. The police are incentivized to treat political protests as organized threats to be investigated and neutralized. Led by the NYPD, the largest U.S. police departments have spent the last two decades adopting the equipment and tactics of international anti-terrorism campaigns, investing millions of dollars in the creation of counterterrorism units and the acquisition of surveillance technology.

New York City has made the largest and most expensive investment in a policing strategy that prioritizes preemptive surveillance of possible security threats. After 9/11, the department adopted an intelligence-first framework on the principle that, as one deputy commissioner put it, “to wait for an indication of crime before investigating is to wait far too long.” By 2008, the department had hired more than 1,000 counterterrorism officials and expanded its counterintelligence apparatus’s budget to around $100 million annually.

The NYPD tested out this counterterrorism framework in its preparations for the Republican National Convention in 2004. Officers combed internet profiles and traveled abroad to spy on anti-war and environmental groups, seeking advance intelligence about planned demonstrations. Despite facing lawsuits for its espionage activities, the department has spied on protest groups for years, dispatching video teams more than 400 times between 2011 and 2016 to record interactions among Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter activists.

Since 9/11, the NYPD’s intelligence mandate has swelled, extending to the hiring of a “scholar-in-residence” and the creation of an “international liaison” program that stationed officers overseas in countries including Israel, Singapore, France, and the Dominican Republic. These liaisons essentially function as international detectives, embedding with local police departments to follow leads about crimes planned to be committed in New York City. The initiative, which costs about $1 million per year, is funded by the department’s charitable foundation and thus is not subject to review by elected officials. In last year’s budget, the department allocated $15.6 million for the completion of the Domain Awareness System, a network of cameras, license plate scanners, and gunshot detectors that it first began building more than 12 years ago.

As the federal government sought to leverage local law enforcement operations in the years after 9/11, it opened up funding for intelligence and surveillance units at police departments around the country. Units once focused on narcotics and organized crime now devoted themselves to collecting and analyzing information related to potential security threats, no matter how nebulous. Urban police departments filled their counterintelligence departments with dozens or hundreds of new hires, diverting taxpayer funds to these departments under the auspices of public safety.

And the federal government continued to provide ample institutional and material support. The Department of Justice created the Nationwide Suspicious Activity Reporting Initiative, tasking police departments from Houston to Philadelphia with collecting information on social and political groups. Officers at local departments generated “suspicious activity reports” on individuals and groups suspected of terrorism—even if they couldn’t meet the standards of probable cause—then funneled these reports up to federal agencies. In Los Angeles, the list of suspicious activities included taking photos, using binoculars, and taking notes; in Boston, police kept tabs on anti-war groups such as Veterans for Peace and on the leftist history professor Howard Zinn.

The Department of Homeland Security, created in 2002 to fight terrorism and illegal immigration, gave hundreds of millions of dollars in annual grants for intelligence-gathering equipment and the hiring of intelligence analysts. Departments have spent these funds on nonessential technology and gear such as facial recognition software and armored tanks. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense’s 1033 program, which allows the military to donate excess equipment to local law enforcement, has enabled smaller departments to acquire gear ranging from planes and helicopters to night-vision goggles and grenade launchers.

The upshot: Local law enforcement agencies are outfitted to detect and battle a threat that most of them have never actually encountered.

The focus on counterterrorism and the availability of federal money has also shifted the way some police departments operate, giving them structural incentive to identify organized conspiracies even where there are none. The NYPD spent around $187 million on counterterrorism operations last year, compared to $116 million on officer training last year. Given the rarity of actual terrorist incidents—even in New York—the additional manpower and high-tech equipment are deployed to monitor political groups and protesters who have no intention of committing illegal activity.

Prominent law enforcement officials were on board with bringing local police operations in line with larger national security policy from the beginning: In a 2006 essay, the former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton and the criminologist George Kelling wrote that the broken-windows theory of policing “can be adapted for the war on terror.” By tracking the smallest indications of radicalism, they argued, police could stop terrorist incidents before they happened.

Many departments’ surveillance and intelligence-gathering have led to accusations of civil and human rights abuses. The Los Angeles police dropped a plan to conduct “mapping” of the city’s Muslim neighborhoods after public outcry, while the NYPD settled a lawsuit in 2018 over alleged indiscriminate surveillance of Muslim communities. In Baltimore, the police department is facing a lawsuit over the use of police planes to monitor over 90 percent of the city’s land area.

So as thousands of people demonstrate against police brutality, intelligence officers have every institutional reason to concentrate on the small number of supposed infiltrators. By bringing international counterterrorism techniques to bear on domestic citizens, police departments have abandoned a focus on de-escalation and crowd control in favor of an approach that treats political dissent as a coordinated threat. This approach has led to misconceptions about the nature of the protests that began over George Floyd’s death. Combined with unprecedented access to weapons of warfare, these misconceptions can endanger innocent protesters.

U.S. President Donald Trump has now threatened to deploy the military to enforce curfews and dispel crowds—threats met with condemnation from local leaders in cities such as New York and Chicago. But these cities and others already have their own local armies to command. The global power of the U.S. military, focused since 9/11 on stamping out terrorism, has been replicated over the same period in U.S. police departments.

The NYPD’s ongoing attempt to portray the protesters as organized and violent, then, is not just an attempt to distract from the demonstrations. The department is doing exactly what it is built to do: bring the so-called war on terror home to American shores.

Jake Bittle is a reporter based in Brooklyn. Twitter: @jake_bittle

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