The Perils of Excessive Policing, in Both the U.S. and France

Ongoing debates over excessive policing, civil liberties violations, and the war on terror collided earlier this week in Philadelphia. There, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit heard arguments related to the constitutionality of the New York Police Department's mass surveillance of Muslims, over which the recent attacks in Paris cast a disconcerting pall.  

The lawsuit was first filed against the NYPD long before the Charlie Hebdokillings, of course, back in 2012, by the Center for Constitutional Rights and civil rights group Muslim Advocates. It contends that surveilling Muslims solely on the account of their religion violated the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause and the Free Exercise and Establishment Clauses of the First Amendment.

The attacks on September 11, 2001, and in Paris last week, Judge Jane R. Roth said Tuesday, suggest "that there are legitimate police investigatory reasons for this surveillance." Roth and the other two judges on the panel did seem skeptical of New York City's argument that a federal judge's dismissal of the case should be upheld. But the notion that intensive surveillance was necessary will no doubt be taken up if the case is allowed to move forward. The 2001 attacks, Roth said, "made us focus upon terrorism among certain extreme Muslim groups. And how do you find out where they are?"

The Paris attacks have prompted the New York Post to call on the city to "revisit its decision to dismantle" the NYPD's Muslim surveillance program.

The NYPD unit assigned to conduct surveillance of Muslims was disbanded last year, soon after Mayor Bill de Blasio took office. But the Paris attacks have prompted the New York Post to call on the city to "revisit its decision to dismantle" the program because it "was designed to provide exactly the kind of intelligence that would have been useful to police in Paris ... Namely, where [the suspects] might go to find shelter or assistance."

Long Island Republican Congressman Peter King likewise praised the program, and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani called its shuttering "one of more irrational acts that a mayor could perform."

The trouble with this argument is that in France, Arab and black Africans have already long been subject to extraordinarily aggressive policing and, as in the U.S., police-involved deaths of youth have sparked violent uprisings. In 2005, French youth rioted, resulting in nearly 9,000 cars burned and 2,900 arrested, after two young men running from police were electrocuted while attempting to hide in a power substation.

"It has always been heavy policing" using "zero tolerance" and "quality of life" approaches, says Fabien Jobard, a fellow at Berlin-based think tank Centre Marc Bloch and an expert on French policing and criminal justice. "This toughness is part of the problem. It's part of the reason why the young male living in the cités [housing projects] feel like they're being treated like foreigners [and] don't feel treated like usual, normal, common French people."

Among politicians the world over and in plenty of media coverage, the Paris attacks are being framed as a conflict between the West and monolithic global Islamic terror. But as more responsible observers have noted, Chérif Kouachi, one of the two brothers who perpetrated the Charlie Hebdo killings, grew up in France as the child of Algerian immigrants. As a young adult, he hung out with a circle of French friends first "involved in petty crime, theft, drugs, trafficking,"The Guardian reports.

And Amédy Coulibaly, who carried out the murders at the Kosher supermarket, "was born in France to parents from Mali ... and grew up on a notorious housing estate, La Grande-Borne, in Grigny, south of Paris." Kouachi and Coulibaly met in the overcrowded and fetid Fleury-Mérogis prison—where they also met the militant Islamist, imprisoned on terrorist charges, who apparently helped radicalize them.

The recent violence in France is, of course, very much related to a radical Islamist movement with global reach (and also, of course, to the global "war on terror"). And while marginalization and oppression of immigrant-descendent youths is harmful, it is not breeding a generation of would-be terrorists.

"There is a danger by making these connections that one ends up supporting the impression of a bubbling discontent among Muslims (born or converted) in France or elsewhere that will necessarily lead to this kind of violence," e-mails Paul Silverstein, an anthropologist at Reed College who researches the history and politics of the North African diaspora in France. "The Charlie Hebdo attack was fundamentally different in both its etiology and the way it played out than what occurred in 2005 or in the other incidents of male youth violence directed at police—where it really was about a class of people who felt disenfranchised showing that they were not going to take police violence lying down."

But it would be a mistake to not think carefully about what role law enforcement plays in prosecuting the war on terror, both in France and the U.S. "The response to the attack risks augmenting the pessimistic discourse" about Muslims in France, Silverstein says, "and turning it into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Over-emphasizing [either] the domestic [or the] war on terror contexts ... [can] lead to pernicious conclusions."


The NYPD program, uncovered by the Associated Press in a 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, reportedly set up a "Demographics Unit" to develop a web of "mosque crawler" informants in houses of worship, collect visitors' license plate numbers, surveil neighborhoods and cafes with large Muslim populations, and infiltrate Muslim Student Associations.

The surveillance extended into New Jersey, suburban New York and beyond, and even into mundane activities like a City College of New York studentwhitewater rafting trip that one undercover officer attended. Deputy commissioner for intelligence David Cohen reportedly "wanted a source inside every mosque within a 250-mile radius of New York."

When distrust of police is high, you risk lowering the quality of police intelligence.

In France, Jobard worries not only that heavy-handed policing tactics have led to marginalization and fomented additional violence, it also makes it harder for police to do their jobs. When distrust of police is high, you risk lowering the quality of police intelligence. Plus, it's hard to focus on dangerous people when you're focusing on everybody.

The NYPD might confront a similar predicament. In a 2012 deposition, the Commanding Officer of the NYPD Intelligence Division said that the "rhetoric that came from a Demographics report" had not provided him with a single lead in his six years in the position—and that he did not recall any that had been provided in years prior.

The closure of the NYPD Demographics Unit, later renamed the Zone Assessment Unit, was announced in April 2014. But the New York Timesreported just the next month that an NYPD outfit called the Citywide Debriefing Team was still attempting to recruit Muslims arrested for crimes—including very low level ones—to become informants on their communities.

The current scope of NYPD surveillance of Muslims is unclear; it could no doubt still be vast. But in deciding how to move forward, the policymakers who oversee law enforcement agencies should not forget the recent fiery protests over the policing of people of color in the United States—and in France.

Farid El Yamni, whose brother died in French police custody under disputed circumstances in 2012, complains that the French media reviled American police as racist in its coverage of Ferguson but, hypocritically, refuses to look in the mirror.

It is "the same" in France, he says by phone. "We were very astonished when they talked about Ferguson in this way—when they talked about racist police, and [that it is a] racist country in [the] USA. But they can't say the same thing in France."

El Yamni says that while a minority of "smart people" might take the sociological view that "there is a problem" underlying the violence and "will try to understand" it, the media and politicians, he says, will opt for bluster. "It is like the 11th of September. When there is a drama, if the politician doesn't move very hard he will lose his place. So it will be the same ... They will give the voice to the one who will say 'we are in war, we have to be harder.'"

"How is it possible," El Yamni asks referring to the attackers, "that people who were born in France can do that?

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