In recent months, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has come under attack for its counterterrorism intelligence activities, including its alleged efforts to “map” ethnic communities and its surveillance of religious groups. It is easy to view this controversy in familiar terms of security versus privacy or non-discrimination. Seen in those terms, the natural solutions seem to lie in tightening and enforcing substantive restrictions and guidelines that govern police intelligence activities and investigations.
The natural and important focus on substantive restrictions on police surveillance and intelligence collection, however, should not obscure the broader structural and institutional issues at stake here: What role should local police agencies play in terrorism prevention, and how should their cooperation be organized horizontally (among local police agencies) and vertically (between the federal and local governments)? How much discretion should state and local governments have in performing counterterrorism intelligence functions? And how can counterterrorism tasks be integrated with other police functions?
My essay offers some recommendations for addressing those questions. For readers interested in a more critical and less sanguine take on local police and counterterrorism activities, especially those directed at combating radicalization, I recommend this report by Faiza Patel at the Brennan Center for Justice.