NYPD Chief defends controversial policy to recruit Muslim arrestees as informants

In special interview with The Jerusalem Post, Commissioner William Bratton talks about the strategy: "This is an essential element of policing."

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
NYPD Commissioner William Bratton
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The New York Police Department has no intention of scrapping a policy of recruiting Muslim arrestees and arrestees from Muslim countries as informants, visiting NYPD Commissioner William Bratton told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
“Not at all, this is an essential element of policing. I created this policy back in 1994, in New York City last time I was commissioner, where very person arrested was interviewed by detectives about not necessarily the crime they committed but do they have information about other crimes and is there an ability to develop these people into confidential informants,” Bratton said, when asked if there was any intention to suspend or scale back the program in the wake of a New York Times article this week detailing the operations of the Citywide Debriefing Team.
The article was based in part on two dozen reports the newspaper said the team generated in early 2009. Citing police officials, the Times said that just in the first quarter of 2014, the team conducted 220 such interviews.
The Citywide Debriefing Team “sought to recruit Muslims regardless of what they know,” and arrestees were not asked about the charges they were arrested for, but rather “about where they went to mosque and what their prayer habits were.”
Following the story, the Washington- based Council on American-Islamic Relations called on the US Department of Justice to investigate the policy, saying it might be unconstitutional.
Sitting with Bratton on Tuesday, John Miller, deputy commissioner in charge of the NYPD’s Intelligence Division, said, “We have to get back to the planet Earth for a minute… We can’t have this conversation in some sort of vacuum.” The questioning is done because “we live in a certain reality” where men with origin in Muslim countries are targets for recruitment by extremists and can be sources of intelligence for the police.
From a police standpoint, “if you don’t talk to people, you don’t get good intelligence,” Miller said. The NYPD only knows the men’s country of origin, not their religion, he added. “We don’t know who’s a Muslim. There’s no box on the arrest form that says what your religion is.”
When asked if they understood the criticism, Miller said, “I understand that the controversy is driven by how the program is characterized. I don’t think that if you look at it based on what it really is you can have much argument on it. I think the basic tenet of policing is that when you take people into custody, you try to get information from them. This is how we take guns, this is how we seize narcotics, this is how we solve murders every single day. In the area of counterterrorism, this is how you are going to gain insight and visibility where you would otherwise have very little.”
He added that while the Times article focused on arrestees from Muslim countries, the NYPD also asks such questioning of arrestees from dozens of other countries and places of interest that are not connected to the War on Terror or known to be hotbeds of Islamic extremism, in order to gain intelligence for possible investigations.
In April, the NYPD closed a confidential program called the Demographics Unit that spied on Muslims, which had sent detectives into Muslim communities to gather intelligence and build personal files. The program drew criticism from civil rights groups and Muslims.
Bratton and Miller are in Israel to attend the first-ever National Conference on Personal Security held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center (Binyenei Ha’uma), where Bratton spoke on Tuesday.
Bratton has met during his trip with his counterpart from the Israel Police, Insp.- Gen. Yohanan Danino, as well as the director of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Service), Yoram Cohen.
Ahead of the conference, Bratton was asked if the issue of organized crime in Israel had come up in his conversations with his Israeli counterparts, especially in light of the wave of mafia killings in Israel in the past several months.
Bratton said that the matter did come up and that they discussed “the very successful efforts [in the United States] in the ’80s and ’90s which significantly reduced the impact of the Italian Mafia, which were the principle organized crime entity in the United States, and there is certainly concern [in Israel] that the violence that these gangs are involved in is destabilizing and causes fear.”
He spoke of how in the United States police were helped greatly by he Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and more severe sentences for people convicted of organized crime offenses.
In some ways the fight against the mafia resembles the battle against terrorism, he said.
“You have to build up confidential informants, which in that regard is a lot like how you fight terrorism. You develop informants who give you the ability to develop information that can be used as evidence,” the NYPD boss said.
When asked about the Israel Police’s efforts to enlist more Israeli Arabs into the force, Bratton spoke about how in the 40 years he’s been in law enforcement, he’s seen US police departments change from being majority white to heavily minority, and in the case of the NYPD, “minority majority.”
“You need to make very concerted efforts, and in the NYPD we now have a minority majority police force in a city that is a minority majority city. It can be done, but it’s not easy to do, you need to reach out to those communities,” he said.
In regards to improving the image of the Israel Police – which do not have the same prestige as the IDF or the Shin Bet – Bratton drew on the US example, saying “You have to be accessible, transparent and inclusive to increase representation in the police force and its the idea of increasing legitimacy, the idea that police are trustworthy.”
He added, “We’re not where we need to be, but we’re a lot farther along than where we used to be.”
In April, the NYPD Twitter account asked followers to upload pictures of themselves with NYPD officers with the hashtag “#myNYPD.” Almost instantly, the hashtag went viral as users uploaded pictures showing police in a less than flattering light – with pictures of officers allegedly beating suspects and arresting protesters. The campaign was widely considered a failure, but according to Miller, it’s just part of the reality of social media.
“It was a great experiment in social media. With government communication there’s a natural tendency to try to control the message, and that’s not the nature of social media. The nature of it is to have a dialogue.
So you had a relatively small number sending in pictures with a negative attitude, so what the commissioner said is, send more we’re having a dialogue here. It was a dialogue of different voices, but the end result is that his [Bratton’s] Twitter went off the charts and there was a vibrant conversation that is going on today.”