Talk to someone who has never dealt with the cops about police behaving badly, and he or she will inevitably say, “But they can’t do that! Can they?” The question of what the cops can or can’t do is natural enough for someone who never deals with cops, especially if their inexperience is due to class and/or race privilege. But a public defender would describe that question as naïve. In short, the cops can do almost anything they want, and often the most maddening tactics are actually completely legal.
There are many reasons for this, but three historical developments stand out: the war on drugs provided the template for social control based on race; 9/11 gave federal and local officials the opportunity to ensnare Muslims (and activists) in the ever-increasing surveillance and incarceration state; and a lack of concern from the public at large means these tactics can be applied, often controversy-free, to anyone who resists them.
What follows are 10 of the innumerable tactics the police can use against a population often incapable of constraining their behavior.
1. Infiltration, informants and monitoring. The NYPD’s Demographics Unit has engaged in a massive surveillance program directed at Muslims throughout the entire Northeast region, ignoring any jurisdictional limitations and acting as a secret police and intelligence gathering agency – a regional FBI of sorts. The AP’s award-winning reports on the Demographics Unit helped bring some information about the program to light, including the revelation that its efforts have resulted in exactly zero terrorism leads.
Although a lawsuit from 1971, the Handschu case, “resulted in federal guidelines that prohibit the NYPD from collecting information about political speech unless it is related to potential terrorism,” legal experts worry that privacy rights have been so diminished that Muslims who are spied on may not be able to seek recourse. The AP quoted Donna Lieberman in November 2011, who said, “It’s really not clear that people can do anything if they’ve been subjected to unlawful surveillance anymore.”
Muslims are not the only group that has been targeted. The AP reported that the NYPD has also infiltrated liberal groups and protest organizers. Other cases of entrapment of activists, such as the NATO 5 and the Cleveland 5, are alsotroubling.
2. Warrantless home surveillance. Just in case you still think there must be some limit on how the authorities can surveil you, there’s this — a federal agency, not the police, but the larger point stands. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that it is legal for a law enforcement agent to enter your house and videotape you without your consent. The case, United States v. Wahchumwah , revolved around a U.S. Fish and Wildlife undercover agent who recorded Wahchumwah without a warrant. The Ninth Circuit found the search to be “voluntary,” which led the EFF to write on its Web site: “The sad truth is that as technology continues to advance, surveillance becomes ‘voluntary’ only by virtue of the fact we live in a modern society where technology is becoming cheaper, easier and more invasive.”
The Ninth Circuit isn’t the only one who thinks warrantless video surveillance is perfectly OK.
“CNET has learned that U.S. District Judge William Griesbach ruled that it was reasonable for Drug Enforcement Administration agents to enter rural property without permission — and without a warrant — to install multiple ‘covert digital surveillance cameras’ in hopes of uncovering evidence that 30 to 40 marijuana plants were being grown.”
During the Bush years, Congress had to grant retroactive immunity to giant telecoms that engaged in warrantless wiretapping. It seems, the judicial branch wants to save Congress the trouble.