Report — From the May 2015 issue

Beyond the Broken Window

William Bratton and the new police state

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Assistant chief Paul McDonagh was the man with the unenviable task of explaining the Seattle Police Department’s drone program to the public. In October 2012, a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation revealed that the department had secretly purchased a pair of camera-equipped Draganflyer X6 drones two years earlier. Soon after, McDonagh stood in a local community center before a roomful of citizens who were shouting “shame” and “murderer” and “no drones, no drones, no drones!” One woman, who stood next to a man wearing a Guy Fawkes mask, yelled, “This is a whole fascistic direction that needs to be stopped.” As McDonagh continued with his presentation, the crowd shouted, “Fuck you, Mr. Police Officer” and “You’re full of shit!”

In the face of this vitriol, McDonagh remained amiable, assuring the room that the drones — which he referred to as “unmanned aerial vehicles” — would be used for inarguably laudable police work, such as searching for lost children, and not for the surveillance of law-abiding residents. But his argument wasn’t helped by the fact that the city had purchased the drones before drafting a policy for their use. It did not matter to Seattle residents that the machines looked more like hobbyists’ toys than planes for targeting insurgents from the skies of Afghanistan. The drones’ cameras, capable of taking high-resolution photos from hundreds of feet in the air, were enough to mark them as part of a growing array of surveillance tools deployed by local law enforcement against citizens. A few months after the meeting, Mike McGinn, Seattle’s mayor at the time, announced that the drones, which had been bought with federal funds, would be returned unused to their vendor.

Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Illustration by Taylor Callery

In his statement canceling the city’s drone program, McGinn insisted that the Seattle Police Department would remain focused on “community building.” The phrase signaled a continued allegiance to community policing, the dominant criminal-justice model for most of the past three decades. After years of paramilitary-style law enforcement, largely driven by urban rioting in the Sixties and Seventies and by the war on drugs in the Eighties, reformers sought to repair broken relationships between police forces and the citizens they were supposed to be serving. Instead of patrolling streets like an occupying army, police would maintain public safety by engaging with communities. In practice this meant increased foot patrols that brought beat cops into direct contact with residents, as well as working groups that fostered dialogue between police and the community. In its most progressive articulation, the philosophy discouraged traditional arrest and incarceration models and instead aimed to address crime at the root — resolving a rash of muggings at a dimly lit bus stop, for example, by moving the stop to the front of a twenty-four-hour convenience store.

The approach gained so much political currency that the crime bill signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1994 created a federal Community Oriented Policing Services program, which allocated billions of dollars to hire 100,000 new officers, thereby sweetening the policy’s appeal to local law-enforcement departments that were hungry for manpower. When applied thoughtfully, community policing aims to increase the legitimacy of police in the public’s eyes. Citizens who have a sense of procedural justice, the argument goes, will be more likely to cooperate with law enforcement. But as the community-policing ethos spread throughout the country, it frequently served as a cover for heavy-handed policing of quality-of-life issues.

After 9/11, the model was seen as insufficient to meet the challenges of domestic terrorism, which was now a major law-enforcement priority, especially in big cities. The grant from the Department of Homeland Security that purchased Seattle’s drones was part of a new policing paradigm that has moved to the forefront of local-law-enforcement strategies. Known in official parlance as “intelligence-led policing,” and referred to by critics as “speculative policing,” the new model amounts to a sharp reversal of community-policing principles. Surveillance, data mining, and behavioral profiling are the methods at the heart of intelligence-led policing. Its arsenal includes cell phone–tracking towers, street-camera systems, GPS trackers, automatic license-plate readers, and facial-recognition software. Like McGinn’s drones, much of this equipment comes to police at no cost through federal grants intended to support regional counterterrorism efforts. Under investigative rules that were loosened following the 9/11 attacks, police have broad permission to use such technology against individuals in ways that would have been expressly forbidden in the past.

Outrage over Seattle’s drone purchase represented a rare case of community pushback against these developments. It is telling that those drones did not end up going back to their vendor, which refused to accept them. Instead they were passed along, at no charge, to the Los Angeles Police Department. This was fitting, since the LAPD has led the refinement of the surveillance state in the urban laboratory. Much of the credit goes to William Bratton, the former chief of the department, who is currently in his second stint as commissioner of the New York City Police Department and is probably the nation’s most famous law-enforcement officer. Though once touted in a Time cover story as “a leading advocate of community policing,” Bratton has in recent years become the most vocal proponent of intelligence-led policing. His tenure in Los Angeles began in 2002, at a moment when local police were being enlisted as the eyes and ears of the government’s domestic antiterrorism efforts. Bratton enthusiastically embraced the role. To the network of human surveillance constituted by his officers, he added a full complement of spy gear. By the time Bratton left the department, in 2009, Los Angeles had quietly become the most spied-on city in America and a proving ground for corporations to test out new surveillance technologies.

When the Seattle drones arrived in Los Angeles on a commercial flight last May, there was little public outcry. Charlie Beck, Bratton’s handpicked successor as chief of the LAPD, was careful to couch the department’s new acquisition in the language of conciliation. He promised that the drones would not be launched until after a review by a team of privacy and civil-liberties advocates. “We’re going to thoroughly vet the public’s opinion,” said Beck. “I will not sacrifice public support for a piece of police equipment.” The drones were placed in a federal warehouse to await deployment.

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’s “To Catch a Terrorist” appeared in the August 2011 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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