Magazine article Commonweal

Rights and Freedoms : Public Safety in New York

Magazine article Commonweal

Rights and Freedoms : Public Safety in New York

Article excerpt

As National Guard troops in battle dress marched through downtown streets in the days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, New Yorkers asked one another whether this was the future. Was their wounded city--the symbolic capital of the globalized economy--to be patrolled by rifle-carrying soldiers, much like some besieged third-world capital? President George W. Bush's address to the nation on September 21 made this possibility even more real when he warned: "We will take defensive measures against terrorism to protect Americans."

In past criminal crises, the federal government has shown a fairly light touch in New York, treating the city and its police department with the respect normally due a sovereign. Indeed, while touring the ruins of the World Trade Center, Bush seemed to defer to Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as guest to host. During the president's address to Congress, Giuliani was seated to the left of Laura Bush, the highest placement in social terms.

But the days of federal deference to New York may soon be over. A safe America requires a safe New York--no president can permit New York to remain an island. But every increment in security will come at a cost, and the costs will be social and political as well as financial. They will threaten to undermine the city's very being and sense of itself as freewheeling, entrepreneurial, and invincible. New York had spent the nineties fighting crime and remaking itself into the most desirable city in the world. Or as urban historian Fred Siegel says, "The success of the nineties was pushing fear out of public spaces. That fear has now come back in a new form."

New York's strategic problem will be safeguarding itself effectively and efficiently--tackling public fear while minimizing inconveniences to routine life. But who is now in charge of New York? And who will make the crucial and potentially damaging security choices--Washington or New York?

No one thinks that the FBI, based in Washington with a staff drawn from around the country, can direct security in New York better than the New York police (NYPD). But the bombing of the Trade Center shows that ensuring New York's safety cannot be an exclusively local function. The FBI and the NYPD will have to work these matters through--and it probably won't be pretty.

The NYPD, however, is stronger than it has been in years. In these days of crisis, the police have performed heroically and professionally. They have been on duty round the clock, a reassuring, protective presence. In the first days of the crisis, crime plummeted 34 percent over the same week last year--a tribute to the cops and perhaps to some decency even among criminals.

At least twenty-three police officers are missing in the collapse of the twin towers, most from the elite Emergency Service Unit. All were (presumed) killed while trying to rescue others. The Fire Department lost more than three hundred men. A popular T-shirt shows a police officer and a fire fighter standing beneath the words: The New Twin Towers.

But the security problems that lie ahead will put the NYPD under far more pressure than at any time in history. For the police will have to think through the right balance of security and efficiency in everyday life.

The New York public had already become accustomed to extensive measures deterring the common thug--metal detectors, photo IDs, bag searches, checks of electronic equipment. …

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