How The NYPD Empowered Itself In The Immediate Aftermath of the 9/11 Attacks

On the morning of September 11th, WABC news reporter N.J. Burkett was doing a television live shot in downtown Manhattan as smoke billowed out from the top of the World Trade Center, after airplanes hit both towers.

“You can see the firemen assembled here, the police officers, FBI agents,” Burkett told the audience, while the cameraman panned to the law enforcement figures standing nearby. 

But as Burkett continued with his report, his pitch suddenly changing. “And you can see the two towers. A huge explosion, now raining debris on all of us. We better get out of the way!” he yelled. Right before his eyes, the South Tower was collapsing. Burkett and everyone around him started sprinting away from the danger.

Burkett was one of thousands of New Yorkers who began racing through the streets of lower Manhattan, trying to escape the cloud of debris surging towards them as the South Tower of the World Trade Center fell, at 9:59 a.m. Eventually, the North Tower also fell, just before 10:30 am. 

That day, more than 2,996 people died in the coordinated airplane attacks on New York City, the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and in the fourth plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, the target of which has never been determined. More than 2,700 died in the New York attack alone, including hundreds of firefighters, paramedics, and police officers who responded to help evacuate the buildings.

It remains the deadliest single attack by a foreign entity on US soil, and America’s national security agencies had failed to stop it. The New York City Police Department was determined never to be caught flat-footed again. The department moved rapidly to develop its own global intelligence and counterterrorism capabilities.

Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly stand in front of a dozen monitors showing different streets scenes in lower Manhatan

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In 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly discuss the Lower Manhattan Security Initiative

Justin Lane/EPA/Shutterstock

Within a month of taking office in 2002, then-NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly started a new counterterrorism bureau — the first of its kind for any municipal police force in the country. Under Kelly’s direction, the NYPD also revamped its intelligence division and brought in a former CIA leader to run it. 

Soon, NYPD detectives were being stationed in cities around the world, ostensibly to unearth plots and pass along information gleaned from other jihadist attacks.

“I knew we had to supplement, buttress our defenses of the city, we couldn’t rely on the defenses of the federal government alone,” Kelly told 60 Minutes years later.

The feel of city streets changed, too. 

“We saw surveillance cameras all over the city,” said Christopher Dunn, legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “We saw police officers with much more heavy equipment. We saw police officers searching subway riders trying to enter the system.”

An NYPD surveillance camera - with multiple cameras and a white box that has an NYPD logo on it- on a pole near a tall office building

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Dunn said that before September 11th, many New Yorkers would not have tolerated police randomly searching bags on the subway nor the proliferation surveillance cameras that were installed in public areas soon after the attacks. . 

But afterwards, to much of the public, the police, the mayor, and the president became instant heroes. At the 2001 World Series in the Bronx, Yankees fans cheered George W. Bush as he walked to the mound to throw out the first pitch while wearing a city Fire Department cap. Oprah Winfrey declared Rudy Giuliani, “America’s mayor.”

In this fearful and patriotic climate, Dunn said, it was next to impossible to get the courts, City Council, or the public to think about limiting the NYPD’s expanding powers. 

“People were simply unwilling to take them on, and they’re unwilling to take them on because they were afraid, understandably, of being branded as being soft on terrorism,” he said.

In the years that followed, New York City remained a target of terror attacks. In 2010, Faisal Shahzad failed to set off a bomb in Times Square. In 2017, Sayfullo Saipov drove into pedestrians near the West Side Highway, killing eight people.

Police on the West Side Highway bike path, with a mangled bike in the foreground

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Police officers at the scene of the bike path near the West Side Highway on October 31, 2017

Scott Heins / Gothamist

Still, no terror plot has come close to the catastrophic scale of the World Trade Center attacks, and the NYPD argues its all-encompassing approach is part of the reason why

New York City has experienced “a steady 20 years” of plotting on the part of foreign terrorist organizations, said John Miller, NYPD’s deputy commissioner for intelligence and counterterrorism.

“A lot of remarkable work went into stopping those on the ground, at the early stages,” he said. “And sometimes in those nail-biter cases at the late stages.”

But critics point out that the truth of such claims is difficult to assess in part because of the NYPD’s secrecy about its counterterrorism operations. 

“There was intelligence that we gained only through the NYPD’s efforts that was useful in thwarting those attacks,” said Gregory Umbach, a John Jay College historian. “But because we don’t know the larger universe of cases, we’re unable to assess the success rate of the NYPD’s counterterrorism efforts.”

Umbach said he appreciates the apparent safety benefits that came with the NYPD’s counterrorism expansion, but notes these new powers have come with few formal oversight mechanisms. The city’s civilian review board investigates day-to-day aspects of policing in New York City, not its counterterrorism activities. And advocacy groups today are often more focused on more domestic policing concerns, like police brutality and the deaths of unarmed civilians at the hands of officers.

“The problem is that unless there’s additional layers of scrutiny,” he said. “It’s easy for secrecy to creep into abuse.”

In the view of civil libertarians, the NYPD abused its powers early into its counterterrorism efforts. For instance, the NYPD’s preparations for the 2004 Republican National Convention in Manhattan.  

Before the convention, the NYPD sent undercover teams across the country and into Europe and Canada to monitor groups that opposed the United States’ war in Iraq and that planned to protest at the convention. The secret agents filed daily reports describing the gatherings and the groups’ leaders, as The New York Times reported years later.

The public, which had generally accepted the NYPD’s expansion to address terrorism, was unaware that the department was spying on anti-war protesters.

An aerial view of anti-war protesters Central Park,taken from a blimp

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During the 2004 Republican National Convention, the NYPD borrowed Fuji’s blimp to take surveillance footage of anti-war protesters

I-Witness Video

And at the convention itself, the NYPD made mass arrests, preempting many demonstrators’ ability to march. Years later, a federal judge found some of those arrests had been illegal. The New York Civil Liberties Union later sued the city on behalf of many of those protesters, and won a nearly $18 million settlement.

Many activists and civil libertarians say the NYPD’s actions before and at the convention showed how easily counterrorism powers could be turned against law-abiding citizens. But it would be nearly a decade after the September 11th attacks until New Yorkers would begin to reckon with how much liberty they had traded for a greater sense of security.

Read more on the NYPD’s expansion of surveillance after the 9/11 attacks, read Matt Katz’s and Joseph Gedeon’s piece on the NYPD’s history of spying on groups, including Muslims, as our series continues on on Tuesday, September 7th. 

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