NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

In Investigating Terrorism Threats, what Curbs for Local Police?

November 5, 2001

Many U.S. cities are facing the question of how far they should allow local police departments to go to obtain information on potential terrorist threats. In other words, at what point do individual citizens' civil liberties get trampled?

  • Chicago has largely lifted a prohibition against investigations of political and religious groups unless there is "reasonable suspicion" of a crime -- and also a requirement that all records be purged after an investigation is completed.
  • Similarly, Los Angeles has partially dismantled a requirement that "reasonable suspicion" of likely "disruption of public order" be established before an investigation can begin.
  • In New York, a panel must approve proposed intelligence operations against a group -- and no investigation can be launched without "specific information" that the target plans a crime.
  • In 1987, Philadelphia's mayor directed that intelligence operations be approved by a panel before being launched -- a requirement still in force.

The problem is that terrorists can always cloak their activities behind the First Amendment's protections for political and religious free speech. But then indiscriminate assaults on those protections can harm us all.

Source: Jess Bravin, "In Fight Against Terrorism, City Police Face Dilemma," Wall Street Journal, November 5, 2001.

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