‘Reforms’ could expose terrorism witnesses to danger

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‘A citizen might think twice about reporting suspicious activity if they think that a terrorist organization such as ISIS, Al Qaida, Hizbullah or a white supremacist group could end up with their personal information.’

Source: World Tribune, By Christopher W Holton, Center for Security Policy, February 16, 2020

Criminal justice reform has received a great deal of attention lately. There has been bipartisan applause for some aspects of this movement, but other aspects are very controversial and have come under heavy criticism in law enforcement circles.

One place in particular that has seen negative effects from reform measures is New York. Bail practices have resulted in habitual offenders being quickly let out on the streets to commit more crime.

But there is one little-known aspect of “reform” that could expose Americans who report terrorism or suspected terrorism in New York to real danger.

As of the beginning of 2020 in New York, if you report a crime, your contact information will end up in the possession of any suspect the police arrest associated with your report.

There is no exception in the law requiring disclosure of witnesses’ personal information to defendants when it comes to violent offenders.

This is especially important in New York because New York City has long been considered America’s top terrorist target.

In other words, someone who reports suspicious activity or the possible planning or plotting of a terrorist attack to New York law enforcement could end up having his or her information shared with the terrorist suspects.

This is not only a nightmare scenario for the safety and security of potential witnesses, it is a serious blow to efforts to enlist members of the public to serve as early warning sentinels for not just New York’s security but for our entire country’s security.

Certainly a citizen might think twice about reporting suspicious activity if they think that a terrorist organization such as ISIS, Al Qaida, Hizbullah or a white supremacist group could end up with their personal information.

This absurd, irresponsible law could very well get someone killed and it flies squarely in the face of government attempts on the federal, state and local level to get citizens to “say something” if you “see something.”

In fact, in another, more sober time in New York’s recent history, the state led the way in protecting witnesses who reported suspicious activity when the state passed a law that provided civil and criminal protection to anyone who in good faith reported suspicious behavior in furtherance of an act of terrorism.

That law was introduced and passed as a direct result of a notorious case known as the “Flying Imams” incident back in 2006 in which individuals acting in a suspicious manner filed lawsuits against an airline, airline personnel and passengers who reported what was clearly suspicious activity.

After New York passed this “See Something, Say Something” law, two other states, Mississippi and Tennessee, passed very similar laws. Other states have now begun re-examining these issues as well, with an eye toward passing similar legislation.

The global war on terrorism is not over. Our country and its citizens are still under threat. Hardly a week goes by in which there isn’t a report of some terrorist activity somewhere in the USA. That activity is not limited to jihadist terrorism, but also includes other forms of domestic terrorism.

Law enforcement can’t be everywhere at once. They need everyday Americans to be their eyes and ears to report crimes and suspicious activity. Why do lawmakers in New York seem more concerned with helping suspected terrorists than protecting witnesses?

Christopher Holton is Vice President for Outreach at the Center for Security Policy.