By Matt Taibbi
Jan 1, 2015
In an alternate universe, the New York Police might have just solved the national community-policing controversy.
Brace yourselves for a weird night. There might be a little extra drama when the ball drops in Times Square, thanks to one of the more confusing political protests in recent memory.
On a night when more than a million potentially lawbreaking, probably tipsy revelers will be crowding the most densely-populated city blocks in America, all eyes will be on the city cops stuck with holiday duty.
Why? Because the New York City Police are in the middle of a slowdown. The New York Post is going so far as to call it a "virtual work stoppage."
Furious at embattled mayor Bill de Blasio, and at what Police Benevolent Association chief Patrick Lynch calls a "hostile anti-police environment in the city," the local officers are simply refusing to arrest or ticket people for minor offenses – such arrests have dropped off a staggering 94 percent, with overall arrests plunging 66 percent.
If you're wondering exactly what that means, the Post is reporting that the protesting police have decided to make arrests "only when they have to." (Let that sink in for a moment. Seriously, take 10 or 15 seconds).
Substantively that mostly means a steep drop-off in parking tickets, but also a major drop in tickets for quality-of-life offenses like carrying open containers of alcohol or public urination.
My first response to this news was confusion. I get why the police are protesting – they're pissed at Mayor de Blasio, and more on that in a minute – but this sort of "protest" pulls this story out of the standard left-right culture war script it had been following and into surreal territory.
I don't know any police officer anywhere who would refuse to arrest a truly dangerous criminal as part of a PBA-led political gambit. So the essence of this protest seems now to be about trying to hit de Blasio where it hurts, i.e. in the budget, without actually endangering the public.
So this police protest, unwittingly, is leading to the exposure of the very policies that anger so many different constituencies about modern law-enforcement tactics.
First, it shines a light on the use of police officers to make up for tax shortfalls using ticket and citation revenue. Then there's the related (and significantly more important) issue of forcing police to make thousands of arrests and issue hundreds of thousands of summonses when they don't "have to."
It's incredibly ironic that the police have chosen to abandon quality-of-life actions like public urination tickets and open-container violations, because it's precisely these types of interactions that are at the heart of the Broken Windows polices that so infuriate residents of so-called "hot spot" neighborhoods.
In an alternate universe where this pseudo-strike wasn't the latest sortie in a standard-issue right-versus left political showdown, one could imagine this protest as a progressive or even a libertarian strike, in which police refused to work as backdoor tax-collectors and/or implement Minority Report-style pre-emptive policing policies, which is what a lot of these Broken Windows-type arrests amount to.
But that's not what's going on here. As far as I can tell, there's nothing enlightened about this slowdown, although I'm sure there are thousands of cops who are more than happy to get a break from Broken Windows policing.
I've met more than a few police in the last few years who've complained vigorously about things like the "empty the pad" policies in some precincts, where officers were/are told by superiors to fill predetermined summons quotas every month.
It would be amazing if this NYPD protest somehow brought parties on all sides to a place where we could all agree that policing should just go back to a policy of officers arresting people "when they have to."
Because it's wrong to put law enforcement in the position of having to make up for budget shortfalls with parking tickets, and it's even more wrong to ask its officers to soak already cash-strapped residents of hot spot neighborhoods with mountains of summonses as part of a some stats-based crime-reduction strategy.
Both policies make people pissed off at police for the most basic and understandable of reasons: if you're running into one, there's a pretty good chance you're going to end up opening your wallet.
Your average summons for a QOL offense costs more than an ordinary working person makes in a day driving a bus, waiting tables, or sweeping floors. So every time you nail somebody, you're literally ruining their whole day.
If I were a police officer, I'd hate to be taking money from people all day long, too. Christ, that's worse than being a dentist. So under normal circumstances, this slowdown wouldn't just make sense, it would be heroic.
Unfortunately, this protest is not about police refusing to shake people down for money on principle.
For one thing, it's simply another public union using its essential services leverage to hold the executive (and by extension, the taxpayer) hostage in a negotiation. In this case the public union doesn't want higher pay or better benefits (in which case it wouldn't have the support from the political right it has now – just the opposite), it merely wants "support" from the Mayor.
On another level, however, this is just the latest salvo in an ongoing and increasingly vicious culture-war mess that is showing no signs of abating.
Most everyone across the country knows the background by now. The police in New York are justifiably furious about the Saturday, December 20th ambush murder/assassination of two of their officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, at the hands of a rampage-killer from Baltimore named Ismaaiyl Brinsley.
Brinsley, who shot his girlfriend and promised on Instagram to put "wings on pigs" before coming to New York and doing the evil deed, had cited the killing of Eric Garner in his rants, saying among other things, "They took 1 of ours…let's take 2 of theirs."
According to the transitive theory of culpability so popular in our left-right media echo chamber, Brinsley's monstrous act put de Blasio in the political jackpot, since both had expressed dismay about the death of Garner, an African-American man from Staten Island who died this past summer in a struggle with police over a 75-cent cigarette.
De Blasio of course never urged anyone to put "wings on pigs." And his comment about the actual grand jury decision – that it was something "many in our city did not want" – was really just a simple statement of fact.
But de Blasio also clumsily personalized the incident, talking about his own half-black son Dante, saying that he and his wife Chirlane had had to "talk to Dante. . .about the dangers that he may face." Then he added, "It should be self-evident, but our history requires us to say that black lives matter."
As maximally uncontroversial as that sounds, the local tabloids went nuts over de Blasio's remarks, bashing the boss of the nation's biggest police force for quoting a globally-surging protest hashtag and talking about how he has to teach his own son to be wary of police.
And then Ramos and Liu were murdered in a horrible tragedy that will have lasting implications for people on all sides of the political spectrum.
The thing is, there are really two things going on here. One is an ongoing bitter argument about race and blame that won't be resolved in this country anytime soon, if ever. Dig a millimeter under the surface of the Garner case, Ferguson, the Liu-Ramos murders, and you'll find vicious race-soaked debates about who's to blame for urban poverty, black crime, police violence, immigration, overloaded prisons and a dozen other nightmare issues.
But the other thing is a highly specific debate over a very resolvable controversy not about police as people, but about how police are deployed. Most people, and police most of all, agree that the best use of police officers is police work. They shouldn't be collecting backdoor taxes because politicians are too cowardly to raise them, and they shouldn't be pre-emptively busting people in poor neighborhoods because voters don't have the patience to figure out some other way to deal with our dying cities.
This police protest, ironically, could have shined a light on all of that. Instead, it's just more fodder for our ongoing hate-a-thon. Happy New Year, America.