Thursday, January 1, 2015

NYPD and Work Slowdown

I have somewhat conflicted thoughts about the NYPD's work slowdown.  In an effort to coerce the Mayor and city government of New York, they are conducting a sort of semi-strike.  Until it resolves, they will make arrests only for major crimes.  Apparently total arrests have fallen to a third of the usual number, traffic citations by 94%, summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination by 94%, traffic tickets by 92%, and drug arrests by 84%.

My first thought, really, was of my adolescence in Rochester, New York.  When the police there were unhappy with the terms of their contract but forbidden to go on strike, instead they launched a ticket blitz, i.e., they enforced every traffic and other regulation no matter how minor.  To some libertarians, an increase in nuisance crime is a small price to pay for restraining the evil power of the government.  But I agree with Conor Friedersdorf,* who calls himself a libertarian, but rejects the basic viewpoint that all laws imply police violence in enforcement:
Others, like me, don't object to strictly enforcing laws against, say, public urination, traffic violations, or illegal parking, but would love it if the NYPD stopped frisking innocents without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion, needlessly escalating encounters with civilians, and (especially) killing unarmed people, goals that are perfectly compatible with data-driven policing that targets actual disorder.
In other words, what laws one enforces and how one enforces them are separate issues and can be debated independently.  It may be that drug laws are inherently oppressive** and that the severity needed to enforce them is simply not worth the effort, while bans on public urination offer an improvement in quality of life well outweighing any burden of enforcement.

Presumably the slowdown is based on the broken windows theory that Rudy Giuliani and his supporters credit for New York's reduction in crime -- cracking down on all crimes, no matter how small, will prevent escalation to larger crimes.  And in the first week of the slowdown, major crimes have fallen by 15%.  Just as the first year in which Mayor DeBlasio cut back on stop-and-frisk, crime continued to fall.  In other words, if the police are trying to unleash a crime wave and make the city quake in its boots, it isn't working.

Some important qualifications are at work here.  The broken windows theory of crime is a slow-acting one.  No one claims that a major crackdown on minor offenses will produce and immediate reduction in major offenses, or that letting minor offenses go will have any immediate effect on major offenses.  The 15% drop over the week is presumably just statistical "noise," mostly attributable to cold and people staying inside.  Possibly a factor may be that the police slowdown has made peaceful and orderly behavior seem defiant and transgressive in the black community -- a way of showing that police that we are not ravening hoards that only the thin blue line can hold at bay.  Failure to enforce laws against public urination and so forth may bring about a troubling decline in quality of life that takes effect much faster than any potential increase in major crime.  But for right now the slowdown seems no more than a manageable nuisance, not enough to create serious pressure.

Except for one thing.  Fines for minor offenses are a major source of revenue.  That is where the real, immediate leverage comes from.  The old standby, hit them in the pocketbook.  Now there is a real source of pressure!  It has also been commented (won't bother looking for links) that this is what happens when tax increases become politically impossible and service cuts wildly unpopular. Squeezing the poor with speed traps and the like becomes a hidden revenue source that lets us avoid serious debate about the tradeoff between taxes and services.

So that raises the ultimate question -- what do the police want.  Just as we can debate what quality-of-life matters (like public urination) are within the legitimate purview of the police separately from how they should be enforced, we can debate the slowdown as such independently of what its objectives are.  Do the police even know what its objectives are?  Friedersdorf suggests that what they are most likely to get are fairly conventional labor concessions -- increased pensions, more agreeable work rules, or stronger protection from firing.  Well, these things are not all alike.  Increased pensions or other benefits are purely an economic and financial issue -- what can the city afford.  Friedersdorf expresses concern that work rules might make the department less "efficient."  They also might (or might not) interfere with reforms intended to reduce conflict with the community.  And protection from firing will stand in the way of the important business of being able to weed out abusive cops.***

But even at its worst, labor demands belong in a different category altogether from "political" demands.  In other words, are the New York police attempting to use their slowdown to dictate Mayor DeBlasio's policy?  And if so, what do they want?  An apology?  A statement of unequivocal support?  A promise never to speak to Al Sharpton again?  License to crush any future demonstrations by brute force?  A pledge never to criticize the police again?  A promise to make no further attempts to hold any cop accountable, no matter what?  I am well aware that not all these things are equivalent, and some of them are probably extreme enough that the police would never voice them openly.  But those of us on the outside get the distinct impression that this sort of thing is what the police really want.  And surely the police must understand that if this is what they want, Mayor DeBlasio cannot be seen as capitulating.  One of the most basic principles of the rule of law is at stake here -- civilian control over the use of force.

So labor concessions, even ill-advised ones, are one thing.  Quiet attempts to sooth ruffled feathers are one thing.  Even quiet agreements to be more discreet in the future and consult with the police in advance and take their views into account in public statements (though not to give them a veto over public statements) might be tolerated.  But any attempt by police to dictate policy is an intolerable challenge to civilian control.  It is, in the words of Friedersdorf, "an armed, organized army rebelling against civilian control."

*Friedersdorf considers himself a libertarian, but is so moderate that after dealing with hard core types, one really has to question the label.
**Not just because they are victimless crimes, but because intensive levels of scrutiny are needed to catch drug offenders and the violence is commonly intense when large amounts of money are at stake,
***In college I heard a fascinating talk by former Black Panther Bobby Seale and their attempts to cut back on police brutality by surveilling the police.  It did not take long to discover that even in the worst neighborhoods, a small percentage of cops accounted for most of the police brutality.  The Black Panthers soon learned which ones they were and who to keep a close eye on -- and which ones could be trusted.

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