December saw New York City on edge to an extent it probably hasn't been since 9/11. Ignited by the decision to not indict Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, the city has been swallowed protest, counter-protest, death, and despair, culminating in what has become a political showdown between Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD, with the rest of us in the middle unsure of what to do.
The murders of Detectives Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos in mid-December was when things really started to get weird, a validation of many of the sentiments I heard at the pro-cop rally the night before it happened: that de Blasio is a menace to the city's police force, that his "defense" of the protests has been dangerous, and of course that he should resign, effective immediately. Now that the two officers are dead, the mayor is to blame; he has "blood on [his] hands," as Patrick Lynch, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association chief, said the night of Liu and Ramos's death, arguing the mayor stirred the pot of protest that eventually led to the deaths of the two officers by acknowledging he'd talked to his black son Dante about the cops.
If you've searched "de Blasio" on Twitter since then, you'll find that he was (and still is) being accused of everything from direct to indirect murder. The NYPD is reportedly looking into 63 threats made just this week against the mayor and the police. It's a grim scene, for sure. But more than anything else, this past week will go down as when the cops shifted from symbolic protest—turning their backs on the mayor—to actually packing it up and not doing their jobs.
A quick glance at the numbers tells the story. As Rocco Parascandola of the New York Daily Newsreports, citywide summons issued this past week numbered just 2,128, compared to 26,512 a week earlier. In that period, exactly one summons was issued in the 84th Precinct, where Liu and Ramos were stationed—just one.
The most logical culprit here would be Lynch, the police union provocateur who unsuccessfully talked with the mayor as recently as Tuesday. It was rumored that a memo was passed around NYPD precincts this week, advising rank-and-file officers to join in on the slowdown. However, the union has denied any involvement, and, from what I've heard, this may be more about fear than politics.
"[There's] just not motivation," one police officer told me. "I'm not writing people summonses if I have a chance of getting my head blown off." When asked if this was his own choice or a precinct-wide initiative, the officer added, "Seems like the entire department is on the same page."
(I've reached out repeatedly to the NYPD and the mayor's office, but they have not yet responded.)
Regardless, the NYPD is no longer arresting people at the rates we are used to, particularly when it comes to low-level infractions. So once we put the politics aside, what we're left with is a protest of the mayor who defended the Black Lives Matter demonstrations inadvertently meeting one of those very demonstrators' central demands: pausing " broken windows" policing and its emphasis on quality-of-life crimes like selling illegal cigarettes. In other words, this temporary cessation of force, whether it's political or not, provides us with a momentary glimpse into what New York City would look like with a modern approach to crime, one that reflects NYC's turnaround since the 1990s.
In Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn—the neighborhood where Detectives Liu and Ramos were gunned down—that difference has been felt in real-time. As Batya Ungar-Sargon reports in the Daily Beast, residents have noticed a far different NYPD, one that's less intrusive and more observational. "They just walk around, they ride in their patrol cars, and they just pass by," one resident told the reporter.
"The reported offenses they aren't enforcing as much are [mostly] not criminal offenses: parking violations, urination in public, public intoxication, as well as some marijuana possession. Do we really want over 4,000 people a week locked up for peeing behind a dumpster?" Marc Krupanski, a program officer at the Open Society Justice Initiative, asked me. "The police sources have stated police are not making 'unnecessary arrests.' This should be a good thing!"
Krupanski also argues that this is why he believes it is a union-backed effort; these arrests are key to NYPD Commissioner William Bratton's ideology, so why would he order them to stop? In a statement, Bob Gangi, the head of the Police Reform Organizing Project, made the case that some police officers actually enjoy the work stoppage because they no longer have to make arrests that disrupt communities. Which begs the question: Why are they making those arrests in the first place, especially if those same arrests can be reduced by 66 percent without—from what it seems in these early days—much in the way of Mad Max–style chaos?
"We speculate, though we have no hard evidence, that some officers are pleased to engage in this ostensibly anti–de Blasio protest because they have never been comfortable with having to enforce 'broken windows' law enforcement," Gangi added. "It engenders anger and distrust in the community and puts their physical well-being at risk."
However, unlike Gangi, other reform groups were not as welcoming to the work stoppage. Joo-Hyun Kang, director of Communities United for Police Reform, one of the main organizing groups behind the recent protests, sees the move as an attack rather than an alternative universe for New York City. And the culprit? Lynch's police union.
"Unfortunately, police unions have a long history of personalizing attacks on mayors and blocking police reform that many New Yorkers support. This apparent work stoppage is part of a larger effort to obstruct and oppose much-needed change to the NYPD," Kang said in a statement. "By continuing to obstruct and oppose necessary changes at the NYPD, the police union leadership's divisive tactics are making it clear that they are not acting in the best interests of New Yorkers, including police officers. These tactics will backfire. In fact, they already have."
But this era of lesser law enforcement is almost certain to be short-lived; if coordinated, it's hard to imagine the work stoppage will last much longer into 2015. As the editorial board of the New York Times(and plenty of other prominent local voices) instructed, the cops will eventually go back to their jobs. Once they do, Gangi hopes change can come the good ol' fashioned way, rather than via hatred of the mayor.
"While we welcome the drop in petty arrests and summonses, we greatly prefer that it came as a result of lasting, meaningful, and systemic reforms put into place by Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton," he said. "Such a step would enhance safety and justice in our city and provide benefits to our police officers and all New Yorkers."
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