Over the past few days the NYPD, offended by protests against their policing, and still in a huff at New York’s mayor, Bill De Blasio, for daring to suggest they might need reform, has gone on a work-stoppage of sorts, refusing to carry out arrests or hand out parking tickets or miscellaneous traffic summonses. Meanwhile, I have not been quivering in my home at night, afraid that sundry villains will break down the doors and come rampaging in to my castle to loot and pillage, to despoil my wife and children and rob me of my belongings.
The police are not a thin blue line separating us from the forces of darkness and disorder. They are a street-level, heavily armed, occasionally violent, revenue collection service for New York City. The police department’s threat to the city is not that law and order will mysteriously vanish to be replaced by anarchy now that its members are busy keeping themselves safe and sedentary–not too far from the nearest doughnut establishment. Rather, it is a threat that the minor monies the city relies on the police to collect on an ongoing basis to ease its perennial budgeting crises will not be forthcoming. That is, in case you missed it, the police are refusing to be partners in a low-level extortion racket the city has been running for a while now, the cracking down on behavioral nuisances deemed too dangerous and disorderly for civil society.
As anybody who has interacted with the police knows, complaining about crime that is most likely to affect a New Yorker–muggings, break-ins, car theft–is normally met with a shrug of the shoulders and a laconic “Whaddyagonnado?” There is little reward in this for the police; no glory, no fame. There is instead, some tedious detective work to be done. When it comes to ‘big-time crime’–homicide, drug smuggling, terrorism, etc–police work is done by specialized detectives in conjunction with more specialized outfits like the FBI. Most of the conflict resolution work the police do-intervening in domestic violence disputes, in minor altercations at home or commercial establishments like bars for instance–can be done much better, and more safely, by unarmed citizens groups. (These interactions with citizens are typically dangerous because of the easy availability of guns, which is a separate problem altogether, and on which more, anon.)
What the police are really, really good at enforcing is low-level disorder offenses because the odds are so overwhelmingly stacked in their favor. They have guns and they can use them whenever they want; they can be as violent as they want; and they never work alone. This kind of work, this policing of joint-smokers and beer drinkers, homeless panhandlers and building project teenagers, ticket-less travelers on subways, this low-level ass-kicking, where you get to say “Sir” in your most faux-polite voice, where you can just casually shove up someone against the wall, or punch them for looking at you wrong, or talk in your most menacing tone, the one you spent years perfecting in high-school but never got a chance because guess what, in that jungle, someone else, some other bully, was kicking your ass instead, this is the kind of work the NYPD likes the most. This is the kind of work whose parameters would be affected the most by recent protests. (After all, the protests are not asking for police to change their fingerprinting procedures.) No wonder the NYPD is upset and wants to walk off the job.
But the folks who get hassled by them everyday are not; they want to make sure the police don’t let the door hit them on the way out.