In the wake of the horrific killing of two NYPD officers, police union officials and their political allies have worked to isolate and vilify police accountability and racial justice activists. By claiming that the shooter was motivated by the protests they argue both that the protests should be suppressed and that there is no space for public criticism of the police. Both of these are profoundly troubling claims.
So far the policing of the protests in New York and many parts of the country have been tolerant and flexible and have helped to maintain the overall nonviolent character of the protests. The notable exceptions being Ferguson and Berkeley, where in both cases dissent was pre-emptively suppressed in a way that directly contributed to the outbreak of violence and property destruction.
New York City police union president Patrick Lynch said that it was the protests that led to the killing of the officers and that they shouldn’t be allowed to continue. This is revealing of a mindset of many police that there is something fundamentally inappropriate about protests and that the default position should be to discourage and if possible prevent them. It also speaks to a basic intolerance of police for disorder. Demonstrations by their nature are disorderly and disruptive and police find that at best off-putting and at worst dangerous.
Fortunately, it is up to the mayor to decide what approach the police should take to protests, and so far he has supported an approach that permits disruption in hopes of avoiding violence and property destruction. So far it has worked, but any effort by police to subvert that either from the top or through decisions made by individual officers or commanders on the ground could lead to more, not less, disruption or worse.
Pat Lynch, former mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and former governor George Pataki have all intimated that to criticize the police is to be anti-police. But what does this even mean? If I complain that my garbage hasn’t been picked up am I anti-sanitation? If I call and point out that the swings in the playground are broken, am I anti-parks?
Most of the protests have basically taken this approach. They want police to be a positive force in society, but feel that there needs to be significant reforms to how policing is conducted. They want officers held accountable for their misdeeds, and they want the police to treat them with basic respect, even if they are suspected of a crime. Is this what the police mean when they accuse people of being anti-police?
Now some protesters have accused the police as individuals of being racist and sadistic, while others have pointed to the entire institution as being structurally racist. Is the best way to deal with these accusations and improve police community relations to close ranks and go to “war” footing?
What about those that point not as much at the individual officers but to the system of laws and policies that shape the police role in society and are responsible for the mass criminalization of communities of color? Is their critique of the “war on drugs” and “broken windows” policing to be seen as “anti-police” even though it is directed at elected officials?
For Pat Lynch and many others, the answer to all these questions is yes. That is because they see the police playing a special role in society that should hold them above scrutiny or criticism. What we usually hear from them is that they put their lives on the line so the rest of us don’t have to—and in some ways this is very true. But there is a deeper tale to tell. The reality is that policing as it is currently organized has very little to do with violent crime. Day in and day out the police are primarily tasked with low-level enforcement actions that target the poor. That is because many of them and many of their leaders believe that the only thing preventing the complete collapse of civilization is them.
This is a profoundly conservative and narcissistic understanding of the world, and it is false. Too many police officers believe that left to their own devices, poor people of color will descend into barbarism. This is probably driven by two structural factors. One is that their job involves seeing people at the worst. The second is that they are enmeshed in a system based on the use of punitive sanction to control behavior and a kind of behaviorist obsession with the effectiveness of deterrence, in the face of all evidence to the contrary.
One of the intellectual mentors of the authors of the “broken windows” theory was Edward Banfield. Banfield argued that the poor were incapable of reacting to anything other than punitive force because of their moral corruption: “Although he has more ‘leisure’ than almost anyone, the indifference (‘apathy’ if one prefers) of the lower-class person is such that he seldom makes even the simplest repairs to the place that he lives in. He is not troubled by dirt or dilapidation and he does not mind the inadequacy of public facilities such as schools, parks, hospitals, and libraries; indeed, where such things exist he may destroy them by carelessness or even by vandalism.”
It is this mindset that undergirds the punitive nature of the “broken windows” theory and the mindset of many police. Therefore, when people talk about restricting the power of the police in any way, they aren’t just threatening the power of police as such, they are threatening the very stability of society. And many police deeply resent the criticism because they really do feel they risk their lives for the well-being of others.
In order to get out of this dysfunction dynamic, we need to focus intently on the ways in which communities can be made safe and functioning without relying on people with handcuffs and guns. Every time a community calls for more police to solve their crime and disorder problems, it is re-empowering not just the police but a deeply conservative ideology that is, at root, demeaning to poor people and dismissive of the ability of the state to use social programs and market interventions to empower and reinvigorate communities. The challenge is not to be anti-police or pro-police, it is to be pro-community.