By Griffin Edwards ‘17
Police can oftentimes inspire fear. Ever since she was pulled over and given a speeding ticket last year, my girlfriend has become a little fearful. If I’m driving her car, she emphatically encourages me to stay less than 5 miles over the speed limit on freeways- a request my Californian roots sometimes find difficult to fulfill.
That being said, police are people too.
In late December of last year, the New York City Police Department went on strike. This was a dramatic response to public displeasure towards American police, spurred by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The jadedness towards law enforcement even reached New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio, who refused to support the police as they came under fire, both in the press and in the streets. Fair is fair, so the NYPD physically and figuratively turned their backs on the mayor. In what might seem like an extreme move, the police themselves chose to strike.
One can imagine a scared populace waiting with bated breath. Who would protect the innocents? Would there be riots in the streets? Would New York become a real-life “Purge”? Would vigilante justice rule? Would an eccentric billionaire have to don body armor and take to the streets whenever a spotlight shone a silhouette of a bat into the clouds?
In practice, however, the NYPD strike was much more moderate: officers chose only to arrest people in times of extreme danger. For instance, a convenience store robber would be tracked down and arrested; however, someone parked illegally or peddling cigarettes without a license would be left alone. Arrests declined 66%, and citations for traffic infractions, public urination, and other minor offences declined 94%. Criminals that would have been fined or arrested were suddenly able to go free.
People went about their daily lives pretty much as they always had. Much to my chagrin, Batman did not appear to keep the city’s peace, most likely because the peace was still there. And although the start of the strike is old news, it continues, and observers can learn a lot from the outcome.
First, I think it’s important to note that even with little policing, people do not suddenly become animals. It would seem that Locke has here trumped Hobbes- left alone, man simply wants to go about his daily business and stay out of trouble; the strong hand of the “Leviathan” is unnecessary. There was no “Purge”, no riots, no disturbance of the peace. The police let people be, and minor arrests became rarer. For most citizens, little change was visible.
Secondly, and ironically, during the strike, the NYPD is doing exactly what it ought to be doing– keeping people safe. The other minor infractions for which arrests were suspended are extraneous. Thus, in a rare glimpse of the ideal police force, the police were doing what they’re paid to do, and little else.
Although this could be taken as a discredit to the NYPD, that is, that most of their work is, ultimately, trivial, in reality it was a smart move: the fines from things like parking violations go to the city. By stopping this revenue stream, the NYPD puts pressure on the mayor and other city administration officials to change their attitudes. This exposes those citations- laws, even- for just what they are: means of monetary gain for the city, and little else. In effect, the strike created something of an experimental society: one in which victimless crimes went unpunished, but order was still maintained.
So what’s the take-away? Will other cities look at the strike experiment and hail it as a model? Most likely not; however, informed citizens can use the account of the NYPD strike to get a critical look at law enforcement in America in a time when cops aren’t very popular.