The events that have occurred in the past few weeks in NYC are truly disturbing—the recent murder of two NYPD police officers, Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos, while they were sitting innocently in their patrol car, and the murder of Eric Garner in Staten Island. Both of these tragic and very unfortunate circumstances have one common theme: life was lost unnecessarily. And it is simply because of the loss of life that both scenarios are equally unfortunate. To suggest otherwise elevates one person at the expense of the other.
However, the response of the NYPD to NYC’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, regarding these recent events has been intriguing. For those who don’t know, many police officers essentially have the impression that the mayor disrespects the police and criticizes how they do their job. This impression explains why many officers turned their backs to the mayor at the funeral of the two slain officers mentioned above. The NY Times reported on January 9, 2015, that “crime statistics covering two consecutive weeks have revealed a staggering plunge in arrests and tickets, particularly for low-level offenses and parking violations, as if some crimes had been suddenly wiped off the books.” The same article reports anecdotal evidence of a handful of officers who seemed to be taking things easy while in uniform, but these are purely subjective opinions of a small number of everyday New Yorkers. A graphical representation of the precipitous drop in arrests can be found here. Although police unions officially denied any form of an organized slowdown, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton did subsequently inform the top commanders in the department to “start working again.”
For a more personal view of the situation, a former officer with 20 years experience, Steve Osborne, recently wrote an Op-Ed piece titled, “Why We’re So Mad at de Blasio.” In this piece, Mr. Osborne writes:
“The gestures of protest by many officers toward Mayor Bill de Blasio — including turning their backs to him when he appeared at both officers’ funerals — have been characterized in some quarters as squandering the credibility of the department and reeking of self-pity.
When I hear this sort of thing, my blood pressure goes through the roof. Mr. de Blasio is more than any other public figure in this city responsible for feelings of demoralization among the police. It did not help to tell the world about instructing his son, Dante, who is biracial, to be wary of the police, or to publicly signal support of anti-police protesters (for instance, by standing alongside the Rev. Al Sharpton, a staunch backer of the protests). If there is any self-pity involved, which I doubt, it is only because we lack respect from our elected officials and parts of the media. It has taken two dead cops for some people to take a step back and realize what a difficult job cops have.”
Herein lies the philosophical dilemma: the police, due to a perceived lack of respect by a higher authority, seem to have chosen to non-violently protest against Mayor de Blasio by disengaging in activity that penalizes non-violent law-breakers. In essence, if the police choose not to enforce certain rules, citizens are allowed to go free, thereby earning New York City less money. The citizens “win,” the police make their point, and the parasitic arm of the municipality loses.
But, on the other hand, some police officers seem to have literally and figuratively turned their backs on a form of authority that they have determined unworthy of their respect—because authority that abuses its power or fails to protect those in its care loses its credibility and legitimacy. It now seems clear that citizens who have recently lost faith in the NYPD due to lethal aggression carried out against citizens, both in New York and across the nation, are using the same blueprint for action as those officers who turned their back to the mayor. Disagreeing and protesting police power doesn’t make you a poor example of a citizen, and in the same way, disagreeing with how a mayor treats the police does not make you a poor example of a police officer. Both groups are exercising their natural right of freedom, their desire to be respected, and their need for decency and dignity—conditions that pre-exist any occupation or societal role.
The third side of this issue to consider is one of public service. Let’s face reality: the world will not come to an end if people aren’t penalized for double-parking or jumping the turnstiles in a subway station. But if you are a public servant whose income is derived from the taxation of the public, and you consciously choose not to enforce the law that you have been hired to defend, then, as a servant of the public, you have made the dangerous assertion that dedication to your ideology takes precedence over service to the public. Implied in such a stance is the tacit assertion that communal well-being is secondary to group solidarity, which is the exact sentiment that drove protestors into a fury when Eric Garner died in a chokehold not too long ago. These events not only prove public suspicions correct but also illuminate a system that chooses not to indict an officer in the interest of group solidarity. The icing on the cake is that the “low-level” offense that Mr. Garner was allegedly arrested and then killed for—selling loose, untaxed cigarettes—is the same type of offense as those that NYC police seem to be not presently pursuing.
Furthermore, at least one member of the police agrees with the sentiment that the police may act as if they’re above the law and need better policing of themselves. Last month, a former policeman in the St. Louis PD, Redditt Hudson, wrote an article for The Washington Post. There, Mr. Hudson said, “Even when officers get caught, they know they’ll be investigated by their friends, and put on paid leave. My colleagues would laughingly refer to this as a free vacation. It isn’t a punishment. And excessive force is almost always deemed acceptable in our courts and among our grand juries. Prosecutors are tight with law enforcement, and share the same values and ideas. We could start to change that by mandating that a special prosecutor be appointed to try excessive force cases. And we need more independent oversight, with teeth. I have little confidence in internal investigations. The number of people in uniform who will knowingly and maliciously violate your human rights is huge. At the Ferguson protests, people are chanting, ‘The whole damn system is guilty as hell.’ I agree, and we have a lot of work to do.”
The “law” subsequently becomes a nebulous concept with no absolutes and vague borders. A few weeks ago, the message was, “You broke the law, you’re a criminal, you must be stopped.” Now the message is, “Remember that law? Not so important now.”
Being in a position of power means you ought to act accordingly. So, if you are responsible for people, act as if they matter.
Act as if you’re leading and therefore rise above the pettiness of ordinary “line workers.” Leadership, by definition, means to come out and be separate from those who are led. If you are the subordinate in a relationship, act as if you respect your authority and willingly obey those who have been placed there to maintain proper order. Superiors running amok, drunk on power, and subordinates running amok with spirits of rebellion only leads to chaos, disorder, and confusion. Of course, revolution is a natural means to restore proper balance, in which case you should act as if you have the discernment to recognize when the reigns need to change hands.
When all we do is what’s right in our own eyes, then we’ve lost grip of the realization that committed neighborliness always trumps rugged individualism. So let’s all start acting as if the other person matters.
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal