By Jon Queally
Earlier this week, responding to initial news reports that the New York Police Department had drastically reduced the number of arrests and citations following the murder of two of Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos on December 20, New York-based journalist and radio host Allison Kilkenny took to Twitter and noted, "Arrests plummeted 66% but I just looked outside and nothing is on fire and the sun is still out and everything. Weird."
What has been largely reported as a "virtual work stoppage" by NYPD officers as a result of a perceived lack of support coming from the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the internal turmoil between City Hall and the police stemmed from the interplay between ongoing street protests in the city that followed the non-indictment of Officer Daniel Pantaleo for the choking death of Eric Garner and public comments made by the mayor in support of those protests. When the man who killed officers Liu and Ramos appeared cite revenge for Garner's death as part of his motivation, many officers—including union heads and leaders of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association—quickly put the blame on de Blasio for creating what they called an "anti-police" atmosphere.
Though the public debate over the relationship between City Hall and the NYPD has seemingly started to cool, many people are now looking at the "work stoppage" itself—which reportedly resulted in drastic reductions in arrests, citations, and even parking tickets—as rather positive evidence that a city with less arrests may be something to celebrate, not criticize.
Writing for Rolling Stone on Wednesday, journalist Matt Taibbi described the situation in the city as "surreal," but noted positively that, "In an alternate universe, the New York Police might have just solved the national community-policing controversy."
In his article, Taibbi explores that if the police protest was done for "enlightened reasons"—as opposed to what he described as "the last salvo of an ongoing and increasingly vicious culture-war mess that is showing no signs of abating"—there would be something wonderful about living in a city that called on officers to prioritize building-up community members instead of finding ways to put officers "in the position of having to make up for budget shortfalls" by issuing unnecessary fines and citations to people who can barely afford to make ends meet in the first place.
"If I were a police officer, I'd hate to be taking money from people all day long," Taibbi writes. "Christ, that's worse than being a dentist. So under normal circumstances, this slowdown wouldn't just make sense, it would be heroic. Unfortunately, this protest is not about police refusing to shake people down for money on principle."
But as Matt Ford asks in a new piece for The Atlantic, the stoppage—whatever its motivation—still raises this key question: "If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds, why haven't they done it before?"
The "human implications" of that question, he continues, are not insignificant, especially for those most impacted by aggressive forms of policing. He writes:
Fewer arrests for minor crimes logically means fewer people behind bars for minor crimes. Poorer would-be defendants benefit the most; three-quarters of those sitting in New York jails are only there because they can't afford bail. Fewer New Yorkers will also be sent to Rikers Island, where endemic brutality against inmates has led to resignations, arrests, and an imminent federal civil-rights intervention over the past six months. A brush with the American criminal-justice system can be toxic for someone's socioeconomic and physical health.
The NYPD might benefit from fewer unnecessary arrests, too. Tensions between the mayor and the police unions originally intensified after a grand jury failed to indict a NYPD officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner during an arrest earlier this year. Garner's arrest wasn't for murder or arson or bank robbery, but on suspicion of selling untaxed cigarettes—hardly the most serious of crimes. Maybe the NYPD's new "absolutely necessary" standard for arrests would have produced a less tragic outcome for Garner then. Maybe it will for future Eric Garners too.
Concluding his assessment, Taibbi describes what he thinks are the two issues that are central to what's happening in New York City and their relevance to a much broader conversation about race, policing, and other public policy questions for the nation as a whole. He writes:
One is an ongoing bitter argument about race and blame that won't be resolved in this country anytime soon, if ever. Dig a millimeter under the surface of the Garner case, Ferguson, the Liu-Ramos murders, and you'll find vicious race-soaked debates about who's to blame for urban poverty, black crime, police violence, immigration, overloaded prisons and a dozen other nightmare issues.
But the other thing is a highly specific debate over a very resolvable controversy not about police as people, but about how police are deployed. Most people, and police most of all, agree that the best use of police officers is police work. They shouldn't be collecting backdoor taxes because politicians are too cowardly to raise them, and they shouldn't be pre-emptively busting people in poor neighborhoods because voters don't have the patience to figure out some other way to deal with our dying cities.
However, what Taibbi ultimately laments is that because the work stoppage, in his opinion, represents a self-interested gesture by the NYPD it will likely have little, if any, long-term impact.
Instead of shining a light on the broader issues he mentioned, Taibbi says, it will unfortunately be "just more fodder for our ongoing hate-a-thon" that plays out on cable news and elsewhere.
Sardonically, Taibbi signed off, "Happy New Year, America."