We New Yorkers are prideful people, proud of our city and proud of ourselves for making it our home. As life in New York can often seem like a daily test of one’s mettle, to regularly wake up in the city that never sleeps qualifies as an accomplishment. But a city that doesn’t sleep is not a city of dreams and fantasies; it’s rather a city of harsh and hard-won realities. And by insisting on seeing things for what they are, by refusing to look away for fear of being taken for fools, we have cultivated a tough-minded impatience with the fraudulent. New Yorkers have been bred for honesty, especially with each other, and of this too we are proud. That honesty compels us to call ‘em like we see ‘em, raising our voices in praise and protest as we deem fit. Lately there has been a lot of protesting, and there should be. We are dangerously mismanaging our complicated yet vital relationships with those we have chosen to lead us and the police officers who have sworn to serve and protect us.
How a city’s citizens, its leaders, and those dedicated to its security, stand to one another says much about the health of the city, or, in other words, how just it is. Of course, to recognize the very need for security is to acknowledge that the city’s health is not perfect. The perfectly just city requires perfectly just people and people just ain’t that good. Certainly not enough of them are. Too many feel entitled to take from the city more than is warranted by what they put in, and still others see no reason to put in anything at all. Some care only for themselves and their loved ones, either forgetting or refusing to acknowledge that ignoring the well-being of their neighbors risks endangering their own. So long as the human condition remains susceptible to sloth, greed, lust and the like (for as long as our condition remains human, I suspect), perfect justice will be no more than an ideal. And for so long will cities need something like the police.
But even after adjusting our expectations to better accord with reality, few of us would say that at this moment New York City is especially well. We have allowed the lesser angels of our natures to make mischief and we suffer now because of it. The Mayor, attempting to appeal to the entire city, has nonetheless managed to insult and offend a significant portion of it. The police have responded to that offense—as well as to reasoned criticism of some of their practices—with not only anger, but with disrespect. Not enough citizens, on the other hand, appeared to acknowledge the Mayor’s offense at all, and so are complicit in it. At the same time, we have allowed demonstrations of legitimate concerns about our criminal justice system to become threateningly repugnant. A plague has fallen upon all our houses.
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Last month, mere days short of Christmas, Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos of the New York Police Department were assassinated as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn. Their murders were the nadir in a series of events, by turns deadly and distasteful, that has convulsed the city since summertime. In his impassioned eulogy for Officer Liu, Police Department Commissioner William Bratton addressed his angry and demoralized officers by reminding them why they do what they do.
“We do this because we took an oath. We do this because we believe in possibility. This is what we signed up for. The possibility of helping people. The possibility of making a safer, fairer city. To Wenjian’s and Rafael’s brothers and sisters in blue, I want you to know: I am so proud of you. Proud of you for making those possibilities a reality for so many in this city. Even after forty-four years, I am so proud to be one of you.
We’re cops. We hold the line. We don’t quit when things are hard, because when aren’t they?We took this job to prevent crime and disorder. Over the past twenty-two years, this Department has reminded the world of how that’s done. The mission has not changed. The belief in possibility has not changed. And a much larger part of this city, of this country, a much larger part than you think, is proud of you, too.”
The Commissioner is correct, many of us are proud of our police officers. More precisely, we are proud of many of those officers, most of the time. We admire and respect the men and women of the New York Police Department for their bravery as they risk their lives by coming between us and those who would do us harm. We appreciate—and attempt, no doubt unsuccessfully—to comprehend the emotional burden they must bear for the fear and anxiety that their work induces in their families and friends. We laud them for their role in lifting this city out of the crime-ridden and drug-infested depths into which it had descended in the late 1980’s and ’90’s. New York was dangerous and unsavory then; today ours is a better city, by almost every measure, and we thank the many fine officers of the NYPD who helped make it so.
Our police officers have achieved successes in an arena the majority of us would rather not enter. They have been trained for it, of course, but the risks they run are high. And given that we have ceded to them the right to use force on our behalf—indeed, far more force than anyone of us alone would be likely to muster in our own defense—the standards to which they are held must also be high. Most crucially, we must demand that they use no more force than is necessary in defense of our security lest they become its greatest threat. In the philosopher Plato’s vivid formulation of the challenge, a society must ensure that the police never be permitted to transform from noble dogs guarding the flock into voracious wolves that would feast on it.
The city was understandably dismayed, therefore, when in July of last year it bore witness by video as the fuse of our present turmoil was being lit. Here was an unarmed man, being surrounded by six police officers, and then pleading for his breath as they took him to ground by applying a chokehold—a maneuver that, though not illegal, is in violation of NYPD guidelines. Eric Garner, an obese man with hypertensive cardiovascular disease and acute and chronic asthma, could not withstand the pressure the officers applied to his neck and chest. With Garner lying handcuffed and unconscious, an ambulance was called. Garner was then taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
That Garner should die as a result of being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes from untaxed packs (a violation of the law for which he was arrested at least eight times previously) no one believes to be a punishment befitting the crime. But just what people saw in that video had very much to do with their previously formed perspective on policing. To the police, the scene was a terrible lesson in the dangers of disrespecting their authority. They have the responsibility—indeed, the burden—of apprehending alleged criminals; the appropriate way for an alleged criminal to steadfastly maintain one’s innocence is to plead one’s case in front of a judge, not to physically resist an arresting officer. Unforeseen, and occasionally tragic consequences can result from the latter. To a number of others, however, and most significantly to Mayor de Blasio (and President Obama), the video of white officer with his arm around the neck of the black Garner documented the sort of disproportionally forceful interaction between the police and communities of color that the latter, after years of being stopped and frisked, have come to fear. The intervening drama of the shooting death of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager believed to have robbed a convenience store, at the hands of a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent violent protests that took place there, pitting enraged citizens against a police force suddenly appearing more like an occupying army, served to intensify the hostile atmosphere in New York while ensuring that the racial interpretation of the Garner case would predominate.
Few people take the accusation of racism in stride and New York’s police officers are no exception. The NYPD prides itself on the diversity of its ranks; as the Commissioner pointedly reminded us in his eulogy, the Department, as represented by the Chinese Liu and Hispanic Ramos, “looks a lot more like the city it serves than some people think.” Indeed, the commanding officer at the scene of the deadly confrontation with Garner was a black woman. But neither these facts nor the frequently offered arguments that the police engage and arrest a disproportionate number of minority citizens because violence is disproportionately afflicting minority communities, could possibly rebut the Mayor’s confession that he and his wife have “had to literally train” their biracial son “in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.”
A number of police officers have voiced their disapproval with the Mayor over these remarks, and certainly they constitute a stinging rebuke. They may have been, as some have complained, ill-timed. But according to the Mayor and, unfortunately, a significant number of citizens, most especially black and brown ones, this is the regrettable reality. The reality of fear and anxiety is a personal matter, and something those who do not inhabit it are often better served tying to understand rather than deny. Pondering that more than eight of every ten people who were stopped, questioned, and frisked by the police between 2002 and 2012 were black or Hispanic and that as many as nine of every ten people so confronted were not arrested, seems a sensible place to start. On the face of it, the police tactic that the Mayor campaigned against, but which former Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly so staunchly defended, was considerably more effective at humiliating and enraging minorities than it was at getting criminals off our streets.
The NYPD’s broader policing strategy over the past two decades, the so-called ‘broken windows’ approach, may well be the primary reason for extraordinary reduction in crime that New York City has seen over that time, as its many advocates insist, but it has also led to the feeling in many minority communities of being under siege. Safety cannot be summed up by statistics; in the final analysis it amounts to a sensibility. The number of murders and muggings might be down across the board yet If you don’t feel safe then you are at the mercy of your fears and there are law-abiding citizens in this city who’s hair stands on end at the site of a police cruiser. These people live in a city permeated by anxiety and distrust. They feel under suspicion by often uncivil police officers who they believe are too eager to use excessive force to demonstrate their authority. When they hear officers speak of ‘hammering’ their neighborhoods to squash petty crimes, they don’t feel they are being protected or served but harassed. Whether these feelings are warranted or justified could be debated endlessly but are, for the present moment at least, beside the point; what matters is that they are sincere.
The pursuit of justice in the city demands that those with the responsibility of protecting its citizens be respectful and responsive to the citizens’ concerns, even when they are not entirely shared. But this obligation is not borne by the police alone. The city’s leaders and, indeed, its citizens must discharge it as well, and in a some very troubling ways both have failed to do so. Many have found the decision by police officers to turn their backs to the Mayor, in the hospital where the slain officers were brought, and especially at their subsequent funerals, to be terribly inappropriate and disrespectful. When the Mayor asked for a moratorium on protests until after the funerals, out of respect for the grieving families, it is unlikely he imagined that it would be the police themselves who would be guilty of hijacking them. But not nearly enough of us joined with the police in voicing our disapproval with the Mayor’s unjust decision to grant the Rev. Al Sharpton equal billing with Commissioner Bratton as his administration sought to address the public’s concerns over Garner’s death.
That the Mayor would humiliate Commissioner Bratton, and by extension the entire NYPD, by subjecting him to a scolding by Mr. Sharprton, was an offensive error in judgment. Mr. Sharpton, as many New Yorkers remember, and no police officer is likely allowed to forget, falsely accused two law-enforcement officers (among others) of raping and defiling a black teenage girl, Tawana Brawley, in a racially-motivated attack in 1987. In 1998, a court found that Mr. Shaprton had defamed prosecutor Stephen Pagones, and he was ordered to pay damages (which he personally refused to do, though his supporters have), yet to this day, Mr. Sharpton has never publicly apologized for his slander.
As New Yorkers look back on the terrible racial and ethnic tensions that gripped the city in 1980s and 90’s, and the deadly confrontations that too often resulted, Mr. Sharpton is remembered for exacerbating them instead of alleviating them, for sowing discord rather than seeking peace. And while Mr. Sharpton has more recently distinguished himself by speaking out for the just treatment of immigrants, for fighting homophobia in black communities and churches, and even denouncing cruelty to animals, benevolent acts for which he should be commended and encouraged to continue, he long ago disqualified himself in the eyes of most of his fellow citizens from a position of sanctioned authority in this city.
Democratic citizens tend to get the leaders they deserve. If we want our elected officials to be worthy of their office, and if we want our most active and outspoken fellow citizens to be worthy of their prominence in our discourse, we need to demand that they be so. Making such demands is part of what makes us worthy of our citizenship. But being worthy citizens also requires making certain demands of ourselves, and among them should be that we don’t take to the streets and repeatedly shout that we want dead cops and that we want them dead now. But this is what some shamefully did after a Staten Island grand jury concluded that the police officers’ role in Garner’s death should be without legal consequence. Whether the grand jury’s decision was just, and whether we should abolish a system that allows local prosecutors to convene them in cases involving the police, are legitimate questions. Moreover, to be convinced that the answer to both of them is ‘no’ is a stance that can be reasonably defended. But our commitment to civility forbids us from marching in the streets chanting for death. We should be better than that. We must be better than that.
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The challenge of arranging its affairs in as just a manner as possible is one that every city faces, every single day. And given the importance of the problem, there is no shortage of solutions that have been offered through the ages. Among the most provocative discussions of justice can be found in the Republic, where Plato insists that a wisely-run city would place onerous constraints on its police, denying them the right to own property, forbidding them to use money, and restricting their ability to travel abroad. They should be made to live in Spartan conditions, in barracks where they will be provided with the nutrition and training adequate to their demanding assignment, but denied any opportunity to cultivate an appetite for either money or power or anything else that might undermine the willingness of the police to defend their city with utmost honor.
No one would advocate for such measures in our present case, yet Plato’s insistence that loyalty to the city they serve be an essential component to the police officer’s character should strike us as wise counsel. Plato thought it so important that he advocated the city’s leaders to spread the ‘noble lie’ that each of its citizens, including the police, were conceived within the womb of the earth itself, and that they must recognize the city as their true mother. New York City’s leaders would do well not to resort to lies, but now might be a good time for all of us to reconsider the requirement that New York’s police officers live within the city limits. Commissioner Bratton, in his eulogy for Officer Liu, proudly asserted that Liu, Officer Ramos, and more than half of the NYPD’s officers live within the five boroughs. This should be welcome news to all of us, for officers who are also New Yorkers are officers that are dedicated to securing the well-being of their city not simply because they are professionals who have sworn an oath to do so, but because they have a stake in the city they and their families call home. We should do what is necessary to see that all of New York’s police officers are proud New Yorkers as well.
We should seek even more than this, however, and encourage our police officers to become active partners in the healthy behavior of the neighborhoods in which they work rather than merely an intimidating presence that patrols them in search of unhealthy activity. It’s often said, and too often true, that we turn to the police only when there is trouble and we need them do what we are unable or unwilling to do ourselves. It’s also too often true that the police on the street appear aloof and unapproachable, reluctant and uncomfortable interacting with anyone but their brothers and sisters in blue. And so, too often, that is all citizens ever see when they encounter and officer: blue. But none of this is healthy, and we need to do something to change it. We need, as Commissioner Bratton said in his eulogy for Officer Ramos, to “learn to see each other. To see that our cops are people like Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, to see that our communities are filled with people just like them too. We can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we’ll heal. We’ll heal as a Department. We’ll heal as a city.”
Indeed. Let’s start seeing each other and let’s start healing. Let’s make New York better.