Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Good Cop, Bad Cop

The NYPD is bad news.  The NYPD has always been bad news.  Short of some cataclysmic change in city and police administrative culture, the NYPD will continue to be bad news.

I lived in New York for a few years in the late '90s, when Rudy Giuliani decided to clean up the joint and set about cracking down on drugs, prostitution, and panhandling, among other things.  As a friend and lifelong New Yorker recently told me, "It was good, and then it went to far."  By her account, a new leader in the police department instituted some radical changes and made some really positive change in the city and police culture, but Giuliani got bitten by the green-eyed monster when that guy got credit for cleaning up the city.  So he canned him, and filled the position with someone a little more militant and a little less forward thinking.

By the time I arrived in New York, the police were, under the guise of cleaning up the city, busting skulls pretty much at random, treating drunk revelers talking loudly in nightclub lines with the same violent rigor that they treated armed drug dealers in a sting.  They sodomized Abner Louima (a suspect arrested for accidentally punching an officer while attempting to break up a fight between two women at a nightclub) with the handle of a bathroom plunger.  They shot and killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed and innocent man who they thought matched a suspect's description as he reached for his wallet to present identification.  They fired twelve shots at a mentally ill Hasidic man who was armed with a hammer, and killed him as well.  The response from the department to all of these things felt like a shrug.  Shit happens, right?

And so here we are, more than ten years later, watching the NYPD refuse access to credentialed reporters from organizations like the New York Times and Reuters as officers in riot gear evict the denizens of Zuccotti Park.  Pardon me if this suggests that unnecessary force is not just likely, but probably part of the plan.

The same New York friend I mentioned above, who is not a protester or a radical, told me, "I don't trust them.  I try not to have to deal with them ever."

What I'm saying here, is that the NYPD is pretty far from the protect and serve ethos that was, once upon a time, a sentiment sacred to law enforcement officers who were justifiably proud of the work they did to keep the populace safe.  And the public is far from holding in their minds the image of Officer Friendly, the approachable beat cop who's tough but fair and looks out for your kids.

I'm appalled by the way the NYPD has handled OWS.  When we were there, there were officers stationed along the sidewalks telling passersby to keep moving, to keep the sidewalks clear as they tried to read the protesters signs on Broadway or watch the drummers at the other end of the park, and they were not nice about it.  I do a fair amount of crowd control involving hundreds of people at work on busy summer days and I understand how easy it is to get frustrated when people just won't listen, but we're talking about a dozen people at a time walking by and slowing down to look.  They were moving along, though slowly, but the officers were extremely loud and extremely aggressive shouting at what were mostly tourists to move along.  Guess what, NYPD?  There were a lot of people from elsewhere that were willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, or maybe hadn't even heard about your terrible reputation.  Way to spread the word that you're a bunch of power-hungry dickheads to every corner of the world.

And they're not the only department overstepping their bounds and generating a shameful public image across the country.  Oakland, another department notorious for its aggressive and antagonistic behavior has showed their true colors, landing more than one veteran in the hospital with head injuries sustained from rubber bullets. And sure, in chaotic situations these types of injuries are not uncommon, but if there was any doubt the police were deliberate in their decision to inflict damage as opposed to controlling the crowd, this video, in which a group of protesters rushes to the aid of Scott Olsen, a young veteran who suffered a fractured skull and brain swelling after being hit in the head with a tear gas canister should put those doubts to rest.  No one is behaving aggressively, or even looking at the police.  They're attempting to address the needs of an injured man lying on the street.  The flashbang thrown here reportedly landed only a foot or two from Olsen.  You might also watch this, in which students at Berkeley are beaten at length for refusing to disperse.  Note in particular the three officers in riot gear in the lower left corner who separate a young man from the crowd and really put their backs into it, then slink off behind the bushes to disappear into a larger crowd of officers.  That student was later taken to the hospital having been beaten extensively in the head and ribs.

It's horrifying.  It's egregious. It's absolutely shameful.  But I'd like to address the collateral damage, outside the physical wounds of protesters, namely the honor and dignity of police everywhere.

My uncle, William Baker, has spent a lifetime in law enforcement, starting as an officer in a small town force where he eventually became the chief.  After a brief stint in the Department of Public Safety in Massachusetts, UMaine law, and Haiti doing police training under the auspices of the U.S. Justice Department, he returned to police work as the chief in Laconia, New Hampshire.  Laconia, known for its down and dirty "Bike Week" had both some serious public safety concerns and a deeply antagonistic relationship with the police.  A tremendously personable guy and a cop for all the right reasons, one of Bill's main goals in the town was repair the terrible community relations.  He instituted a mentoring program pairing officers with at-risk youth and promoted other outreach opportunities in which community members got to know the officers on the streets and were encouraged to approach them not just in emergencies, but with their concerns and suggestions as well.  To the dismay of motorcycle enthusiasts, he cleaned up some of the seedier elements of Bike Week (cole slaw wrestling, anyone) and went so far as to ban weapons in the tow during a year when several of the larger biker gangs in the country were publicly warring.

When he left Laconia, he decided to go back to his roots and took a job as a rank and file officer in Biddeford, then decided it was time to leave that type of work to younger men and became the chief in Westbrook.  Like Laconia, Westbrook was a town with a number of chronic problems, most notably drugs, and he immediately began an aggressive campaign to curb that activity in the city.  He also worked with his officers to improve the culture and morale of the department, promoting transparency and community outreach.  Though, again, unpopular with people often engaged in less than legal activities, he was successful in creating community buy in and repairing the relationship of the community at large and the department.  He now works as a consultant for the FBI.

There are two major reasons that people go into police work: 1) Because they want to give back to their community and help people and 2) Because they've got some power and control issues and enjoy working in a position that gives them both.  Unfortunately, the former, like my uncle are increasingly a minority.

We live in a hyper-aggressive culture, and a lot people go into police work hopped up on adrenaline-seeking and unresolved anger, despite attempts by police academies to screen for and train out those tendencies.  Plus, it's a job that, depending on where you work, can pretty easily cultivate a bad attitude.  Imagine doing a job where most of the time, the fact that you were called in is a bad thing.  Either someone has committed a crime and they're obviously not glad to see you, or someone has been the victim of a crime and your arrival is part and parcel of that negative experience.  Police officers deal with people assaulting, insulting, spitting, vomiting and bleeding on them on a regular basis.  That's a pretty tough gig.  It certainly doesn't excuse the outrageous behavior we've seen across the country, but it's worth keeping in mind before we start painting all police officers with the same brush.

I have to admit that I cringe every time I hear or read, "Fuck the police," or hear them referred to as "pigs."  Because I'm not sure, given the extreme situations in which those sentiments are expressed, that the people expressing them will ever be able to separate the heinous actions of those particular officers or departments from the badge in general.

And likewise, I feel deeply angry at the officers perpetrating these offenses, not just for the sheer inhumanity of it, but because they have betrayed the dignity and respect of their position.  They've corrupted what ought to be a noble institution and rendered it infinitely more difficult for their more upright brethren across the country to the kind of good work that everyone in uniform should be known for.

I'm sad for the dozens of victims of police brutality these past few days. I'm sad for every officer who reports for duty with a sense of pride in their community and concern for the public and is met with disdain and mistrust.  I'm sad that we live in a culture that has allowed this sort of behavior to escalate to such a dire, dangerous, monstrous state.

Don't fuck the police, fuck that.

1 comment:

  1. As always, Meghan, I am impressed by and admire your commitment to always striking balance in your views. I have often thought the same thing about this particular issue.

    Keep it up.