Police, police unions and all of us: We’re back to Fear City, even though the Bad Old Days are long gone
In the New York City of the Bad Old Days, it was the police unions who led the chorus decrying our bloody and chaotic city and the weak politicians who’d let it get that way by exposing good cops to “the endless onslaught of demonization and anti-police rhetoric,” with the commissioner himself “acquiescing to politically motivated changes to NYPD policy and the law” that have “fundamentally undermined the NYPD’s core public safety mission” while “deceiving the public about the growing disorder and declining public safety.”
Things got so upside down that police officers promoted images of violence and disorder to warn New Yorkers that their protectors were powerless and that nowhere was safe as cops declared their contempt for elected leaders and paraded their defiance of their own chain of command.
“EVERY cop STAY TOGETHER turn your backs on them,” they said, publicly, about their own commissioner and chief of department, referring to the leaders by schoolyard taunt nicknames. “STAY TOGETHER DEFY protocol THEY DON’T DESERVE RESPECT THEY GIVE NE”
Those weren’t idle words, but said just as enforcement numbers plunged, with felony and misdemeanor arrests both abruptly dropping by double digits as union officials also complained about civilians making things worse for themselves by refusing to comply and disrespecting officers.
One union just asked: “Have we reached a point where cops should not care?”
I’ve written before about the infamous Fear City pamphlets police officers passed out to tourists in 1975 (1,622 murders) and the police riot at City Hall and on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1992 (2,245 murders), but all the quotes above are from the Bad Old Days of 2019 (212 murders through Sept. 5, down from a record low 220 through the same date last year).
There’s been plenty more rhetoric like this from the police unions since Commissioner James O’Neill’s decision last month to fire Daniel Pantaleo and the PBA’s subsequent vote of no confidence in O’Neill.
Some of this talk is cyclical, as Nixon’s Law and Order revival became the Ferguson Effect became the War on Cops became the Pantaleo Effect. It reflects the fun house mirror politics around police unions, backed by conservatives who generally disdain unions and loathed by liberals who generally support unions. (That’s not to mention that the PBA and SBA leadership — like the senior NYPD leadership — are considerably whiter and more male than both the rank-and-file members they represent and the overall make-up of New York City.)
And some of this talk is a response to our buck-passing, absentee mayor, who’s been viewed since the Garner killing with deep suspicion if not outright disgust by many officers, who in turn see O’Neill, a New York City cop since the Bad Old Days of 1983 (1,622 murders), as a creature of de Blasio, who made him commissioner.
De Blasio, among his many other failings, has often lacked the courage of his own convictions, so that, for instance, his righteous determination to stop treating mental illness, addiction and deep dysfunction as crimes — with those people inevitably rousted or arrested — hasn’t been matched by significant new help, which ain’t cheap, for those people. They’ve largely just been left on our streets, and trains, to fend for themselves.
This has not led to a rise in major crimes, but it has created a sense of a more disordered and potentially dangerous city, leaving officers without a clear sense of what their role is, or the rules of engagement — a problem worsened by the mayor’s habit of using them as a political football, going back at least to his talk about warning his black son about the police in the immediate aftermath of Garner’s killing.
But now the PBA is shooting first and asking questions later, so to speak, calling on de Blasio to replace O’Neill. Which — spoiler alert — wouldn’t improve the things that they’re angry about.
If the police unions — as ever, looking ahead to contract negotiations with the city — want to rally public support and not just cry to the choir about how powerless they are and how vulnerable the rest of us are as a result, they might want to stop, well, shooting themselves in the foot.