The NYPD's dangerous, disgraceful game
Over two weeks of foot-stomping is enough, don’t you think?
On second thought, maybe that was already far too much.
Of course, I’m talking about the overwrought indignation roiling the New York Police Department since the horrific murder of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a deranged psychopath on Dec. 20.
But first, a concession.
It’s been a tough several months for the police. Their work is often dangerous — sometimes intensely so, requiring heroic acts of valor that go far beyond what the rest of us will ever be called to do in our jobs. They deserve our respect and gratitude for risking their lives and well-being to ensure public safety. Police officers usually receive a decent wage and pension, but they aren’t rich. A significant part of their compensation comes from the honor, deference, and respect they are shown by elected officials and the public at large. It feels good to wear a uniform and carry a weapon, especially when unarmed civilians respond with admiration to both.
That’s the main reason why things have been so tense in the months since the unarmed Michael Brown was gunned down by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. For the first time in decades, the police have come in for widespread, sometimes harsh public criticism. That criticism got harsher after the non-indictment of Wilson — and it got exponentially worse after a grand jury in Staten Island failed to indict the cop who strangled the unarmed Eric Garner to death in a separate incident.
After weeks of loud and angry protests, with large numbers of law-abiding citizens (including some politicians, and myself) raising tough questions about whether cops are shown too much deference in our culture and legal system, tension were running high. Which is why the cold-blooded murder of officers Ramos and Liu was especially shocking. When news of the shooting first broke, it was perfectly understandable for cops to wonder in their grief and fear if it had now become open season on the police.
What is not understandable — or justifiable — is for officers days later to show outright and repeated disrespect to New York Mayor Bill de Blasio by turning their backs on him at public events. Or for them to engage in a dramatic two-weeks-and-running work slowdown that has led to a 50 percent drop in arrests, and a 90 percent decline in parking and traffic tickets, from the same period a year ago.
Such actions are unjustifiable for several reasons.
First, because Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who gunned down Ramos and Liu after shooting his girlfriend and before killing himself, was a lunatic. His crime was not an act of politics; it was an act of madness, however he may have rationalized it to himself in the midst of his homicidal-suicidal rage. In case there is any doubt of this, we have the additional fact that no one in the protest movement views Brinsley as a hero advancing its aims. Far from it. The expressions of anguish, outrage, and disgust at the shooting have been nearly universal and entirely sincere.
That much is obvious to anyone who’s paying attention.
Which means that the cops who are acting out in counter-protest are either behaving like children throwing an irrational temper tantrum or cynically using a tragedy to forestall public criticism and browbeat protesters into silence.
Either way, their actions are disgraceful.
They’re also dangerous.
Liberal democratic government depends on several norms and institutions, including rights to free speech, worship, and assembly, free and fair elections, private property rights, an independent judiciary — and civilian control of the military. Make no mistake about it: the NYPD — with roughly 35,000 uniformed officers, as well as a well-funded and well-armed counterterrorism bureau — is a modestly sized military force deployed on the streets of the city.
It is absolutely essential, in New York City but also in communities around the country, that citizens and public officials make it at all times unambiguously clear that the police work for us. In repeatedly turning their backs on the man elected mayor by the citizens of New York, in refusing to abide by the police commissioner’s requests to cease their protests, in engaging in a work slowdown that could lead to a breakdown in the public order they are sworn to uphold — with all of these acts, the NYPD has demonstrated that it does not understand that the residents of New York City, and not the members of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association or its demagogic leader Patrick Lynch, are the ones in charge.
When police officers engage in acts of insubordination against civilian leadership, they should expect to be punished. Just like insubordinate soldiers.
The principle of civilian control of the military and police depends on it.
It also depends on cops who kill unarmed citizens being tried in a court of law. And on cops respecting the right of citizens to protest anything they wish, including the failure of the judicial system to hold police officers accountable for their use of deadly force in ambiguous situations.
All of this should be a no-brainer. That it apparently isn’t for many police officers and their apologists in the media is a troubling sign of decay in our civic institutions.
The mourning is over. Respect has been paid to the victims of a senseless act of violence. Now it’s time for the NYPD to go back to acting responsibly — and for the rest of us to continue expressing our justified outrage at the recklessness of bad cops and the prosecutors and jurors who enable them.