This week I thought I would write about law enforcement, and what is has become over the years. It seems like in the olden days, when I was small, the police were there to protect and serve the community. If you needed help changing a tire on the side of a busy road, or your cat was stuck in a tree, the police were there to come to the rescue. There were policemen patrolling a beat, who knew the people on his particular streets. If there were people causing trouble, the police were there to break it up. The police were very much viewed as the good guys. Maybe I just have a romantic notion of what it means to be a cop. Maybe I’ve been influenced by cop shows from the late 70’s and early 80’s. I am not ignoring stereotypical small town police forces in the south that turned dogs and fire hoses on black people, but that was a little before my time and not part of my personal experience growing up in a very integrated suburban town.
It seems to me as I have gotten older, the policemen we hear about in the news have gotten less like Sheriff Andy in Mayberry and more like the Disney version of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Cities and towns across the country are using the police less to protect and serve and more as a tax collector. As the budgets grow in these cities, the budget shortfalls also grow. Crap rolls downhill, so when the town leaders need more money from its citizens it falls more and more to the police to shore up the budget. Most interactions with the police nowadays ends with a fine. There are towns in Florida that are completely built around speeding tickets. Police seizure of property is getting out of hand. Many police forces, in my opinion, are militarizing to protect the town, not the citizens who live in the town. Protect the budget shortfall. Protect the pensions of the elected leaders.
I’m not sure when this all started. Possibly in the 80’s with the war on drugs? They created the seizure laws in order to destroy drug dealers and cartels. They seized millions of dollars in cars, boats and contraband, picture Don Johnson driving a Ferrari Testarossa. Maybe the towns began to see the income potential of the police force. Maybe since the rates of violent crimes in the country have been steadily declining for decades, the police are freer to add more to their job descriptions than just protect and serve. I don’t pretend to know the answer. What I do know is that governments are not satiable in their desire for our money. I know that once a program starts it is almost impossible to stop, even if it doesn’t work. Programs need money.
What seems to be happening in larger cities is an, “us vs. them”, type of mentality, not only among the citizens, but also the police force. This creates a vicious circle of mistrust between the police and the people they are supposed to protect. I sincerely believe that these incidents that have been in the news are driven less by racism and more from fear. There always seems to be some legitimate reason for the police to be there, but fear drives the interaction, not reason. It’s a hard job. When a policeman spends most of his or her time on non-violent interactions, it makes the violent ones that much more scary. This is by no means an excuse. There needs to be a transition back to the original job description. In this regard there may be some good news.
In New York City, the police are in the middle of a “work stoppage”. They are angry at the mayor for slighting them in the Eric Garner affair. What they are doing is the bare minimum to keep the city safe. The police are honorable people. They know that they can’t just stop protecting people. They decided to stop being revenue generators for the city. What is actually happening is that the police are not doing the things that the people didn’t want them to do in the first place. The police are limiting themselves to violent crime and leaving people alone for things like open containers and parking tickets. Of course, they are doing this to stick it to mayor DiBlasio, but it might ultimately be the solution to the problem police departments all over the country. If the police union would make this a permanent change, they would foster good will in the community that would eventually become trust. It’s funny that they see parking and speeding tickets as so integral to police work that the city would fall into anarchy without them.
I would urge police all over the country to follow the lead of the NYPD. I would urge the NYPD to make this a permanent change. Sure, more people might pee in the alley, but overall less people will die. More people would trust the police. Less people would be jailed for not paying the city enough. I still believe in the goodness of the vast majority of people who put on that uniform. It is a thankless job, especially when the elected officials force them to be a protector and tax collector. It is in the power of every chief of police to transition his men from being like the sheriff of Nottingham to the sheriff of Mayberry. Help us help you. If that goes well, maybe we can talk about the war on drugs.