Yesterday the New York Times Editorial Board released an op-ed that suggests that the current (unofficial) slowdown undertaken by NYPD is a dangerous action that possibly amounts “to the police [being] guilty of civil rights violations in withdrawing policing from minority communities.” While the Board likely correctly concludes that the police slowdown results in the police not completing the tasks expected of them, the numbers cited alone cannot be used to infer a causal relationship between the police slowdown and a change in public safety, particularly over the past two weeks.
Numbers that could support the NYT Editorial Board’s claim that the police’s actions have decreased public safety, that have not to date been presented, would include an increase in the reported crime rate or (a metric which would be even better than reported crimes) an increase in the victimization rate in New York over the period the slowdown is in effect. In other words, just because an arrest isn’t made, there is no indication that more offenses have been committed.
Frankly, it is unlikely is that any given offender was aware of the slowdown at least initially. Most people don’t commit crimes for a variety of reasons, thought the perception of a likelihood of capture can factor heavily in the decision to offend or not. Accordingly, it is unlikely they would have been aware that their actual risk of being caught decreased and thus increased their offending to take advantage of this circumstance.
Given the media attention brought to this particular facet, it is conceivable that some offenders might attempt to take advantage of the lack of policing, particularly those who are committing relatively minor and non-violent offences. Of course, potential offenders would have to be reasonably sure that no law enforcement would act in order for them to make this choice rationally. It is unclear that severe offences have not been acted on and this accusation has yet to be explicitly made.
Ironically, it could be police inaction, particularly if that inaction is a reduction in arrests due to stop-and-frisk policing tactics or racial profiling, that the heavily policed minority communities could indeed be wanting. A reduction of such policing tactics certainly could not be argued to be a civil rights violation (though the refusal to investigate reported crimes or respond to calls for help would be).
All of that being said, it is important to understand the consequences of this slowdown, over its entire duration, and to investigate what effects, if any, the slowdown has had on actual public safety, as measured by victimization; the public’s perception of public safety; and the public’s confidence in the police. It is also important to not forget about the media’s role in informing the public and shaping its opinion, particularly in regards to public safety.
Public safety and how it is achieved is undeniably political; after all de Blasio did make police reform a cornerstone to his mayoral campaign. The NYPD is doing itself no favors by claiming to have absolute authority over right and wrong, in part because it doesn't. By implying that the police are infallible, we ignore the role played by the judiciary and that sometime folks are found innocent.
Moreover, by taking offense to comments that people of color have to treat police encounters with caution, the NYPD union bosses, the officers who choose to turn their back on the mayor, and people who seem to be trying to score political points, like Rudy Giuliani and George Pataki, ignore a reality that people of color face in the U.S., regardless of their socioeconomic status. It is not question of “simply obeying the law and one will have no problems.” As these groups have called for the protesters to cease, or linked the recent police shootings to the protesters clearly lack a basic understanding of the grievances that need to be addressed in any future police reform or cause and effect relationships.
A good starting point to emerge from this mess is to begin to have an open, frank, and clear discussion of what we are seeing. That discussion needs to be depoliticized as much as possible. We can achieve that by basing the discussion on empirical data – both quantitative, to understand policing strategies effects on public safety, and qualitative, to understand the nature of the relationship the police have with the communities they serve.
New York City should attempt to understand fully what the effects of the slowdown are, and critics should demand that data as evidence before advancing a suggestion of a causal relationship between reduced police arrests and increased victimization. There is no shortage of capable criminologists who could undertake an analysis and the New York City government should fund such a study. Its results could go a long way not only to help support or refute the current policing policies in New York and elsewhere in the United States but also understanding the role of the media in the public’s understanding of public safety.
Only with such empirical data – and not gut feelings and perceptions – will it be possible to accurately portray the effects of policing choices in terms of how safe the community is and how safe the community perceives itself to be and to develop and implement policies that successfully address the needs of the public.