Conor Friedersdorf is a California-based staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.
The virtual work stoppage unfolding in New York City illustrates one of several ways that powerful police unions can threaten public safety as they seek political leverage.
In New York City, "NYPD traffic tickets and summonses for minor offenses have dropped off by a staggering 94 percent following the execution of two cops," theNew York Post reports, attributing the "virtual work stoppage" to rank-and-file police officers who "feel betrayed by the mayor and fear for their safety."
The statistics cited suggest significant solidarity among cops. Overall arrests rates fell 66 percent "for the week starting Dec. 22 compared with the same period in 2013, stats show. Citations for traffic violations fell by 94 percent, from 10,069 to 587, during that time frame. Summonses for low-level offenses like public drinking and urination also plunged 94 percent—from 4,831 to 300. Even parking violations are way down, dropping by 92 percent, from 14,699 to 1,241."
As a ploy in contract negotiations, this tactic may prove effective, but it puts the NYPD in an unenviable position with respect to explaining what happens next. If this significant work slowdown has basically no effect on the safety of New York City, the NYPD's prior policing will appear to have been needlessly aggressive, and the case for deploying more cops on the street in the future will be undermined. Scott Shackford zeroes in on this line from the Post article: "... cops were turning a blind eye to some minor crimes and making arrests only 'when they have to' since the execution-style shootings of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu."
Well, we can only hope the NYPD unions and de Blasio settle their differences soon so that the police can go back to arresting people for reasons other than "when they have to." The NYPD’s failure to arrest and cite people will also end up costing the city huge amounts of money that it won’t be able to seize from its citizens, which is likely the real point. That’s the "punishment" for the de Blasio administration for not supporting them. One has to wonder if they even understand, or care, that their "work stoppage" is giving police state critics exactly what they want—less harsh enforcement of the city’s laws.
That's how some policing reformers see it. Others, like me, don't object to strictly enforcing laws against, say, public urination, traffic violations, or illegal parking, but would love it if the NYPD stopped frisking innocents without probable cause or even reasonable suspicion, needlessly escalating encounters with civilians, and (especially) killing unarmed people, goals that are perfectly compatible with data-driven policing that targets actual disorder. Keep squeegee men at bay–and leave innocent black and Hispanic men alone.
What if the "broken windows" theory is correct and the work slowdown causes an increase in disorder and thus more serious crime? The NYPD will have put the safety and perhaps even the lives of New Yorkers in jeopardy to punish a politician for purportedly disrespecting them. Such a course might succeed in decreasing de Blasio's popularity. But the public is unlikely to think that willfully putting New Yorkers in jeopardy to settle a political score is a forgivable tactic. It is certainly at odds with the notion that NYPD officers represent "New York's finest," heroes who willingly sacrifice themselves to protect and serve.
Due to de Blasio's progressive politics and the political right's reflexive "law and order" alliance with police, many conservatives are siding with the NYPD in its standoff with de Blasio. AlterNet reports that it has emails "revealing plans to organize a series of anti-de Blasio protests around the city" that are "billed as a non-partisan movement in support of 'the men and women of the NYPD'" but actually orchestrated "by a cast of NYPD union bosses and local Republican activists allied with Rudy Giuliani." The first rally is planned for January 13.
The right should greet it with the skepticism they'd typically summon for a rally on behalf of government workers as they seek higher pay, new work rules, and more generous benefits. What's unfolding in New York City is, at its core, a public-employee union using overheated rhetoric and emotional appeals to rile public employees into insubordination. The implied threat to the city's elected leadership and electorate is clear: cede leverage to the police in the course of negotiating labor agreements or risk an armed, organized army rebelling against civilian control. Such tactics would infuriate the right if deployed by any bureaucracy save law enforcement opposing a left-of-center mayor.
It ought to infuriate them now. Instead, too many are permitting themselves to be baited into viewing discord in New York City through the distorting lens of the culture war, so much so that Al Sharpton's name keeps coming up as if he's at the center of all this. Poppycock. Credit savvy police union misdirection. They're turning conservatives into their useful idiots. If the NYPD succeeds in bullying De Blasio into submission, the most likely consequence will be a labor contract that cedes too much to union negotiators, whether unsustainable pensions of the sort that plague local finances all over the U.S., work rules that prevent police commanders from running the department efficiently, or arbitration rules that prevent the worst cops from being fired. Meanwhile, Al Sharpton will be fine no matter what happens. Will the law-and-order right remain blinded by tribalism or grasp the real stakes before it's too late? Look toNational Review and City Journal before laying odds.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.