NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has been taking a lot of crap, deservedly so, for his comments after Eric Garner died while being arrested for selling untaxed cigarettes on the street. In a news conference, with mayor Bill de Blasio standing at his side, Bratton came out full-authoritarian:
According to Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton, the NYPD will continue to strictly enforce laws against loosie peddlers and subway dancers. “I can understand why any New Yorker may say, that’s not such a big offense,” de Blasio said. “But a violation of the law is a violation of the law.”
Commissioner Bratton added, “We need the public’s help also to appreciate that when an officer does approach you to correct your behavior, that you respond. That’s what democracy is all about.”
I think I sort of understand what Bratton was getting at. I think he was trying to say that we live in a democracy, and that out of respect for that venerable institution, good citizens should cooperate with the people enforce its laws. Of course there’s also the point that democratic government is supposed to exist to serve the people. People like Eric Garner.
I think there are several observations I can make about this whole affair:
- Police Commissioner Bill Bratton is a tone-deaf asshole. Right after officers under your command have killed a guy for selling loose cigarettes is not the best time to be lecturing everyone else about their civic duty to cooperate with the police. Bratton and his officers should be thinking about how better to fulfill their own duty to protect and serve.
- Laws are sometimes enforced by assholes. Psychopathy is not just for criminals — many psychopaths function well enough in society to stay out of prison. Some of them become businessmen, some of them become politicians, and some of them become cops. Some of them become Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, or Police Commissioner of New York.
- It was not the intent of the legislature in enacting cigarette taxes that violators be killed. Bratton’s point about democracy may justify the initial decision to confront Garner, but it doesn’t justify killing him. However that happened, even though it’s probably not murder, the officers were not carrying out the will of their democratic leaders.
- Law enforcement is inherently violent. All laws are ultimately enforced through violence. Nobody goes to jail voluntarily. Usually the mere threat of violence is enough to make people cooperate with the justice system — they get into the police car, they show up for court, and they go to jail — because they know that if they refuse to cooperate, they will face violent and even deadly enforcement.
- It wasn’t a quality-of-life crime. “Broken windows” enforcement is about going after people who commit minor quality-of-life crimes in order to discourage a cultural of lawlessness. Selling untaxed cigarettes is not a quality-of-life crime, it’s a revenue crime. Garner was improving the quality of life of the people he sold to. But he was depriving the government of revenue.
- “Broken windows” isn’t what they say it is. The theory behind “broken windows” enforcement comes from an academic study in which people were more likely to commit a crime if they had reason to believe that nobody cared, such as a nearby broken window. However, as former NYPD Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple discusses in The Crime Fighter, “broken windows” works mostly as a type of pretext stop: Bust a guy for selling loose cigarettes and you get to take his life apart to look for other crimes.
- Legislators should know all this. I’m sure if you asked the legislators who passed the law that Garner allegedly broke, they’d tell you they never intended cops to kill people over it, yet the fact that some cops are assholes who kill people is no great secret. The legislators knew the kind of people who would be enforcing their laws and they passed them anyway. The resulting deaths are statistically inevitable. As I’ve said before, I wish legislatures would think about how laws are enforced before they pass them.
- If “broken windows” works, they should try it on cops. Maybe if they prosecuted the crap out of these cops and hit them with truly pants-shitting prison sentences, it would discourage the NYPD’s culture of lawlessness.
Sorry for the rant. Just had to work it out of my system.