Why the NYPD Turned Its Back on the City

Does believing the police are constantly under fire serve a productive function for society?

John Minchillo/AP

On Sunday, a relatively large group of New York police officers, sworn to protect and serve the public, turned their back on the public's elected executive, Mayor Bill de Blasio:

The show of disrespect came outside the funeral home where Officer Wenjian Liu was remembered as an incarnation of the American dream: a man who had immigrated at age 12 and devoted himself to helping others in his adopted country. The gesture, among officers watching the mayor's speech on a screen, added to tensions between the mayor and rank-and-file police even as he sought to quiet them.

This particular protest came after Commissioner William Bratton asked them not to stage a repeat of Officer Rafael Ramos's funeral. This request included the telling caveat, "I issue no mandates, and I make no threats of discipline, but I remind you that when you don the uniform of this department, you are bound by the tradition, honor and decency that go with it."

It's not clear that Bratton could (or should) do much of anything to stop his officers from protesting. But whatever Bratton's sense of honor and decency, it clearly isn't shared by the officers working under him, and it's unlikely that his appeal swayed anyone.

Those who are demoralized by these protests would do well to read James Fallows's cover story on the American military this month. The same cloak of puffed grandeur and bombast that surrounds our army can be detected in our police. Jim is describing a society that has taken its hands off the wheel. Give us safety now (real or imagined), goes the agreement, and we won't ask about what comes later. Until some critical mass of Americans decides that police cannot, all at once, wield the lethal power of gods and the meager responsibilities of mortals, change is unlikely.

And it always was. If the public appetite for police reform can be soured by the mad acts of a man living on the edge of society, then the appetite was probably never really there to begin with. And the police, or at least their representatives, know this. In this piece, by Wesley Lowery, there are several amazing moments where police complain about things Barack Obama and Eric Holder have not actually said. There simply is no level of critique they would find tolerable. Why take criticism when you don't actually have to? Better to remind the public that you are the only thing standing between them and the barbarians at the gate:

“We might be reaching a tipping point with the mind-set of officers, who are beginning to wonder if the risks they take to keep communities safe are even worth it anymore,” Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke said. “In New York and other places, we’re seeing a natural recoil from law enforcement officers who don’t feel like certain people who need to have their backs.”

Here's Radley Balko quantifying those "risks" police officers face:

Policing has been getting safer for 20 years. In terms of raw number of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for cops since World War II. If we look at the rate of deaths, 2013 was the safest year for police in well over a century .... You’re more likely to be murdered simply by living in about half of the largest cities in America than you are while working as a police officer.

Nearly half of those deaths are from automobile accidents. Balko is somewhat frustrated that despite the empirical facts around policing, nothing seems to penetrate the narrative of police living under constant threat. Why? Is it that most people are just basically ignorant of the information? Is it that most people just believe, uncritically, what police officers tell them?

Or is there something more? Forgive me. I have not yet fully worked this all out. But Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn describes the prisoners headed to the Soviet Gulag as waves flowing underground. These waves "provided sewage disposal for the life flowering on the surface." I understand this to mean that the gulag was not just mindless evil—was not just incomprehensible insanity—but served some sort of productive and knowable purpose.

Could it be that believing our police to be constantly under fire is not mysterious—that it serves some productive function, that society actually derives something from its peace officers engaged in forever war? And can we say that the function of the war here at home is not simply a response to violent crime (which has plunged) but to some other need? And knowing that identity is not simply defined by what we are, but what we are not, can it be that our police help give us identity, by branding one class of people as miscreants, outsiders, and thugs, and thus establishing some other class as upstanding, as citizens, as Americans? Does the feeling of being besieged serve some actual purpose?

I am not sure this is all correct. But if the direction is right, then it becomes possible to understand the NYPD's protest (and the toothless admonitions of the commissioner) not as mindless petulance, but as something systemic, as a natural outgrowth of our needs.