Whom Do the Police Serve?

Awful news from Brooklyn this weekend: A disturbed man shot his ex-girlfriend (who’s expected to survive), then ambushed and fatally shot two police officers on patrol, and finally shot and killed himself as police closed in. His social media postings indicated that he was angry over the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, although it’s hard to see how the shooting of his girlfriend fits into that.

After a senseless, horrific tragedy like this, you have to expect people to be angry and emotions to be raw. But even so, this statement from a city police union is way, way, way out of line:

“The mayor’s hands are literally dripping with our blood because of his words, actions and policies,” read the statement, “and we have, for the first time in a number of years, become a ‘wartime’ police department. We will act accordingly.”

This is a frighteningly over-the-top and unjustified response to a horrible but apparently random act of violence. If they’re at war, who are they at war with? Mayor de Blasio? Everyone who’s participated in an anti-police-brutality protest? The entire citizenry of New York?

It’s irresponsible in the extreme for police spokespeople to place collective guilt for these killings on everyone who’s criticized them, as they seem to be doing here. While there have been sporadic outbreaks of violence, the nationwide protests over the last few weeks and months have been overwhelmingly peaceful, even in the face of a police response often consisting of arbitrary arrests and punitive violence. (Compare this to social movements where harassment and terrorism is the raison d’etre.)

Even before this shooting, observers had noticed the “vitriolic, almost insurrectionary talk” coming from NYC’s police unions. Their extreme anger and defensiveness in response to criticism was apparent, culminating in outbursts of belligerent, incendiary rhetoric that are shocking and disturbing coming from public servants whose job it is to keep the peace. As recently as last week, the union head was making statements that seemed to be veiled threats:

“If we won’t get support when we do our jobs, if we’re going to get hurt for doing what’s right then we’re going to do it the way they want it,” he said last Friday. “Let me be perfectly clear. We will use extreme discretion in every encounter.”

He also said, “Our friends, we’re courteous to them. Our enemies, extreme discretion. The rules are made by them to hurt you. Well now we’ll use those rules to protect us.”

It seems clear that this was intended to be a threat, though it’s not clear to me what he was threatening to do. Police spokespeople have also declared that from now on, they won’t arrest anyone unless it’s “absolutely necessary” (so, um, what was their policy before now?).

This hostile, bunker mentality belies the reality that the police aren’t a force separate from or above the public, but the servants of the public. Their job isn’t to enforce the law however they alone see fit, but to act in accordance with the democratic will and the guarantees of the Constitution. And the police unions, right now, are refusing to face the truth that the anger and criticism directed at them didn’t come out of nowhere, but was a long-simmering response to heavy-handed tactics. They persist in blaming Bill de Blasio as if he were the sole cause, rather than a candidate who won a landslide because he caught the public mood. The police have every right to be grieving and furious over the murder of two of their own; but how, then, should they expect everyone else to react when they kill unarmed civilians on the street?

Again, this is in no way to justify or excuse the heinous crime by a single murderous individual. Violence isn’t the way to accomplish any of the goals we’re seeking. If he hadn’t killed himself, there’s no doubt he would have faced the full weight of the law. But the police have taken the unsustainable position that they should be able to act with carte blanche, that they should be exempt from all outside criticism, and that’s something that they have no right to ask or to expect.

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