From December 29 through January 4, New York City police “officers made a total of 2,401 arrests, compared with 5,448 for the same week the year before, a 56 percent decline,” reports the New York Times. Declines were far steeper for traffic and parking tickets and for criminal summonses.
This work slowdown is a result of (among other things) protests of police practices—particularly the arrest leading to the death of Eric Garner; the racially motivated murders of two NYPD officers on December 20; and (in the Times’s words) “the growing divide between the city’s police force and its mayor, Bill de Blasio.”
Beyond the question of why the slowdown has occurred, is the question of whether the slowdown is good or bad. The answer depends on relating police activity to the proper purpose of government: to protect people’s rights. Police should act to protect people’s rights, and they should not act to violate people’s rights. Insofar as the work slowdown consists of protecting people’s rights less consistently, it is bad; insofar as it consists of violating people’s rights less, it is good.
Note that the proper distinction in this regard is not between so-called “low-level offenses” (to quote the Times) and high-level ones. Government agents should strive to protect people’s rights by stopping and punishing rights violators in all cases (whenever feasible), not only in particularly egregious cases.
Partly the work slowdown involves “offenses” that are not rights violations, such as peaceably possessing guns and selling cigarettes without charging city taxes (as Garner is alleged to have done). When police arrest or ticket people for actions that do not violate others’ rights, the police themselves violate rights. City officials should repeal all measures permitting police to violate people’s rights, so that police “work” doing so not only slows but totally stops.
Partly the work slowdown involves the police managing what are essentially socialized industries run by the city: the roads and street parking. “Parking and traffic tickets . . . dropped by more than 90 percent,” the Times reports. Insofar as such tickets are aimed at generating revenue for the city rather than improving public safety or road management, the police essentially act as extortionists for city government. The city should cease such extortion, not merely slow it down. Insofar as such tickets are aimed at improving the safety and management of roads and street parking, they are an aspect of these city-owned industries. (Why the city ought not own such industries is beyond the scope of this article.)
Partly the work slowdown involves police not cracking down on “low-level” rights violations such as urinating on others’ property (to cite one example mentioned by the Times). There are some indications that police may not be responding as consistently to more serious crimes, either; “Robberies rose 13.5 percent over the week [in question], to 361 from 318 a year ago,” and murders increased as well, the Times reports. It’s unclear whether the uptick is related to the police slowdown. Obviously, insofar as the police slowdown involves police not protecting people’s rights, it is potentially devastating for the city’s residents.
The police have a dangerous job, as recent shootings of two NYPD officers who responded to an attempted robbery illustrate. They also have a noble job, insofar as it consists of protecting people’s rights. City government ought not turn the police into rights violators or extortionists with its ill-conceived policies; instead, it should direct police officers to protect people’s rights and to do only that. Not only would that help police better focus their resources on stopping rights violations and make police work safer, it would increase police officers’ rational pride in their work and foster greater community support and respect for the men and women in uniform who regularly risk their lives to protect our rights.