The NYPD has been developing a reputation, and it’s not a good one.
There was this recent story in The New York Times. Andrew Rausa said he and a few friends were drinking a few beers, and one of them was drinking soda, on the stoop of a friend’s Brownstone in Brooklyn when they were all ticketed for drinking in public. The “crime” happened behind a gate separating the stoop from the sidewalk. Rausa, a law student, said in The Times that he showed the officer the definition of “public place” according to New York code, which did not seem to include a gated-off stoop, and the officer replied, “I don’t care what the law says, you’re getting a summons.”
There are a number of possibilities here. Maybe Rausa was a dick to the cop. But being a dick to a cop isn’t a crime. Maybe they were doing something else, but they weren’t ticketed for anything else, so we can assume they weren’t. And maybe the cop had a really good reason for issuing the tickets, but, since the NYPD’s policy is to not comment on anything, all we have is Rausa’s story.
It’s also possible that Rausa and his friends WERE technically breaking the law. Zoning ordinances are arbitrary and vague enough that maybe in the weird, bizarro universe that existed when this neighborhood was established, the gated area of a brownstone stoop was considered public property. That’s not the point.
When police officers and their supporters want to know why the public is often so hostile to cops, they need to look at stories like this.
Cops can be heroes. They are a vital part of a legal system that keeps Western civilization from tearing itself apart. Like a lot of people, I remember watching memorials to the police officers who died at the World Trade Center and feeling nothing but pride, sadness and gratitude. When someone broke into my father’s house, I called the police, because those are the people you call when bad shit happens.
But the chance to be a hero doesn’t present itself often, and people can be heroes in the morning and assholes in the afternoon.
When people suffer a personal injustice, even a small one, we don’t think, “That’s the kind of guy who would run headlong into certain death to save people.” We think, “That guy reminds me of the prick who ticketed me for drinking beer on my own stoop.” It leads to the public perception that cops aren’t keepers of the peace as much as hall monitors aching for us to make the slightest mistake.
When the big stuff happens, like corruption scandals and police-brutality claims, we hear, “Not ALL cops are like that.” And that’s true. Few cops steal money from the public coffers or beat people for walking while black. But we’ve all been exposed to examples of petty bullshit that make those claims believable, and no amount of “Meet Officer Bob, Your Friendly Neighborhood Police Officer” PR crap is going to override personal experience. Rausa is a law student and has the resources and motivation to fight a $25 ticket. How many people pay questionable tickets just to make them go away? When “police work” seems a lot like municipal fundraising, it erodes respect for the police and creates a feedback loop of mutual animosity. We all lose.
When I see someone being arrested or pulled over, I don’t think, “Look at that poor guy being harassed by the man.” I think, “I wonder what that guy did.” I want to keep giving the police the benefit of the doubt. If only they wouldn’t make it so damn hard.