Over the last few days, I’ve watched the goings on with the police force slowdown in New York with some interest. As the police have done less, there has been little change in overall crime. Opponents say this is proof that there is something amiss in the NYPD and their tactics. In truth, it hasn’t been long enough to prove much of anything except arrests and citations do not necessarily make a society safer. To me, it unearths the shows the inherent problems with the modern bureaucracy.
Since a society without codified rules can be an unwelcoming place, especially to minority viewpoints, a bureaucracy is necessary. The problem is that we often go too far and end up codifying social norms and making minor offenses subject to fines. This leads to arbitrary, asymmetrical justice and increases mistrust of the system.
Take jaywalking. With the rise in autos, many cities made it illegal because drivers disapproved of people crossing willy-nilly. It made sense as it could improve driver and pedestrian safety. Upon enforcement however, government bureaucracy makes it is a mess.
Example: A person jaywalks and a police officer stops them. In this situation, the officer has great leeway depending on the overall interaction. They could:
- Let the person go after warning them on the dangers
- Run their name through the warrant system
- Pat them down to see if they are committing other crimes
- Write them a jaywalking citation
Ideally, all involved would want the least invasive to happen. The police officer to tell them not to do it again and leave the matter at that. However, the bureaucracy prevents this. There are ticket quotas or standard operating procedures to run names or to stop and frisk people committing minor offenses.
What happens is that more often than not after a citizen’s private life is reviewed, they end up with a citation. Even if they go to court and prove themselves innocent, they still pay court costs and take time out of their lives to fight it. So in the end, it is often lose-lose interaction when a police officer stops a citizen.
What makes this more insidious is that getting caught for jaywalking varies depending on where it happened in a city. Police patrol more in high-crime areas. These tend to be poorer neighborhoods that are statistically more likely to have a greater portion of minorities. So, citizens in these areas end up with more citations and more negative perceptions of the police.
This hurts neighborhoods. It makes people avoid police. Many have had run ins for minor offences, and those who haven’t feel they can get scrutinized for trivial matters. Often the citizenry becomes disdainful, making interactions with authorities tenser than they need to be. Polices in-turn feel many of the citizens they protect are criminals, given their reluctance to communicate amicably.
In the short-term, I think the slowdown is good for New Yorkers in general. It will give people time to cool off. If it continues long-term, it might be of questionable benefit as society adjusts to these changes.
It would be a good time to rethink how police should interact with who they protect. They could start by abandoning revenue (citation) generating quotas. This simple change would lessen the adversarial nature of many interactions as police no longer target minor infractions in an effort to stay employed.