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The Sound of the Police

The point of a strike is to stop production to show the work you do is essential. The NYPD slowdown has proven the opposite.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

What happens when the police go on strike? Over the past two weeks, the New York Police Department (NYPD) has done its part to answer that question. Officers have been on a particular kind of strike called a slowdown: they come to work, but don’t do their job as quickly or fully as usual.

While police union officials have denied officers are working at a slower pace, arrests in all categories are down more than 50 percent. The decline in traffic violations and minor incidents, like public urination, has been especially pronounced: where arrests for major felonies have dropped by about 20 percent, summonses for low-level crimes and parking and moving violations have decreased by more than 90 percent.

According to a New York Times article this past week, “In Coney Island, the precinct covering that neighborhood did not record a single parking ticket, traffic summons or ticket for a low-level crime like public urination or drinking, the statistics showed.” This decline in arrests and summons has spilled over into the courtroom:

One arraignment courtroom instead of two. Clerks watching “Batman” on their computer screens and playing with their cellphones as they wait for something to happen. And Manhattan’s night court shutting down an hour early because there are no more cases to call.

Those were scenes from the city’s arraignment courts in the third week of a precipitous drop in arrests by the New York Police Department. The usual chaotic bustle of the courts — the odd mix of transgressors, from murderers to fare-beaters — has given way to unusual scenes of tranquil inactivity.

The NYPD has effectively suspended its notorious “broken windows” policy, characterized by heavy policing of small-time misdemeanors and minor infractions in the name of preventing more serious crimes. The effect of this practice, under normal conditions, is the over-policing of poor, especially minority, neighborhoods. The homicide of Eric Garner began with police accosting him for illegally selling a few loose cigarettes.

Normally the point of a strike is to halt production to show society, or at least your employers, that they need you. Stopping work imposes costs on others — lowering employers’ profits, reducing politicians’ legitimacy, increasing consumers’ needs — but it only does so because the work that workers do is essential. The work cannot be done without them. This is why employers hire replacement workers, or seek court injunctions to force employees back to work.

It is also why strikers risk becoming unpopular with the public — the absence of the goods they are producing or the services they provide can become a serious inconvenience. And it is why workers often take care to build public support for their strike, with the hopes that the public attributes those inconveniences to the causes of the stoppage instead of to the strikers themselves.

A perfect example is the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, which shut down the first days of school. This caused some headaches for working families and their children, but because of the union’s pre-strike community organizing, those families largely supported the teachers against city government. The strike proved how important the teachers were, and why they deserved more respect than they received.

The irony of the NYPD strike is that it has demonstrated the opposite. When police do not do their jobs, at least as defined under current policy, the costs are low. There is no dramatic damage to public safety. Relative to the precipitous drop in policing, there have been very minor increases in violent crime. Nor are the other costs, such as the decline in revenue from fines and tickets, particularly significant. Meanwhile, the benefits to (formerly) over-policed neighborhoods is large.

With their slowdown, New York police officers have shown that most of their activities are inessential. Society is better off when they are not engaging in broken windows, quality-of-life harassment of poor neighborhoods. The next logical step is to simply normalize the present. In the infamous words of one former vice president, this should be the “new normal.”