What Are Cops Really Good For? A Brief History

TPM's The Slice

As January came to a close, so did the New York City Police Department’s work slowdown. The act of protest—not quite a strike, not officially sanctioned by the NYPD’s union—had been in response to the deaths of two police officers in Brooklyn at the hand of a criminal from Baltimore, Ismaaiyl Brinsley. Beforehand, he had written on his Instagram page: “I’m putting wings on pigs today. They take 1 of ours...let’s take 2 of theirs,” claiming revenge for the death of Eric Garner and the subsequent non-indictment of the cop who killed him.

The slowdown targeted Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose crime was expressing sympathy for Garner and the widespread protests in response to Garner’s death. According to The New York Post, which spent the past month lambasting the mayor and championing the police, officers only arrested people when they had to—as if officers should ever arrest someone when they don’t have to. What they weren’t doing was issuing parking tickets or summonses for minor, quality-of-life crimes. Ironically these were the very types of crimes—like selling loose cigarettes on the street—for which officers had tried to arrest Garner, and emblematic of the Broken-Windows policing New Yorkers and other citizens had long been protesting.

The result was that overall arrests were down 66 percent for the period of the slowdown, and summonses for low-level offenses were down 94 percent. And yet, the biggest city in the country did not grind to a halt. No one fled in fear. It’s not even clear if there are victims who remain unavenged, or that New Yorkers registered the city as more dangerous than they do normally. If the police department can lower crime rates by arresting people only when they have to, who are they arresting the rest of the time? It gets to a question we’ve been subconsciously mulling over for years now, a communal quandary finally breaking through to the surface: What, exactly, are the police for?

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