Turning Our Backs (on a Broken World)

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Turning Our Backs (on a Broken World)

Some police officers turn their backs as Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks during the funeral of New York Police Department Officer Wenjian Liu. (Photo: John Minchillo/AP)

Oh, the moral force of a snub.

Several hundred cops turn their backs on New York’s mayor as he eulogizes one of their own, killed in the line of duty, and the media have another us-vs.-them story to report. Bill de Blasio’s in trouble, accused of playing politics with the lives of heroes. And, of course, the story goes no deeper than the dramatic accusation.

As the sign of a lone protester at the officer’s funeral proclaimed: “God bless the NYPD: Dump de Blasio.”

There’s nothing like a good, righteous condemnation to stop a national discussion. Criticizing police tactics means contributing to an anti-police atmosphere. End of debate.

Personally, I view the snub, by some New York police, as de Blasio’s red badge of courage more than his moral condemnation. He stood for something outside the zone of official righteousness. He met with protesters. He ended stop-and-frisk, the tactic of warrantless street searches that primarily targeted blacks and Hispanics. He told his biracial son to “take special care in any encounter he has with police officers,” in other words, refused to sugarcoat a pragmatic truth.

And he has eulogized about attaining peace other than through brute force: “As we start a new year, a year we’re entering with hearts that are doubly heavy, let us rededicate ourselves to those great New York traditions of mutual understanding and living in harmony. Let us move forward by strengthening the bonds that unite us, and let us work together to attain peace.”

Maybe such words and actions are controversial, but those who regard them so won’t make them go away with schlock righteousness, e.g., the statement by NYPD Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch that “blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall.”

I also find it interesting that officers not turning their backs on the mayor seemed to be less newsworthy than those who did. But the fact is, the collective snub was by no means universal among New York police: “The crowd stretched so far it was impossible to ascertain just how many police officers turned their backs in protest as New York City mayor Bill de Blasio stood inside the Aievoli Funeral Home in Bensonhurst to give detective Wenjian Liu’s eulogy,” the Guardian reported. “Groups turned sporadically but the majority appeared to remain facing the screens as de Blasio began his oration.”

Under the circumstances, not turning one’s back may have been just as much of a moral statement as turning it, complicating the story beyond a simple conflict between the mayor and the police. De Blasio brings a particular perspective to policing and has not dismissed the protesters’ point of view as irrelevant. Some police officers no doubt embrace this perspective as well, or at least refuse to see the rules they operate under as something completely outside the communities they serve and recognize that asserting authority requires more than sheer force of will.

It’s interesting that another recent police action meant to convey displeasure with the mayor was a semi-work stoppage. The Washington Postreports: “For the past two weeks, the NYPD has drastically scaled back law enforcement. Criminal summonses and traffic tickets are down more than 90 percent from this time last year. In many precincts, the weekly tally of criminal infractions was near zero.”

Last month, during a mayoral press conference about the shooting of the two officers, a memo was distributed among attending police that read: “Absolutely no enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual must be placed under arrest.”

No arrests that are not “absolutely necessary”? The New York police, in letting up on arrests for petty violations of every sort — vagrancy, public drinking, vandalism and the like (maybe even the sale of loose, untaxed cigarettes) — are challenging “the fundamental tenets of broken-windows policing,” Matt Ford wrote last week in The Atlantic. Ironically, anger about this sort of policing is central to the nationwide protests.

“The theory’s critics dispute its effectiveness and contend that broken-windows policing simply criminalizes the young, the poor, and the homeless,” Ford writes, adding: “If the NYPD can safely cut arrests by two-thirds, why haven’t they done it before? . . .

“Maybe the NYPD’s new ‘absolutely necessary’ standard for arrests would have produced a less tragic outcome for [Eric] Garner then. Maybe it will for future Eric Garners too.”

The urgent debate about how the police operate in this country has to be engaged in all its complexity. Those who are not part of the debate — the protesters — must be allowed in, and their grievances and suffering addressed. And those who quietly feed the divide between police and community — the Department of Defense, for instance, which, in unloading its old tanks and other military hardware on local police departments, has intensified their militarization — must be held accountable.

We live in a broken, violent world. Turning our backs on it won’t change anything.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

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