A common outcome of people protesting the police is that the police very ably demonstrate why people were protesting to begin with (see Ferguson, MO). This was on display in 2020, as police cracked down on protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.
New York City recently released a report analyzing the NYPD’s response to the protests in their city, and I’d like to talk about it for a few minutes.
The report is critical of the NYPD, and emphasizes that they lacked a clear strategy, good intelligence, and proper training. However, there was one other finding that I would like to focus on first. From page 3:
NYPD use of force and crowd control tactics often failed to discriminate between lawful, peaceful protesters and unlawful actors, and contributed to the perception that officers were exercising force in some cases beyond what was necessary under the circumstances.
It’s very difficult to read this report and not walk away from it with the belief that New York City cares more about the public perception of the police than the actions that they took. The report openly recognizes that the NYPD engaged in indiscriminate, unconstitutional attacks on the public, but focuses on how that makes the police look.
The main problem here isn’t that this kind of police activity contributes to the perception that officers used excessive force against the public. (Although that certainly is a problem.) The main problem here is that officers used excessive force against the public. Full stop.
The quote above is a snippet from the Executive Summary. The section of the report that goes into greater detail on that finding is on page 39. It outlines several examples of the NYPD’s failed response. Among other things, mass arrests, excessive force, arrests of members of the media, pepper spraying an elected official, not wearing masks, and covering up their badges.
Throughout, the report continues to return to the perception of the events. “[T]here can be no question that NYPD officers employed force against protesters on numerous occasions that observers on the scene… perceived to be unjustified by the circumstances” (page 42).
Some of the observers mentioned include employees to the Mayor’s office. Despite this, the report states that NYPD officials believed that officers showed “restraint”, and, except for a few cases, employed proper use of force.
The legitimacy of the NYPD officials’ responses are called into question a few pages later on the topic of badge-coverings. (Officers had covered up their badge numbers to avoid being identified during the protests.) The report states on page 46:
Given numerous documented instances of badge-number covering, the fact that NYPD officials interviewed by DOI stated that they did not witness even a single instance of it strains credulity.
Which is certainly a polite way of putting it.
Despite this, the very next sentence returns to the topic of perception — in this case, messaging:
In addition, the dismissiveness with which officials appeared to treat such reports is another example of counterproductive messaging and a missed opportunity to reinforce a message of accountability and transparency to both police officers and the public.
Don’t get me wrong — public perception of the police matters a great deal. A strong, positive relationship between the police and the public is better for everyone, and actions that erode that relationship need to be addressed. Police officers are very visible city employees, and are a type of ambassador for the city government. It’s critical that they provide consistent messages to the public on safety-related issues (for example, wearing masks during a pandemic).
But, as I said, that’s not really the problem right now.
The problem is that people’s constitutional rights are (in some cases, literally) being trampled on, and they have very little recourse.
The protests that occurred in 2020 were some of the best-documented protests of all time. There have never been more cameras in our hands, and we’re getting to see firsthand accounts of the terrible activity that is going on. There has never been more evidence.
So what does the report recommend? It has a list of 20 items related to the NYPD response, starting on page 68. The items rely heavily on the NYPD adding new policies and training, despite the fact that NYPD officials by-and-large did not see major problems with their response.
The NYPD believes their current policies and training are sufficient, and clearly they are wrong. Asking them to make new policies and implement new training is not a solution. They have already proven that their standards of what constitutes proper police actions are not appropriate.
My least-favorite recommendation is number 11.
NYPD should consider expansion of instruction on de-escalation and crowd psychology in training relating to policing protests.
In a report that describes a police department whose response to protesters actively made tensions worse, the report recommends considering additional training on de-escalation.
This is unacceptable.
It’s important to keep in mind that a less violent, more Constitution-friendly response is better for the police. It makes their jobs safer and easier. Reform is a pro-police stance. From page 40:
Further, the size and appearance of the force gave the NYPD response an intimidating, confrontational character, which contributed to rather than reduced tensions between the police and the crowds, provoking additional violence.
De-escalation reduces harm to the public and to the police. Police departments should be falling over themselves trying to get additional training on it.
Why aren’t they?
This post was previously published on Medium.
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