In late December, for about three weeks, New York police officers went on a work slowdown, effectively halting the policing of minor infractions that characterizes the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) much-criticized ‘broken windows’ approach. Compared to the previous year, arrests were down by over 60 per cent, while criminal court summonses for offences like public drinking, as well as summonses for traffic violations, were down by over 90 per cent. Although the intended effect was the opposite, this unusual situation served only to demonstrate how inessential police activity really is, as well as to illustrate the fundamental contradiction between police and the broader labour movement.
For the police officers, the slowdown was a means of expressing their frustration with New York’s mayor, Bill de Blasio. Tensions date back to de Blasio’s 2013 election campaign, when he spoke critically of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policing practices and allied himself with activist Al Sharpton, who has criticized and protested racialized police violence. After two police officers were shot while sitting in a patrol car on December 20, NYPD union leaders accused de Blasio of encouraging anti-police sentiment and indirectly blamed him for the killings, and police officers began the slowdown.
Ironically, the effects of the slowdown have proven police critics right. There has been no damage to public safety, and no significant increase in crime.
Ironically, the effects of the slowdown have proven police critics right. There has been no damage to public safety, and no significant increase in crime – in fact, violent crime rates actually decreased during the first week of the slowdown. Instead, poor neighbourhoods where police harassment is usually at its worst have benefited greatly. “This is how it’s supposed to be,” a 27-year-old student from a historically black Brooklyn neighbourhood was quoted as saying in a Marshall Project piece. “I’m not talking about guys getting away with nothing, I’m talking about feeling safe. The police driving up on us, because of some hearsay, and jumping out, that don’t make us feel safe. The police smelling every drink I drink, looking in my bag every time I come out the store, that don’t make me feel safe.” That a decrease in police activity is perceived as a net social benefit points to the fact that police presence does not make communities safer; to the contrary, it further harms individuals and communities already marginalized along race and class lines.
In fact, the role of forcefully maintaining existing power relations, both formal and informal, is inseparable from the very nature of the police as an institution. In Montreal, as elsewhere, examples abound of racial profiling and racialized police brutality, systematic targeting and brutalization of homeless populations, and sexual violence against women on behalf of the police. Violence also defines the relationship between the police and the capitalist state: not only is the police force tasked with enforcing the property relations that form the basis of the capitalist social order, but it can also serve as a vehicle for ideologically motivated repression in the interests of the state. For example, Montreal municipal bylaw P-6 was amended in 2012 to give police the power to arrest and impose a fine – typically $638 – to protesters who fail to divulge their route to the police. It has been applied very selectively and with clear ideological motivations, as explicitly anti-capitalist demonstrations often ended in violent repression and mass arrests, while other illegal protests saw no police obstruction.
Violence also defines the relationship between the police and the capitalist state.
It is precisely this instrumental relationship between the state and the police that is the source of the irony in the NYPD slowdown, as well as the cause of police officers’ self-contradictory situation as workers in general. Unlike the work of other state employees, such as firefighters or nurses, which is clearly beneficial to society, police work consists of defending the interests of the state, often at the expense of other workers, students, or marginalized populations. What happens, then, when the government shows disregard for the interests of police as workers? If, in protest, they cease to act as an instrument of the state, police officers only stand to show how inessential, and in fact detrimental, their usual work is – the opposite of a strike’s intended effect. Such situations of crisis bring to light the paradoxical nature of police work, in which the defence of state interests conflicts with their interests as workers.
One may currently observe such a situation in Quebec. As part of the government’s austerity measures, police officers, along with other city employees, are being targeted with disadvantageous pension reforms. In response, Montreal police have adopted protest tactics similar to the NYPD, with traffic tickets decreasing by 35 per cent for a period in 2014 compared to the previous year. More significantly, there has been a subtle relaxation in the level of repression at demonstrations, and although police presence is still often heavy, P-6 arrests and fines have markedly decreased. Police also did not intervene to stop a disruptive firefighter protest at city hall last August. Yves Francoeur, the president of the police union, has gone as far as to say in an interview in the lead-up to the illegal October 31 anti-austerity protest, “In the current context, with the government we have, it’s hard to tell people to respect the regulations and laws in effect!”
One can hope that, as the struggle against austerity continues into the spring, we will see a more moderate approach to policing that will ensure peaceful demonstrations free of police provocation and repression. Still, we cannot allow police to play both sides of the field, professing solidarity with workers and demonstrators when it suits them, and violently repressing them when it doesn’t. Consistency not only allows, but requires, that we distinguish between police and other public sector workers, supporting the latter but not the former. In the course of their regular work, police routinely direct the tremendous power at their disposal against disadvantaged groups; this cannot be justified and cannot be forgotten. We don’t need the police, and they don’t deserve our solidarity.
Igor Sadikov is a News editor at The Daily, but the views expressed here are his own. To contact him, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.