Bratton added, “Would you not want us to deal with that quality of life crime?”
That was one of the artful lines offered by NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton in a press conference with Mayor de Blasio about the killing of Eric Garner. The line sought to justify the post-hoc narrative that the police were attempting to arrest Garner for selling loosies, individual cigarettes, without paying the state sales tax.
One response to his killing was that it was over such a trivial “wrong” as to render the police action, Garner’s killing, absurd. Bratton, whose advocacy of the Broken Windows theory of policing in his first stint under Rudy Giuliani, hasn’t changed. Stop the petty stuff and the big stuff won’t happen. An atmosphere of order will pervade the land, and crime will cease.
The problem with Bratton’s line is the disconnect between the wrong and its solution. Indeed, for most of those who want to excuse Garner’s killing, the argument is “he shouldn’t have been doing something wrong.” The failing of the argument is that every wrong, no matter how petty, doesn’t deserve the death penalty. You wouldn’t think this too nuanced a point, but it completely eludes a great many people. Apparently, Bratton is among them.
According to Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bratton, the NYPD will continue to strictly enforce laws against loosie peddlers and subway dancers. “I can understand why any New Yorker may say, that’s not such a big deal,” de Blasio said. “But a violation of the law is a violation of the law.”
Yes and no. There are violations of law which harm people, and violations of law which are only violations because somebody decided to make it so, whether because it deprived the state of revenue or hit a nerve with some pet peeve. There is malum in se and malum prohibitum. There is conduct that threatens the welfare of others, and conduct that no one gives a damn about. No one except Bratton.
But then, a violation of the law is a violation of the law. And that applies with the same force to a violation of our right to be left alone. It applies to our right to be free of unreasonable searches and seizures. It applies to our right to photograph police in the public performance of their duties, and our right to walk the streets without getting tossed against a wall. It applies to our right not to have the government reading and listening to our every word. It applies to our right to not be needlessly killed in an encounter with police when we post no threat of harm to anyone. A violation of the law is a violation of the law. That cuts both ways.
Commissioner Bratton added, “It’s important that when an officer does approach you to correct your behavior, that you respect them. That’s what democracy’s all about.” [See Update]
This is self-serving demagoguery at its worst. No, this is not what democracy is all about. Not at all. Police are not empowered to “correct your behavior.” They are not given shields and guns to walk the streets teaching the groundlings to behave in a manner that pleases the sovereign. And no, we are not duty-bound to show police respect. Respect is something that must be earned, not demanded upon pain of death. Indeed, we have a right to be disrespectful, though the likelihood of contempt of cop being met with pain is obvious.
And no, compliance with the police is not what democracy is all about. In these two lines, Bratton has gotten more wrong, about the police, about our respective roles and about our system of government, than would seem possible. Can Bratton be that utterly clueless? Can de Blasio, standing beside him, having heard those words and felt the authoritarian pride swell up in his chest? One might have hoped that in a press conference about the reforms needed to prevent the NYPD from killing another man, whether for a petty offence or because he wasn’t sufficiently compliant, that Bratton might use the word respect in a slightly different way.
One might have hoped that he would watch the killing of Eric Garner and talk about how the police, his cops, need to show respect to the people they serve. Sure, it would have been no more than a sound bite, good for a press conference with the Mayor, but at least it wouldn’t be as aggressive, as offensive, as wrong, as saying that a democracy is all about the people being respectful and compliant with his cops. Or die.
Update: The Gothamist has now corrected its original article with this note:
Editor’s Note: Due to a hasty transcription, we initially reported that Bratton said the following: “It’s important that when an officer does approach you to correct your behavior, that you respect them. That’s what democracy’s all about.”
They have now changed the quote to:
Commissioner Bratton added, “We need the public’s help also to appreciate that when an officer does approach you to correct your behavior, that you respond. That’s what democracy is all about.”
So Bratton turns out not to have said the most offensive of the remarks. Thanks, Gothamist.