It was as I walked down
San Francisco’s Market St with my family on
August 10 that I spotted a scene I’d previously witnessed only in TV shows such
as The Wire. Two policemen were
running towards us, guns drawn. As I started shepherding the family out of the potential
line of fire, I spotted the reason for the fracas. A young-ish black man was
sprinting towards us. He threw a large, plastic wrapped parcel over a wooden
hoarding then, having ditched the evidence, surrendered himself. We continued
our stroll as he knelt on the sidewalk, face towards a building, with the
police officers handcuffing his hands behind his back.
I didn’t know it at the time but, the previous evening, half a continent away, a confrontation between a young black man and white police officers had ended tragically differently. In
a police officer had pumped six bullets into Michael Brown, a black
18-year-old, who was apparently holding up his hands in surrender and saying,
“Don’t shoot!” One shot – to the head – killed him. The source of the
confrontation appears to have been a demand by the officer than Michael and his
friends walk on the sidewalk, rather than the road. Ferguson, Missouri
The scene in
San Francisco ran
through my head over the next few days as we saw, despite our holiday
isolation, pictures of police in Ferguson
equipped for war but facing mainly peaceful protesters. I also found myself
making mental links between the scene we’d encountered and a far less grave
injustice that was closer to home for me – the New York Police Department’s disproportionately
harsh Operation Cyclesafe crackdown on cyclists’ rule-breaking.
The street drugs bust, the events in
Ferguson and the NYPD’s harassment of
cyclists all look to me to be the work of police forces more concerned about asserting
their own authority than actually making the places they police safer. It’s
hard in light of these and other incidents to avoid the conclusion that many US police
forces are currently bereft of ideas and moral sense. While UK police forces rethought some aspects of their
policing 30 years ago after urban rioting, the Metropolitan Police’s recent
purchase of a water cannon hints that such thinking is creeping back in the UK too.
|NYPD cruisers: sensitive, intelligence-led policing|
I wouldn’t say I was precisely naïve about the potential misuse of police power, even before recent events. In one obviously conflict-ridden society,
I remember seeing Bosnian Croat police harassing the mainly Bosniak – Bosnian
Muslim – passengers on a bus where I was travelling in 1995 during the Bosnian
police seldom impressed me when I lived there.
I have a particularly vivid memory from my home country of watching the reaction of Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary in July 1996 to rioting by members of the mainly Irish Nationalist Catholic community on the outskirts of Portadown, in the centre of the province. For five days previously, the police – mainly pro-British Protestants – had reacted with remarkable restraint as Protestants rioted over the routing of a march by the Protestant Orange Order in Portadown. After the police finally forced the march down
against the mainly Catholic residents’ wishes, I watched the police fire rubber
bullets freely. At one point, I saw people of all ages, violent and non-violent
alike, flee into a narrow passageway between shops. The police pumped plastic
bullets indiscriminately into the passageway, knowing they would hit rioters
My personal experiences as a cyclist have made me realise that bad policing affects places other than obviously conflict-ridden societies and people other than clearly discriminated-against minority groups. I’ve been lectured by City of London Police officers who were themselves breaking the road rules about my allegedly irresponsible behaviour. In May, I encountered a man who claimed – to my satisfaction – to be an off-duty cop. He grew verbally abusive when I asked him to move his car out of a busy, two-way cycle lane. There are stretches of road in
where I know I’m likely to encounter police cars or vans illegally parked in the cycle lane and to have to dodge around them.
Yet I had retained, I now recognise, a residue of rather British innocence about democratic countries’ police forces, a feeling that they must somehow be on the side of the law-abiding, no matter their colour or background, against those who would harm them. I remember the times my parents had to call on the police when I was young and their polite attitude when they visited our large, respectable house.
Recent events have washed that residue out of me. I increasingly recognise how it was my family’s whiteness and respectability that won the police’s politeness. If I were black or belonged to some other obviously marginalised group, I would have far more – and probably far worse – stories about police behaviour. I’m more and more sceptical of the policing philosophy that’s come to dominate much of the western world in recent years – the idea that police intolerance of minor misdemeanours is critical to tackling crime overall. Bill Bratton, the police commissioner who returned to the top post in the NYPD earlier this year, pioneered this “broken windows” approach in
New York City.
Its apparent success in making the city safe again in the 1990s has led to its
widespread acceptance as a policing approach elsewhere.
It’s to some extent because of broken windows that officers felt justified, I suspect, in violently restraining Eric Garner while arresting him for the minor crime of selling untaxed cigarettes. It’s because police officers are encouraged to create an orderly atmosphere on the streets, I suspect, that officer Darren Wilson thought it important to confront Michael Brown and his friends about where they walked. It’s a sense that street drug-dealing is worse than more discreet drug-dealing that leads to scenes like the one we encountered in San Francisco. I’ve long had a strong sense that the broken windows approach explained the NYPD’s tendency to give disproportionate numbers of traffic tickets to cyclists. If one believes that a police force’s main goal is to tackle the problems that create most noise at public meetings, it might well make sense to run a two-week crackdown on dangerous cycling.
The approach’s limitations are clear as soon as one starts examining them. Any strategy that deliberately devotes disproportionate resources to small, “quality-of-life” offences by its nature takes resources away from investigating the crimes – racketeering, murder, rape, fraud – for which society imposes the harshest penalties. The approach quickly degenerates into an anti-intellectual tendency to go after the crimes whose victims make the loudest noise, rather than those that are the biggest problem. It’s obvious that the arrest of one street-level dealer is unlikely to do anything to eradicate demand for illegal drugs in
Francisco or the business of supplying them.
Some good might yet come out of the grim events in Ferguson and elsewhere in the US this summer if they prompt a thorough re-examination of how the US is policed – a change that would surely have repercussions in other countries too. It would be heartening to see police forces question whether the constant harassment of the poorest groups under broken windows makes sense. There is surely scope to ponder which offences cause the most overall harm and start to tackle them.
I’ve argued before that traffic policing would be far better if commanding officers’ pay depended partly on the numbers of people injured on their areas’ streets, rather than the numbers of tickets handed out. A police force focused on preventing crime rather than enforcing order would surely not have thought a confrontation over where a group of young men walked worth provoking. Intelligent traffic policing might even seek to encourage cycling, recognising that cyclists are far less likely to kill other road users than motorists are.
It’s hard to be optimistic that such changes are coming soon, however. Reaction to the events in
has followed a pattern all too familiar in the contemporary US – right-wingers
have defended the police, while the left have criticised them. On Twitter last
week, Bill Bratton wrote that he was “gratified but not surprised” that New
Yorkers appreciated “quality of life enforcement measures”. I’ve seen even cyclists
welcome Operation Cyclesafe’s misdirection of resources, saying that, since
they never break the rules, they have nothing to fear from it. Few people seem
to recognise how crackdowns on minor crime misdirect resources.
Two experiences on our return from
California crystallised the nature of the
problem. I returned to my regular cycle commute in the last days of Operation
Cyclesafe to find that the crackdown had unsurprisingly done nothing to make
the streets safer for cyclists. The cycle lanes appeared still more regularly
blocked than normal and drivers’ behaviour still worse than normal.
The Invisible Visible Woman, meanwhile, heard two women discussing Eric Garner’s death on the street. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that broken windows policing has turned some police forces into vehicles for the kinds of prejudice our neighbours were expressing.
“People say they heard him say, ‘I can’t breathe’,” one of them commented to the other, who nodded sagely. “But you have to remember – this was a man who’d been to prison ten times.”
An uncritical readiness to go after the offences that most annoy people quickly degenerates into a readiness to go after the people that most annoy the majority. That will sometimes be cyclists. It will far more often – and with far more deadly outcomes – be poor people like Eric Garner, condemned by prejudice to miserable and public deaths.