What is policing anyway?

Having been a police officer — in the NYPD beginning in the very high crime 1980s — I don’t really disagree with your analysis. I do, however, want to add some background detail. Because I’ve been processing this and studying it and writing about it for a very long time.

I don’t think many understand the daily life of police officers, or what “police service” is day-to-day. There is a dramatic split between “police service” and the intention of those who fund and manage police departments. That was probably more true when I began my career — and where I began my career — than it is now, yet still, in the 1990s I wrote in The New York Times that when a Simi Valley white jury acquitted the officers who beat Rodney King, they did so because that was exactly what white Angelenos wanted their cops to do.

That said, I never really managed to work in neighborhoods with power. I worked among extreme poverty and many many undocumented immigrants. Was I an agent of ‘white supremacy’? I guess, although I felt more like that as a white guy living in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene neighborhood than I did as a cop.

90% or more of every day while I was in uniform involved people’s calls for help, and we were swamped by calls for help, often backlogged 100 911 calls at night. Medical emergencies, child birth, accidents, and the aftermath of crimes against people big and small. To give you an idea of this — we neither gave out summonses nor did much of anything with property crimes (cops on the day tour went around taking burglary and auto theft calls that had accumulated the night before). Yes we made drug arrests at times but those were nearly ways linked to violence — drug gangs shooting at each other. And yes, we did break up fights, but in those days before “Broken Windows Theory,” we viewed our communities as our job.

Yet tensions were there because white people rarely want to pay taxes to help non-whites. We had more resources in The Bronx than the precincts in eastern Brooklyn did because suburban commuters rode through our communities on their trains. We had the Ed Koch beginnings of the notorious ‘anti-crime’ units, which never had any function other than the harassment and brutalization of minorities, and we had those officers raised in the exurbs that were truly dangerous because of their lifetime lack of engagement with urban life and diverse populations.

But I want people to know that it was purely racism — in the nation’s most liberal city — that elected mayors like Koch, Giuliani, and Bloomberg, who in turn put racist police commissioners (Kerik, Kerry) and pushed NYPD officers away from the communities they had tried to serve in the post-Serpico, post-Prince of the City days. As with every step forward in this nation — education, health care, income supports — these are fragile gains that are shattered the minute communities of white wealth get nervous.

For more: Worlds Collide: White Cops on Black Streets and Challenging Curriculum

  • Ira Socol

Author, Dreamer, Educator: A life in service - NYPD, EMS, disabilities/UDL specialist, tech and innovation leader for education. Co-author of Timeless Learning

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