New York police engage in ‘virtual work stoppage’ amid rising tension

Officers appear to slow down enforcement of low-level offenses

Police officers stand guard alongside New York state troopers during a demonstration in Grand Central Station against police violence, December 22, 2014 in New York City.
Kena Betancur / Getty Images

Arrests and summonses in New York City have dropped off precipitously, in what appears to be a deliberate work slowdown by the local police force amid heightened tension between New York Police Department officers and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio.

From Dec. 22 to Dec. 27, police made 66 percent fewer arrests than they had during the same period last year. Criminal court summonses were down 94 percent, as were summonses for traffic violations.

These numbers, originally reported by The New York Post, were confirmed to Al Jazeera by an NYPD representative. The representative did not comment on the Post's contention that police were engaged in a "virtual work stoppage."

New York police officers are legally forbidden to strike. Joseph Slater, a professor at the University of Toledo College of Law who teaches public sector labor law, said that organized work slowdowns are similarly illegal but that it isn't immediately clear whether the decline in arrests falls into that category.

"Ticket-writing and related activities are, generally, discretionary with the officer," he told Al Jazeera via email. "The city could argue this drop in numbers shows a conscious decision to avoid certain tasks that the officers know they should be doing. The officers could argue that they weren't disobeying any specific directions or order and were simply using their discretion and/or had observed less suspicious behavior."

On Tuesday, de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton met with Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association (PBA), for more than two hours, although what they discussed was undisclosed.

"There were conversations on a number of issues but no resolution on any," said Lynch in a statement released after the meeting. "Actions speak louder than words and we’ll see what happens."

Many NYPD officers have been frustrated with de Blasio since his 2013 mayoral campaign, when he criticized the department's stop-and-frisk policing practices and publicly allied himself with the activist the Rev. Al Sharpton.

But the police didn't begin openly defying the mayor until Dec. 20, when two police officers were gunned down by an armed assailant who then killed himself. The gunman, 28-year-old Ismaaiyl Brinsley, apparently targeted the two officers in revenge for the deaths of two unarmed black men who had recently been killed by police, one in New York City and one in Missouri. Leadership in two unions representing NYPD officers accused de Blasio of encouraging a climate of antagonism toward the police, indirectly creating the conditions that made such a shooting possible.

De Blasio also caught heat from the police after he said he had told his biracial son, Dante de Blasio, "to take special care in any encounter he has with police officers." That was interpreted by some to imply that many police officers are racially biased.

Adding to the tension, NYPD officers currently do not have a union contract. Their last contract expired in 2010, and negotiations for a new one are ongoing.

During a mayoral press conference responding to the shooting of the two NYPD officers, a memo was distributed among attending police officers that read, "Absolutely no enforcement action in the form of arrests and or summonses is to be taken unless absolutely necessary and an individual must be placed under arrest." Several media outlets originally attributed the statement to the PBA, one of the unions representing NYPD officers, but union officials have since denied authorship.

Outright police strikes in the United States are extremely rare. The most famous example, a 1919 work stoppage in Boston, was an unmitigated disaster for the officers involved, most of whom were fired. Yet modern police forces sometimes attempt subtler forms of labor disruption, according to Temple University historian Heather Thompson. For example, when police in Detroit went on strike in 1967, they called in sick with "blue flu."

Still, Thompson said the alleged NYPD slowdown is "a little bit more audacious."

"The police union is being much more overt about what it's not going to do," she said. "About the way in which it's not going to do its job, frankly."

Ironically, said Thompson, the slow-down in low-level arrests and summonses is tantamount to a pause in the department's implementation of so-called "broken windows" policing. Protesters have been sharply critical of the policing strategy employed by the department, which emphasizes cracking down on minor offenses — the same sort of offenses that police officers are now no longer aggressively pursuing. Opponents of the broken windows policy say that it tends to be racially biased.

Yet the group Communities United for Police Reform (CPR) was still displeased with the slowdown, referring to it as "part of a larger effort to obstruct and oppose much-needed change to the NYPD" in a statement.

"By continuing to obstruct and oppose necessary changes at the NYPD, the police union leadership's divisive tactics are making it clear that they are not acting in the best interests of New Yorkers, including police officers," said CPR director Joo-Hyun Kang in an emailed statement. "These tactics will backfire. In fact, they already have."

PBA communications director Albert O'Leary did not respond to a request for comment. On a recorded voice mail greeting, O'Leary said Lynch, the PBA’s president, would not be granting interview requests until after the funeral of Officer Wenjian Liu, one of the two police officers gunned down last week.

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