Cracks Can’t Be Papered Over

Most of my blog entries are written with a sense of dismay, some with a degree of anger, and some, like this week’s, with a rueful shake of my head. Anyone who has tried to telephone or visit an NYPD precinct knows how pointless, or intimidating, or pointlessly intimidating, the experience can sometimes be. And so, last week’s news the department was putting ATM’s in all of its precincts could be viewed as a welcome change, by “offering the chance for positive interaction between officers and the community,” according to an unnamed source.

But the NYPD is a big organization, and clearly, someone in the 73rd precinct didn’t get the memo: “I came inside to use the ATM [recently], and a couple of people were inside the waiting area,” said a local resident, and “a female officer came out and was like, ‘If you’re not here for business, get out,’ the resident continued. “She let me stay, but I felt intimidated.” Indeed.

Policing, as a profession, is dichotomous, being both heavily rules-bound and subject to extraordinary layers of supervision, while simultaneously giving officers a large amount of discretion in their responses to a given situation, and allowing them a great deal of freedom of movement as they perform their duties. Thus, it is not surprising that officers use these rules and discretion to regularize their interactions with the public, and it is also not surprising this regularization process inures to officers’ benefit, not the public’s.

When I last entered a precinct many years ago, I was greeted in the lobby by a series of barricades to which was fastened a STOP sign, ripped from the nearest signpost. Forced to shout my reason for being there (to view a lineup) to the officer at the desk, I was subjected to a series of jargon-laden questions, none of which fazed me, but which I found to be emblematic of a willingness of officers to view the public as part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Now, I’m neither an organizational sociologist nor a behavioral psychologist, so it would be fascinating to get a professional’s take on the changes to the NYPD sub-station in the Union Square subway mezzanine. When first transformed along with the renovated station, glass doors allowed for a clear view of the front desk, while slit windows on the exterior wall, reminiscent of battlements, provided progressive views of officers going about their business.

This sense of openness didn’t last long: first, the glass doors were papered over, then the slit windows, then, finally, barricades were erected in front of the doors, to keep passers-by from getting too close. Such absurd measures are indicative of a profound alienation between officers and citizens, in how the department relates to the public, in how it chooses to represent itself, and in how it values these representations. Correcting this requires more than gadgets in the lobby; this is, after all, not a problem that simply can be papered over.