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Many on the right — including some of my colleagues on Ricochet — have taken up the theme that Eric Garner died because he committed “a tax crime.”
I’m not sure whether to call this line tendentious obfuscation or opportunistic grandstanding. But it’s got to be one of those things. Maybe both.
Saying Garner died because of a tax crime is a bit like saying John Lennon was killed because he decided to pick up a guitar: technically correct, but devoid of context.
Eric Garner died as a direct result of his decision to resist arrest. The use of a chokehold on a suspect is banned by the NYPD patrol guide, but not illegal for an officer of the law in New York State. So while the cop who choked Garner will surely lose his job, there were no grounds to indict him for a criminal act. The law grants cops wide latitude in the performance of their daily duties, which often result in unexpected or unavoidable violence. Maybe the violence here was avoidable, but that’s a different argument — though a more honest one — than saying he died because of a tax crime.
Many on the right, I know, see the Garner case as just another example of militaristic cops gone wild.
This business about tax crimes and militarized police obscures a central fact about recent New York history: 25 years ago, cops looked the other way for so-called petty crimes like selling loose cigarettes, urinating in public, and smoking weed in the park. I know these are theoretically victimless crimes. I know there are some libertarians who think such things should not be considered crimes.
Well, here in New York, we’ve seen that movie. Twenty-five years ago, you could walk down the street in midtown Manhattan smoking a joint and the cops wouldn’t lift a finger. To some, I know, that sounds like paradise. For most New Yorkers — and visitors — it was hell.
Twenty-five years ago the NYPD left certain neighborhoods alone. They were too much trouble to police. The risk of getting into an avoidable altercation with a thug was just not worth it.
And do you know what happened? The thugs and petty criminals went on to terrorize their own neighborhoods. Good people in bad neighborhoods stayed indoors. Tourists from Utah got stabbed and killed on the subway. Smart people stayed out of Central Park after nightfall. The beating heart of the world’s great city became a cesspool of vice and violence.
Those so-called victimless crimes did in fact have a victim: the civic life of the city. Watch Taxi Driver. It was real. It happened. And not by accident.
It happened because disingenuous politicians and rabble-rousing mouthpieces said just what many are saying now: the police are the problem and need to be reined in. Until poverty — today we call it “inequality” — is solved, they say, there’s nothing the police can do anyway. Somebody make these racist cops stand down, they said.
That’s the way it was 25 years ago. Former New York Post editorial page editor Bob McManus called it the age of the “permanent panhandler.” In Bob’s neighborhood, the guy’s name was Tony. He was vaguely menacing, and the cops wanted no part of him.
Things reached their lowest point in the late 1980s. It wasn’t so much that nobody wanted to restore order as it was that nobody knew how to. The politicians were ineffective. The NYPD itself was a big part of the problem. Its leaders had no blueprint for dealing with disorder and its rank-and-file had no appetite for engaging the disorderly.
Ah, the good old days.
But then something changed. Some policy makers came along with a different message: let’s allow the police do their jobs. Let them arrest the bad guys, even for so-called petty crimes — especially for so-called petty crimes — and let them protect the good people of New York City, even those who lived in bad neighborhoods, from aggressive and lawless predators.
I’m not saying Eric Garner was a predator. I’m saying that the police could not have let him off the hook for the crime that they say he committed. Garner could have argued his innocence in court, yes, and the police would have had to prove his guilt, yes. But the cops that day could not have turned a blind eye to his crime, no matter how petty it seems in retrospect.
The public has every right to question why Eric Garner died while being arrested, particularly for such a minor infraction. But once a police officer determines an arrest is warranted, he can’t change his mind and not arrest someone simply because the infraction is minor and the individual doesn’t want to go.
Let’s put another myth to rest: The NYPD does not prey on black people. The cops in New York City go where the crime is. My City Journal colleague Heather Mac Donald, analyzing media distortions about crime and race in 2010:
You cannot properly analyze police behavior without analyzing crime. Crime is what drives NYPD tactics; it is the basis of everything the department does. And crime, as reported by victims and witnesses, sends police overwhelmingly to minority neighborhoods, because that’s where the vast majority of crime occurs—by minority criminals against minority victims.
The NYPD is not a militarized, steroidal junior varsity SEAL team. On the contrary, the NYPD’s broken windows policing philosophy is the reason why crime has fallen to historic lows and made New York the safest large city in America. The NYPD is the reason why a Norwegian can come to Brooklyn and open a “cozy and cluttered bakery that makes its own bread, simmers its own jam and even churns its own butter” just a few blocks from the once-gritty waterfront in Greenpoint. The NYPD is the reason that Times Square is a safe place for you and your family to visit and see a show.
It doesn’t have to be this way. New York can easily revert to what it was. In fact, a lot of New Yorkers don’t like what the city has become. Many are eager to see the broken windows philosophy discredited and tossed aside like an old shoe.
How long would it take to undo the progress of the last 25 years?
If things go on like this, we’ll soon find out.
Image Credit: Flickr user Debra.