Pioneer Works isn’t just an art gallery, residency program, and book shop — it’s an educational center, too. Pay a nominal fee and get learn’d on the basics of paper marbling, wet plate photography, and how to whip up a mole sauce from scratch– you know, cute stuff. So a two-day course, “How to Master the New York City Police Department,” taught by NYU urbanization researcher Patrick Lamson-Hall, kinda stopped me in my browsing tracks with its promise of a historical look at the NYPD and discussion about how to improve community-police relations. One of Patrick’s early suggestions: “As stupid as it sounds, maybe they need to start every day with yoga.”
Silliness like that disappeared pretty quickly. Even for someone who considers themselves well-informed (this girl) about issues regarding the police, the class offered some seriously surprising facts and figures. But more than that, as promised, it was a way for people to discuss workable solutions to the problem of police-community relations, which is presently in crisis mode across the country.
This class was to be something of “an experiment,” he explained. “Pioneer Works is a great place to do that because they’re interested in engaging with the community, they’re experimental, they’re not afraid to be perceived as having a political bias. Which is something The [Brooklyn] Brainery, for example, is not interested in: wading into overtly political topics.”
And while it might seem like such a class is preaching to the choir by giving a blow-by-blow account of how much the police suck to a room full of people who didn’t even blink at being addressed as “police haters,” Patrick argued the discussion was still an important one.
There are two kinds of police hating, in his view, and one is clearly the less productive. “People reflexively parrot ideologies when it comes to policing, when it comes to inequality,” he explained. “It’s not to say they wouldn’t agree with these things if they’d thought about them, but I don’t get the impression they’ve thought about them.”
The other kind of distrust in the police comes from an informed place (knowing the facts or having personal experiences with cops). “Not liking the police can be backed by a critique: the use of force has become beyond the point of what we’re comfortable with and we need to assess whether this is being used correctly and whether it’s possible to have police accountability.”
The aim of the class, then, was to acquaint the reflexive cop critics with facts, figures, and theories. During a follow-up interview, Patrick explained his motivation for teaching the class stemmed from feeling “really upset about the police brutality that’s been going on and particularly the way the police have reacted to it.”
But as someone who studies the police, Patrick admitted to having a complex relationship with cops. “I’m very critical of the police but I also have a strong appreciation for what policing can do and what not having policing does to communities.”
He added, simply, “It leads to crime. Inadequate policing creates situations where ordinary people are more likely to be the victims of crime.”
Possibility for reform of the NYPD specifically was center stage. The department has seen its fair share of recent controversy– with the killing of Eric Garner by chokehold (a practice that was banned in 1993), the shooting death of Akai Gurley who was also unarmed (though in that case the officer was indicted for police misconduct), and a number of tense moments between the Mayor and rank-and-file officers, including when officers turned their backs on the mayor at the funeral of Officer Rafael Ramos, a cop who was murdered in Bed-Stuy earlier this year– and some vocal opponents of the cops are calling for reform.
However, Patrick’s goal in this class was to provide historical and contemporary context to explain why the NYPD functions as it does. “A side objective of mine in this class was to get at least a little bit of the good story out there because the truth is, the changes in public safety in New York City in the past 20 years have been really amazing,” he explained. “If you had said in 1990 you were going to reduce the car theft rate by 94 percent, people would have said you were a lunatic. That two thirds of crime has been eliminated in New York City in the last 20 years, it’s great.”
Those numbers don’t lie. Or do they? Recently, retired New York City cops accused the department of engaging in “ethically inappropriate” tampering with crime statistics. Additionally, many major US cities, including New York City, have seen an increase in violent crime in the last year, suggesting that maybe this downward trend is over. Still, crime overall has decreased dramatically in this city (along with the rest of the country) since 1995.
“Some of the most dangerous neighborhoods became some of the safest,” Patrick said, showing a heat map of the city as evidence.
While Patrick sympathizes with police officers on a basic level, he believes that widespread disapproval of policing tactics stems from cops’ own actions.”The NYPD, in many ways, has become their own worst enemy,” Patrick explained to me over the phone. “They behave as though we’re still in the middle of a crime wave” despite the fact that crime rates have seen a precipitous drop in the past two decades, something he argues is owed directly to “effective”policing.
“When policing increase in neighborhoods, crime went down,” he told the class matter-of-factly, which at first almost seemed like a bit of a betrayal. Was this the E-Reading of cop classes? Had we been tricked into coming here? Promised to be told something about ourselves we already knew deep down, only to be clunked over the head with thinly veiled fascism?
Thankfully Patrick’s idea of “effective” policing is not without a caveat: “The crime wave went down because of police strategies that have ultimately translated into a higher incarceration rate and more cases of police misconduct,” he explained. Indeed.
It’s important to remember that while crime has decreased dramatically, the prison population has risen exponentially. The War on Drugs led not only to more arrests, but to a more racialized kind of policing. By and large, despite numerous studies demonstrating that drug use amongst white people is higher than people of color, it’s young men of color who are cycling through the prison system.
And even though the War on Drugs has wound down (sort of), Patrick suggested, “We may still be arresting far more people than we need to in order to have these low crime statistics.” While drug-related arrests have by no means been quashed, broken windows policing tactics are now leading to repeated arrests of people for minor crimes.
But there were also plenty of questions posed about how changes to the police ranks might have an impact on behavior and policing as well. “In 1941, half of all cadets in the police academy had four-year college degrees,” he told the class. Whereas presently, recruits need only have a two-year associates degree to qualify for the job. As such, the NYPD has become a ladder of sorts to the middle class, and a reliable one in light of declining opportunities in other fields.
Patrick hinted at the possibility that lack of education could be related to greater brutality. But not many seemed to bite. One girl said she “hesitated” to connect the two while another student pointed out that while we might love to think liberal education provides a transcendent, transformative experience, “Studies find that most people just end up more like their parents.” Touché.
But Patrick showed that linking facts like a decline in education directly to demonstrable changed proves difficult. The funny thing (well, actually not funny at all) is that we’re sorely lacking in reliable information about the incidence of police violence and the effectiveness of certain policing strategies.
“The problem with crime and criminality in general is that police departments are not required to participate in studies,” Patrick explained. “Nor are they required to implement any recommended changes.” Broken windows, for example, was implemented in New York City without any solid evidence the approach was successful at reducing crime.
Additionally, it wasn’t until 1963 that crime stats were standardized across the country, so there’s no way to say definitively if the recent crime drop, for example, is simply cyclical or a true downward trend.
But still, if not precise numbers we could gather some hints from the history of the NYPD that the organization has seen immense change since its inception in 1845. Most obviously, the force has swelled to 51,000 employees (more than 34,000 of them are uniformed officers), which Patrick pointed out is larger than the size of the Estonian army. Like many other police departments across the country, the NYPD has seen militarization since the declaration of the War on Drugs as well as a water balloon-like growth of the budget, which is presently at $4.8 billion.
One major theme of the NYPD’s evolution was the increased power of the police union. “The cost of busting the police union is very high, it would ruin anyone’s political career. I mean they’re very strong, almost untouchably strong, I would say, and extremely unreasonable,” Patrick explained.
But even this critique carried with it a middling explanation. “To my mind, here’s the problem: we hate the police union, we love public sector unions, and the reality is, most public sector unions are just as abusive of public trust that the police unions, they just do it within their own little sphere,” he pressed.
As a class participant, I was surprised to see a relative gridlock when it came to solutions, a sense that people were stuck in their current ways of thinking, hampered by problems of perception.
“Someone in the class said, ‘Why do we need police at all?’” Patrick recalled afterwards. “Like, if you say something like that, you must come from a pretty fuckin’ safe community, and to me it just indicates a misunderstanding of what police do and why we have them.”
Though Patrick pushed us to be realists rather than starry-idea utopianists, the recommendations we came up with for reform, which ranged from compassionate to brutal, revealed even more about how sensitive our gag reflexes really are when it comes to the cops.
“I think the most viable solutions were the ones about creating more opportunities where the police could actually practice service and used that as a cornerstone of a community policing strategy,” Patrick explained.
He added with a laugh: “I think that’s an idea that the police would like and because of the union, unfortunately, that is a requirement for any reform to be implemented, the police have to like it.”
At the opposite end of the spectrum was a solution that involved an extremely punitive measure. “I think the most shocking idea to me was tying the pension funds of the group at a precinct to the number of police misconduct incidents— that’s obviously a non-starter— but to me that’s really indicative of an extreme level of contempt for these people,” Patrick argued. “Like, making these people’s security in their old age contingent on the behavior of their colleagues, that’s really, really an intense way of addressing the problem, in my opinion.”
As far as Patrick’s own sense about how to go about changing the behavior of the police and improving relations with the community, as a researcher it’s not surprising he agreed that greater transparency was essential to understanding whether or not certain strategies were working. But he also broke his own rules by imagining a scenario that seems rather utopian.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if we actually had a force we could rely on to handle these interactions where people are engaging in what we think of as obnoxious, illegal behavior?” he asked. “Like, I would never call the police on my neighbors, but it would be nice if I could and nice if it would be a good thing to do. Does that sound totally inconceivable?”