Sunday, 15 April 2012

Mission creep

New York has a faintly critical though too cautious feature story by Chris Smith this week on the NYPD that will not damage the magazine’s contacts inside. The glossy weekly is written for and about the city’s elite and doesn’t rake muck like the old Village Voice used to (and still does on rare occasions). So there are a lot of quotes from Commissioner Ray Kelly and his defenders while the key whistleblower about the Department’s latest corrupt practices, Officer Adrian Schoolcraft, is dismissed with a snide he said/they said. (Schoolcraft says he was handcuffed by his fellow officers and shipped to a psychiatric institute after his exposé—shouldn’t a reporter find out if that’s true and then say so?)

But the article remains of interest, framed as Kelly versus his own troops, i.e., why the rank and file are unhappy. It zeroes in on the highly touted modern policing techniques based on CompStat that have been pioneered in New York, part of the post-Giuliani, post-broken-windows approach to keeping the crime rates down. CompStat involves the careful feeding of crime data into a central database and then following up with increased attention to those areas that pop up on the cool video screens. If your precinct doesn’t measure up, you get raked over the coals.

This system is given a lot of credit for the drop in crime rates, and the department is supposedly benefiting from being run by this modern crop of administrators, personified by Kelly, who hold their middle managers’ feet to the fire, shake up stodgy old habits, insist on results, overcome resistance from the old-timers, etc. Sounds great.

But Schoolcraft—and he’s not alone—says that the whole edifice is built on the over-quantification of crime and that advancement is completely dependent on making your numbers look good. This leads to performance quotas for patrolmen, including the notorious ‘stop-and-frisk’ practices imposed on a half-million black and Hispanic males per year, while at the same time major crimes are downgraded, under-reported, and blocked from the system, sometimes to the detriment of victims. Reports persist of people trying to report assaults, break-ins, even rapes, and finding that their paperwork gets lost while NYPD bureaucrats stonewall them.

Smith in the article says the push for statistical bliss is crushing the spirit of the NYPD’s foot soldiers. They’re supposed to make the numbers, but with 6000 fewer officers on the job due to budget cuts, they feel stuck between bosses being pressed for more and more results and the impossibility of getting crime down any further. The New York article quotes one anonymous source (who probably wants to avoid a trip to the loony bin a la Schoolcraft) thus: ‘Everybody’s attention is so focused on the numbers, nobody cares about each other. You can’t. The human element is gone. It’s why so many cops are so miserable’.

One can’t help noticing the direct parallel between this sort of complaint and the ongoing resentment about what other top lieutenants of Bloomberg’s are doing in the public school system. A numbers-based modernization was imposed from the top down, forcing teachers to test students constantly and saddling them with the blame if the expected improvements aren’t forthcoming. Corruption, blame-shifting and demoralization are the unsurprising result, with the main difference being that sainted police officers, unlike public school teachers, are never scapegoated as enemies of All That Is Good.

Beneath both phenomena lies the insidious, seditious ideological snake of privatization. The London Review of Books describes it as ‘the privatising of social authority, and thus power’. Here is how it works, according to Ross McKibbin:

Having privatised the state’s assets, the government is now privatising its functions and responsibilities. The right to determine the relationship between schools and society (or employment services and society, or prisons and society) is being removed from elected institutions, gathered up by Whitehall [insert Washington, Albany or Bloomberg’s mansion] and parcelled out to friends and supporters of the ruling party. It is a fundamental attack on democratic politics, and one carried out as much by New Labour as by the Tories’.

Sound a tad familiar? We will undoubtedly see more of this tendency, dressed and decorated as ‘efficiency’, ‘reducing big government’, and/or ‘lowering taxes’. It will produce none of the above, leaving government’s snooping, policing, intruding function larger than ever, shifting costs to unaccountable private buccaneers, and forcing states and municipalities to raise sales taxes and service fees. Railroads, schools, the post office, medicine, and soon Social Security have long been fair game. Even if police departments are not dismantled in favor of for-profit security services (which could also happen), it’s fascinating to see the basic logic of privatization filtering in even there.

No comments: