As a child I wandered the street of New York City in the 70’s when crime was rampant. Not once was I ever stopped by a cop for the many mischievous pranks my friends and I pulled. Looking back, the cops had neither time nor bandwidth for my sophomoric pranks. They had real issues with which they had to deal. I really grew to like the N.Y.P.D. because they never concerned themselves with law abiding citizens or silly kids; rather, they focused on the criminals.
When I was in middle school, a friend and I were mugged and beaten up by by a gang who stole our money and our jackets. Luckily for us, the police were nearby and helped us get us out of the jam before it got truly ugly. I admired them for the help they gave us. It left me with a sense of justice for the wrong that had been committed against us. Other than this one incident, I never had any run ins with the police as a child.
I no longer live in New York and so my contact with the workings of NYC are infrequent. However, in the past five years I have had to travel there and that has resulted in my having to deal with the N.Y.P.D on three separate occasions. In each instance, I had done nothing wrong. The police simply wanted to know “what [was I] up to?” That same admiration that I had as a child for the N.Y.P.D. (and all other police) is pretty much gone. Over the years, I have become more Libertarian in my views and now feel the police have become more authoritative and abusive with their power… not just in N.Y. but all across the country.
When Rudy Giuliani became Mayor of NYC in the early 1990’s, one of the first things he did was to implement a “stop and frisk” policy which allowed the police to stop anybody and inquire about their activity. This procedure enabled the police to frisk people if they believed they were armed or were transporting drugs. Potential criminals were stopped before they were able to commit a crime and although this helped bring down crime rates, it also had the end result that many innocent people were stopped and questioned about their activities. Even though crime plummeted from the policy, the citizens of NYC had made a trade. Unwittingly, they had traded freedom and liberty for safety.
As the police became more aggressive, policing smaller and pettier crimes, the city came to realize aggressive policing was a profitable business. More policing meant more tickets, more fines and, therefore, more money for the city coffers. The courts were kept busy by all the ticket writing and incarcerations. The judges, lawyers, and prisons all got more work. The city then got addicted to the revenue and they implemented quotas on the N.Y.P.D. in order to keep the revenue stream rolling in. (While the police deny quotas exist, Matt Taibbi in his book The Great Divide has numerous examples of this policy run amok).
The role of police as the line between law abiding citizens and criminals has become something other. The police now have a dual mandate as 1) quasi tax collectors of the state and 2) protectors of the public at large. Given NYC’s high taxes and similar cost of living, citizens have little stomach for additional taxes. Politicians know this; so, they know use the police via ticket quotas to make up for income shortfalls. Given the multitude of laws on the books, it is virtually impossible for citizens to always and fully be aware of the crimes they are may technically be committing. Don’t believe me. Check out this great parody by Casey Neistat when he got ticketed for riding his bike in N.Y.C.
This problem does not exist in alone New York but in all cities. Recently, I had a polite conversation at a party with a female police officer in the Austin area. I expressed some of my dislikes about the current state of policing in Austin. I made my point that the police have far too much leeway in their ability to stop and question citizens. She replied that I was insufficiently informed of all the laws on the books that allow them to stop us. Unbeknownst to her, she had proven my point. Because there are now so many laws on the books, the police have assumed more and more power by which they can detain law abiding citizens. While the police officer was making her point that the laws (numerous in nature) allowed them to legally stop us, she did not perceive the tyranny and confusion that regular citizens experience when they are continually being stopped by the police.
The dangers in driving through the many of small towns in New York State are common knowledge. Most of these towns would not exist without the tax revenues supplied by the police. It is not uncommon to drive through any of these towns and be bombarded with a multitude of traffic signs indicating speed limits that change every few miles. The confusion of the varying speed limits succeeds in ensnaring the driver to break the law because a driver is never sure what the speed limit actually is. The brilliance of this trap is that police are not taxing the local populace but rather area outsiders just passing through. The same situation has existed in the Southern U.S. forever. In addition the system is set up so that it’s easier and better to pay the ticker as the first option is to pay a lesser fine with no points assessed to your license. The 2nd option requires you to show up at Court in that venue, take off a day of work and wait around for hours to contest the ticket. If you are found guilty, the ticket penalty will be higher and you will have points assessed to your license, thereby increasing your auto insurance premium.
The funny things is anyone who drives knows this racket. As citizens, we know this is corrupt; but, we have come to accept it. In the “land of the free and the home of the brave” we know we live with institutionalized corruption. This corruption provides jobs for a multitude of people who otherwise would not work.
When I drive in Latin America and get pulled over I know I am in for a simple trade. The police will berate me for some terrible violation that I have allegedly committed and then offer me a way to get out of the problem. A simple bribe or donation is usually sufficient and I am swiftly on my way again. When I travel with my American brethren, they are shocked by the corruption of the police. I just tell them that they are naive. The difference is that in Latin America the corruption is localized. For the most part, I can get out of any problem with a simple bribe or donation. At least in Latin America they are honest about their corruption.
If I were to try to bribe an officer in NYC, or any US city for that matter, I would be met by righteous indignation by both police and the courts and surely be subjected to harsher penalties. This institutionalization of corruption has permeated all aspects of our society. Americans, especially small business owners, feel the brunt of it as they struggle to comply with a plethora of government edicts, regulations and paperwork just to do ordinary business.
In Latin America, many of the same laws exist that we have here in the U.S. However there is no pretense. A hundred bucks and a handshake brings the end of the issue. While neither system is desirable, at least the Latin American version is more honest.
Funny, but sad, that “honesty” can be a relative term.