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Policing in New York City: A Class-Race Crossover Special

Updated on August 9, 2018
wingedcentaur profile image

The first step is to know what you do not know. The second step is to ask the right questions. I reserve the right to lean on my ignorance.


Hi Grace Marguerite Williams! How's it going?

Thank you for the question: "Do you believe that in the United States, there is an escalating war against black men by the police? What makes black men so threatening in the mindsets of many police officers?"

I believe I can make this relatively short. I want to say at the outset that my source for this essay comes from a book by one of my favorite political writers, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine. His book is called The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap.

The title kind of says it all, doesn't it?

The case study he offers us concerns policing in New York City. I believe he shows how class, as in the wealth gap, is converted into a race issue, as in disproportionate targeting of blacks and Hispanics for law enforcement control.

Stay with me and watch this!

First of all there is a principle I want to offer: If you put people in a position in which you ask them to do the impossible---and I mean defying the laws of physics impossible---then the only way they will be able to "do it" will be by cheating. This will create a culture of cheating, in which the only persons who truly thrive will, by necessity have learned to be the best cheaters. Please remember that as we go forward.

According to Matt Taibbi: "Way back in 1977, New York City decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana, the law being that if you had less than 25 grams on you and smoked your weed in the private, the police weren't supposed to arrest you" (Taibbi, 57).

Stay with me. We're still quoting...

"But then in the 1990s the city began implementing this stop-and-frisk program, where police could stop and search just about anyone for any reason. And stop-and-frisk provided the city police with a magic spell they could use to circumvent the lax marijuana law" (ibid).

Why would the police want to "circumvent the lax marijuana law" and make more work for themselves, or have more work made for themselves?

Here's part of the answer. Again, Taibbi tells us that, "[p]atrol cops in most precincts had to empty one pad a month, it turns out, part of their precinct-ordered 'productivity goals,' or at least so say some sources" (ibid).

Stay with me.

Now then, "[y]ears later a City University of New York professor named Harry Levine would be poring through New York City arrest statistics for drug offenses when he would notice something fascinating. Interested in seeing what the impact had been since the city decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, Levine was shocked when he looked at the numbers for simple possession arrests" (Taibbi, 92).

The story goes like this: from 1978 to 1988, you had about 3,000 possession arrests a year. From 1988 to 1998, about 3,000 again. But then, from 1998 to 2008, the number soared to 30,000---that's thirty-thousand! possession arrests per year (ibid).

What happened?

Well, as Professor Levine tells it, in a word: Howard Safir---then Mayor Rudy Giuliani's second police commissioner.

Here's how that works.

Quoting again: "Rolled out in 1994 by Bratton and the newly elected Mayor Giuliani, who had made 'zero tolerance' the platform of his crime strategy, the much-celebrated broken windows policing strategy purported to control serious crime by getting police to focus on minor crimes like fare beating, jaywalking, littering, and loitering" (ibid).

Matt Taibbi, in addition to being a terrifically funny and insightful writer, is a broadminded and fair-minded young man, always willing to give credit, where even some modicum of the stuff is due. Still quoting...

"The theory, and it's not completely illogical, is that increased contact with the police leads to criminals deciding more and more often to leave their guns at home, lest they be swept up for jumping a turnstile or tossing a cigarette butt on the street" (Taibbi, 93).

Who is Howard Safir?

He was Bratton's replacement, "a nondescript, non-trench-coat wearing, mostly unknown law enforcement bigwig who'd met Giuliani when the latter was a U.S. attorney during the Reagan years. Safir for most of his early career had been a narc. He made it as high as assistant director of the DEA in 1977. But the middle part of his career was spent with the U.S. Marshals Service, where he was the associate director of operations from 1984 to 1990" (ibid).

This next part is absolutely critical to pay attention to!

Matt Taibbi writes: "The Marshals Service, when it isn't chasing Dr. Richard Kimble or cracking meth-dealer heads in Harlan County, Kentucky, is primarily involved with the dreary business of transporting felons. Levine believes that Safir learned an important lesson in his time with the marshals" (ibid).

Taibbi quoted Levine: 'I think Safir saw that violent crime was dropping,' he says. 'That there were fewer felonies' (ibid).

This "violent crime dropping" thing will be very important a little later on.

"And with that, he thinks, Safir decided to make a radical change in the way the police did business, one that piggybacked nicely on top of Bratton's broken windows strategy. 'Policing in America from the very beginning was always about responding to reported crime,' says Levine. 'You know, it's 'Help, I've been shot, I've been stabbed, I've been raped, somebody stole my car.' There was enough to keep policemen everywhere employed for most of the century" (Taibbi, 93-94).


"But then in the early 1990s, for reasons that are still a mystery to cops and academics alike, crime started dropping. Some say it was the advent of the computer databases and advanced policing methods. Others say it was because of changes in the drug trade. Still others say it was cultural or had to do with the behavioral tendencies of a new influx of immigrants. Curiously, for instance, the drop in violent crime is most pronounced in cities with high immigrant populations" (Taibbi, 94).


Another important piece of this story is CompStat, something introduced early in Bratton's tenure, which "forces police precincts to take a quantitative approach to crime: each precinct has to submit weekly statistical reports to central command" (ibid).

"You add CompStat to stop-and-frisk---the policy instituted in the early 1990s that allowed police to stop and search virtually anyone at any time, even inside the hallways of a privately owned apartment building---and what you ended up with was a kind of automated policing system that incentivized officers to fan out into neighborhoods like commercial fishermen, throwing nets over whole city blocks and making as many arrests as they could. 'It was a machine,' says Levine, 'for writing tickets, making arrests, and collecting data'" (Taibbi, 94-95).

Red Flag!: Incentive problem!

It is important to understand that "[b]efore long, police departments all over the country were using a form of CompState. "Los Angeles, Washington, Philadelphia, and San Francisco were major early converts. The city of Baltimore switched to a similar system called CitiStat in 1999, and this became the inspiration for the notorious ComStat system memorialized in the TV series The Wire (Taibbi, 95).

As you are reading this so far, you should be running the principle, we started this essay with, in your head. That principle is this: If you put people in a position in which you ask them to do the impossible---and I mean defy the laws of physics impossible---then the only way they will be able to do it will be by cheating. This will create a culture of cheating; and those who are truly able to thrive will be the best cheaters!

We must keep that in mind as we read Matt Taibbi telling us that "the steep drop in violent crime present the police with a problem" (ibid).

Why is "the steep drop in violent crime" a "problem"? Why is it, in a perverted way, almost a bad thing from the perspective of the police department?

Because "[I]f making arrests is the only way to advance in your career, but crime is dropping, what do you do? Furthermore, what do you do if the only way to make a living wage is to rack up as much overtime as possible? In the Safir era, NYPD starting salaries were on the low end for professional police forces in America, beginning at about forty thousand dollars. How do you add hours in an era when crime is dropping?" (ibid).

Red Flag!: The ability to advance in the law enforcement career, as well as the ability to make a living wage---in an era of dropping levels of violent crime---is connected to the CompStat quantitative approach to crime tracking.

So: "How do you add hours in an era when crime is dropping?"

"The answer," Taibbi writes, "turned out to be, you simply create arrests. By multiplying marijuana arrests by a factor of ten in the space of a few years, Safir's police force drastically increased its workload. 'One million police man-hours per year,' is Levine's calculation just for marijuana possession arrests in the years since Safir took over the NYPD" (ibid).


  • By mid-to-late 2000s, police stops multiplied all across the board for a range of almost trivial offenses
  • 2012: 600,000 summonses a year----more than three times the levels for the late-1990s
  • Of those, 50,000 were for simple marijuana possession; another 140,000 for open-container violations for carrying alcohol in public.
  • An additional 80,000 summonses per year were written for "disorderly conduct."
  • 20,000 summonses per year for riding bicycles on sidewalks (ibid)

There was yet another factor: Massive pay reductions!

One again, Matt Taibbi would have us know that "[m]eanwhile, during the mid-2000s, a state arbitrator forced the NYPD to slash starting yearly salaries for new officers to a preposterous $25,100. The reduced pay forced some 4,500 officers to quit in a period of a few years in the middle of the decade. The ones who stayed on the job had to really scramble to make a living wage. They did so by inventing an entirely new way of doing the job. It would be a revolution in what Levine calls 'sub-misdemeanor policing.'

"If, like me, you lived in New York throughout some or all of this time and didn't notice, you're not alone. The change took place almost completely outside the field of view of white, professional New York. The big change took place in poorer neighborhoods. In places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, the change was profound" (Taibbi, 95-96).


So, what are we to make of all of this, in light of Grace Marguerite Williams's question ("Do you believe that in the United States, there is an escalating war against black men by the police? What makes black men so threatening in the mindsets of many police officers?").

The short answer is: A simple framework of institutional racism is an insufficient structure by which to conceptualize the problem. As I believe the case study shows is that we are looking at a problem of what I call "class-race crossover."

  1. We saw, at the beginning that in the 1970s, the possession of small amounts of marijuana had been decriminalized in New York City. We were looking at what we might call legislative intent.
  2. This legislative intent was thwarted when it ran up against reactionary (not properly "conservative") politics channeled by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani---which led to a reactionary social control strategy ("stop-and-frisk," "broken windows," etc.)---which was monitored by a quantitative approach to law enforcement (CompStat)---which was tasked to be carried out by working class men and women doing the most dangerous job, while living and working in one of the world's most expensive cities: New York---who saw their salaries slashed to "preposterously" low levels (recall the state arbitrator slashing salaries of new officers in New York to a pathetic $25,100)----in the midst of an inexplicable 1990s reduction in crime.
  3. The result of all of this was that simple possession of small amounts of marijuana, for example, contrary to legislative intent, were, far from effectively decriminalized, were effectively ultra-criminalized.
  4. Another result of these institutional realities, as we have seen, was that those working class men and women who stayed on the job, had to "scramble to make a living wage," by "racking up as much overtime as possible."
  5. They could only do this by "simply creating arrests" ---- not in the areas, or even the field of view of "white, professional New York," but "in poorer neighborhoods," like Bedford Stuyvesant, where "the change was profound."

This case study points to a number of problems, which must be addressed and solved simultaneously, not individually and one at a time.

  • The deteriorated union presence in the United States means that working people no longer have the political muscle to resist the outrage of $25,100 for new police officers, doing the most dangerous job, while they live and work in one of the world's most expensive cities: New York.
  • The fact that police departments have not found other ways than the quantitative, as a way of evaluating officer performance and fitness for promotion. In New York, the police department was not able to react appropriately to the good thing of declining crime in the 1990s.
  • The emphasis on "productivity goals" is an inappropriate intrusion of capitalism into the operating procedure the organ of social control. Its too much capitalism, no matter how you feel about this system, hate it, like it, or love it.
  • The wild divergence of legislative intent and execution on the ground is a public policy catastrophe.

Works Cited

Taibbi, Matt. The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap. Spiegel & Grau, 2014.


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    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thanks, Frank. Much appreciated!


    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 

      4 years ago from Shelton

      Your hub leaves so much of the the impact and the social problems are starving for attention.. I think more people would enjoy your hubs if they give it a look.. They go beyond politics and human interest.. they go right to the social problems.. bravo my friend.. bravo..:)

    • wingedcentaur profile imageAUTHOR

      William Thomas 

      4 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Thank you, Grace Marguerite Williams. I appreciate the kind feedback!

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      4 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      Well-researched & well-written hub.


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