You've probably already heard about the work-stoppage that members of the New York Police Department are apparently staging (as Scott Shackford noted here yesterday, that's not clearly a bad thing). That's one sign that New York's Finest—and police around the country—are reacting extremely negatively to a wave of criticism in the wake of a series of controversial deaths and related legal proceedings.
That cops bristle at outrage directed at them is understandable (all the more so in the wake of the ambush-killing of two NYPD members by a deranged gunman). But it still isn't acceptable, especially if it leads law enforcement to publicly disparage elected leaders, as the NYPD did when members turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio at the funeral of Rafael Ramos and heckled him at a swearing-in service on Monday.
In a new Daily Beast column, I recall that Harry Truman fired Douglas MacArthur in 1951 not because of personality or even policy clashes (though there were loads of those), but "because he wouldn't respect the authority of the president." NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has echoed those sentiments, saying it was wrong of police to disrespect the mayor at Ramos' funeral "he is the mayor of New York [and] he was there representing the citizens of New York to express their remorse and their regret at that death."
The NYPD—and cops more generally—have a public relations problem in the wake of the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and a long string of other cases. Acting like a bunch of high-school jocks protesting a ban on keg parties isn't exactly going to win over many hearts and minds. It's exactly the inability of the cops who killed Garner to restrain themselves that bothered so may of us who watched the video of the encounter. The same goes for the hysterical overreaction and escalation of force used against protesters in Ferguson over the summer.
Yes, cops are under stress and tension (though their jobs are far less dangerous than normally supposed). But they are trained to rise above mere emotional responses; that's one of the reasons they are given a state-sanctioned monopoly on force. Yet even after the funeral protest, de Blasio was booed and heckled while addressing a new class of recruits as well….
It's precisely the highly emotional and unrestrained responses by police in tough situations (Ferguson, Eric Garner, etc.) that make people worry that cops are governed not by rationality and training but aggression and impulse. The stunts the NYPD is pulling underscore those fears, as do wild claims by spokesmen that Bill de Blasio has "blood on his hands" for the killing of Officers Ramos and Liu at the hands of a nutcase.
Until police learn to accept that criticism of specific policies and actions doesn't constitute a mortal insult, they will continue to have problems maintaining public support. Yes, there may be a few professional anti-cop activists who are always ready to blame the police for all the sins of the world, but the overwhelming majority supports law enforcement when it functions with a proper respect for civil liberties and the rule of law.
Bratton and de Blasio are sitting down with representatives of the rank and file to repair relations, which The New York Post and others note range far beyond issues of race to union contracts and the like. The widely acclaimed leader of the NYPD during the 1990s under Rudy Giuliani and of the Los Angeles Police Department in this century, Bratton is in a particularly strong position to make cops understand that they are in fact held to a higher standard than regular citizens and even most public-sector employees. And that change will start with them, not the body politic.
As Bratton and the NYPD start talking among themselves, the commissioner will do well to paraphrase another Trumanism: "The buck stops here." The police cannot ultimately control public opinion unilaterally. What they can do, though, is acknowledge that a change in their attitudes, behavior, policies, and willingness to engage in discussions about how people see them can help them win back the public trust.