As the tragic police stories continue to unfold in New York City and Los Angeles, I'm reminded of the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times." In both cities, after decades of steady increases, crime rates have fallen dramatically--due, in no small measure, to the efforts of the police. Yet at a time when they might expect to be glorified for that success, they find themselves vilified for some of the tactics and strategies used to achieve it.
The corrupt and brutal behavior that seems to have played a major role in the crime-reduction efforts of the Rampart division of the Los Angeles Police Department deserves to be vilified, whereas in New York City the four police officers acquitted in the shooting death of Amadou Diallo made a tragic mistake--one that not only took a man's life but also shook the trust and confidence of the minority community in the police department itself.
The common lesson to be learned from these apparently dissimilar incidents is that under no circumstances can police be encouraged--by politicians or police leaders or acquiescence from the community--to tolerate lowering of constitutional guidelines in order to reduce crime. Legal rules such as the Miranda guidelines are intended to curb police excesses. But those guidelines seem to disappear in the heat of an adrenaline rush and fear. Only constant supervision and training can prevent abuses and mistakes.
The glorification of the type of policing practiced by Detective Sipowicz on NYPD Blue, where the end always justifies the means, cannot be tolerated. This role model must be changed. Policing is not entertainment. It is real. It is complex. It can be a matter of life or death.
In the mid-1990s, police were in their glory days, as they saw that their work was winning the war on crime. Phrases like "we own the night," the mantra of the New York Street Crime Unit, were meaningful to the good officers committed to taking back the streets from criminals. However, as crime rates fell and guns were removed from predators, the slogan and the tactics should have changed. Criminals were not the only ones in fear of aggressive policing; so were many law-abiding citizens, particularly in the minority community, with whom the safety of the night should have been shared. Worse, in Los Angeles those corrupt officers believed they not only owned the night but owned everyone and everything in the name of that same war on crime.
Both the police and the community should be enjoying the dividend of more peaceful times in our cities. However, racial tension and community mistrust of the police abounds. The true tragedy of the New York City and Los Angeles events is that as crime rates fell, confidence in the police in the minority community fell with them. The police had an unprecedented opportunity to be at the front lines of healing the racial divide. Instead the police remain the flash point for racial tension.