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What Do Cops Do?
A unified theory of police behavior
Lots of very smart (and even more not-so-smart) people have tried, over the years, to answer the question of what cops are for—whether they exist to keep us safe, to fight crime, to protect property, to enforce racial hierarchies, etc. I pose a simpler question: What do cops do?
Having spent many years observing cop behavior, reading news about cops, and occasionally even asking them for help, I have come to a pretty simple but comprehensive answer: They do what is easy, and avoid what is difficult. Seen through that rubric, much cop behavior suddenly becomes much more explicable.
Of all the improbable things about accused subway shooter Frank James’s last hours of freedom, the weirdest is how easy it is to imagine James still on the run, today, if he’d decided to do almost anything differently. Learning that he phoned in a tip on himself from a McDonald’s, and then that he eventually got tired of waiting there and left, was a sort of sublime punchline to the entire comic manhunt, in which New York City’s enormous and well-funded police department failed at basically every moment to stop or capture a dangerous criminal who literally told them where he was.
Then, a few weeks later, another guy shot and killed a person on the Q. The shooter did so at what I’d consider, strategically, the worst time and place to kill someone on the Q: while it crossed the Manhattan Bridge, giving everyone on board both the time and ability to phone the police and have them ready to apprehend him the moment the train arrived in Manhattan. But when the train pulled into Manhattan, rest assured, the police were (according to one unconfirmed eyewitness) on the wrong platform. That shooter might still be on the lam, too, if he hadn’t turned himself in, an act the city authorities and a fame-seeking pastor with connections to the mayor apparently almost sabotaged.
In between those two shootings, and also before and after them, the NYPD busied itself with clearing homeless encampments. In the denouement to the subway shooting fiasco, the police arrested the panhandler into whose cup the second shooter deposited his gun, for illegal firearms possession. This is my thesis in action: It is difficult to prevent a random shooting. It is difficult to find a gunman. It is difficult to arrest an armed man. It is very easy to arrest an unhoused person.
Alexander Sammon just wrote a piece for the Prospect asking why the police are so bad at their jobs, based on their dismal “clearance” (arrests) rates and even more dismal conviction rates. The semi-glib leftist response is that they aren’t. They’re doing exactly what we pay them for. But even judged by their own cruel standards the police are extraordinarily lazy and incompetent. A study summarized by sociologist Brendan Beck in Slate earlier this year made a convincing case that more officers were associated mainly with more misdemeanor arrests. That is, the unimportant shit. It is nice to imagine that additional police spending will go to an army of Columbos solving the trickiest crimes. We are currently doing this experiment, with the real police, in real life, and it is proving that they are spending the money on throwing the belongings of homeless people into dumpsters.
It is easier to arrest a child for stealing chips than it is to apprehend an armed adult shooter. It is easier for several dozen police officers to arrest two unarmed people than it is for a cop to stop any single armed person. It is easier for hundreds of cops to kettle a largely unarmed left-wing protest than it is for an entire department to stop any armed right-wingers from entering a government building. It’s easier to clear homeless encampments than it is to investigate sexual assault. It’s easier to coerce confessions than it is to solve crimes. It’s easier to try to pull a guy over than it is to offer any sort of help when he crashes his car. It’s easier to arrest a mango vendor in the subway than to stop someone from bringing a gun into the subway. It’s easier to arrest a fifth grader than it is to save one’s life.
It is far easier to do “crowd control”—to restrain a panicking parent, perhaps—than it is to enter a room currently occupied by a psycho with a semiautomatic rifle.