Prevalent in the Presidential debates was publicity over “The Talk” candidate Bill De Blasio’s had to have with his son Dante. The Mayor needed to warn his mixed-race, African-looking son of the dangers of an encounter with his own NYPD. Evidently, this is a talk of similar gravity as the “birds and bees” among people of color (I know I never had it). The NYPD sent a delegation to the debate to make their perception of unfairness known.

Who is right? Like every other issue seen through partisan-colored glasses, more nuance exists than appears at first glance. As a career public servant in the emergency services of NYC, such nuance could come from me:

Where the Mayor is very right is that New York City is an egregious over-incarcerator, historically. Ironically, most Left-leaning municipalities are. NYPD has locked up tens of thousands of low-level marijuana offenders caught up in stop-and frisk-procedures (deemed unconstitutional for their racial disparity). De Blasio’s tenure has mitigated this tendency, good for him.

In my workdays covering ghetto areas, I see they are teeming with police. Young men like Dante have to practically cross a gauntlet of their scrutiny. With certain neighborhoods flooded with police, stupid laws invisible to people away from that stare will go unnoticed for want of consequences. This disparity of staring accounts for the disparity in arrests. Take marijuana arrests: people of color are four times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites, though people of color use it at a lesser rate. It comes down to police encounters, the likelihood of being stopped and frisked, the running of the staring gauntlet.

More encounters with the police means more chances of a bad outcome, more chances of an arcane law tripping them up. For the poor, such an encounter with the police might cost them a few days pay, which is bound to raise their hell.

Take the death of Eric Garner: He was killed while being arrested for selling “loosies” (loose cigarettes). But a lot of people use loosies to stop smoking: they force themselves to go hunting whenever they need a smoke, cutting down through inconvenience. Maybe if selling loosies were a smoking cessation program, people wouldn’t be killed by the police enforcing it. But in the Garner case, there was a joint NYPD/ATF task force in place to battle the “problem,” the battle was just that, a battle, and Eric Garner was a casualty in the battle. Wars and battles in wars are expensive: that one casualty cost the taxpayers 5.9 million dollars in lawsuits. That would be a lot for a smoking cessation program, but not a lot if the joint task force was entrepreneurial for tax revenue. Will government forgo the revenue from cigarette taxes for better community relations with the police? Don’t hold your breath (ask Eric Garner’s ghost about that). They haven’t yet. To the surprise of only non-libertarians, the battle against bootleg smoking continues to not go as well as it hadn’t before Garner lost his life to it.

Where the NYPD has De Blasio pegged correctly as an opportunist, cashing in on his son’s experience, is when the Mayor leaves out the part of the picture where the heavy police presence against young men of color is protection of them against other young men of color, overwhelmingly the most common category of homicide and harm. A retreat of the gauntlet would have the poor people of color in the ghetto pay that cost, too. The Mayor of NYC is the boss of the police, and he should know that if he were not blind (or bound, politically). De Blasio talks out of both sides of his mouth, here. NYPD is right on this narrow point.

For those on the straight and narrow, there are worse complaints than a powerful police presence, with most crimes being petty. But they had better be really, really on the straight and narrow (and what does the Bible say about the path: “…narrow and few”). I never was so narrow when I was Dante’s age.

What’s the way to balance between the poles of over-policing, and allowing those most exposed to crime be most victimized by it? It’s trite to say more wisdom and judgement is needed, but it comes down to just that. It is not wise to set up a system of harvesting the poor for [tax revenue][7 through the use of the criminal code. Just as it’s not good judgement to blame the police when their Sheriff of Nottingham collections looks terrible on YouTube. That is what sanctioning poor people for money looks like: screaming, macing, pummeling, rarely choking and shooting. I attest here that in the span of my twenty-plus year career on the street, I have seen a transformation in police culture around those cash incentives.

Community/police estrangement is inevitable, the lost opportunity costs for real policing, predicated on trust, incalculable. I have a friend who is a policeman in a ghetto environment, and he thinks about 80% of his constituents have an outstanding arrest warrant for failing to answer some trivial offense (the police has the ESU unit hunt down fugitives with outstanding warrants for dangerous crimes).

More police encounters, with more laws incomprehensible to the community, will lead to more conflict, which will sometimes be violent, with violence always ugly, with ugly violence sometimes deadly.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.

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