When Morale Dips, Some Cops Walk The Beat — But Do The Minimum | KERA News

When Morale Dips, Some Cops Walk The Beat — But Do The Minimum

Jan 8, 2015
Originally published on January 8, 2015 5:29 pm

Police officers in New York City are not working as hard as usual.

For the past two weeks, the number of arrests, summonses and tickets issued has dropped dramatically, and many consider it a purposeful slowdown by officers who are angry at Mayor Bill de Blasio.

New York isn't the first city to see this kind of protest, in which officers do the minimum required. There are several names for it, too, such as "depolicing" and "rule-book protest."

Kristen Ziman, a police commander in Aurora, Ill., uses another term: "Blue Flu." Her department suffered a bad case of it in 2011 after it laid off eight officers. She says the remaining officers became less effective; traffic stops dropped by double digits.

"I think that low morale and that anger then really manifested into officers getting in their squad car and feeling that sense of apathy," Ziman says. "And so, for that reason, production went down."

'You're Not Going Out Looking For The Bad Guys'

These police slowdowns are sometimes caused by contract disputes. Last summer, police in Memphis, Tenn., called in sick in droves when the city reduced their health benefits. That may also be a factor in New York, where officers are in contract negotiations with the city.

But when people use the term depolicing, it usually refers to inaction on the job.

"In the simplest terms," explains retired Seattle officer Mike Severance, "officers aren't doing proactive police work. They'll respond to their calls, you know, if something heinous happens ... if they observe an armed robbery in progress, an officer's going to do what needs to be done. But you're not going out looking for the bad guys."

Severance says depolicing happens when officers feel stretched too thin or overburdened by bureaucracy. It also happens when police feel whiplashed by what seem to be contradictory demands.

Take the death of Eric Garner in New York last summer. Police say they were told to arrest people for the minor crime of selling loose cigarettes.

"We went there because of those complaints, and police headquarters sent us there!" Patrick Lynch, the head of New York's biggest police union, told NPR this week.

"And then what we had, we had someone that's resisted arrest and said, 'I'm not going.' So a lot of folks are telling us what we shouldn't do and what we can't do. But no one is telling us what we should do when a police officer is faced with a resisting arrest situation," Lynch said.

Merrick Bobb has heard this kind of thing before. He's been advising cities on police reform since the 1990s, and remembers seeing slowdowns during the reform process in Los Angeles. There was a drop-off of activity, he says, during a period of time while officers were getting used to new rules.

But the situation in New York, he says, seems different. "What I think you see in New York is an angry, sullen, in-your-face kind of rejection of the mayor and anybody else who sees fit to criticize the police."

Looking For Solutions

Bobb says the NYPD may be due for a fundamental reform program, such as those imposed on other cities by the Justice Department. That approach would not go over well with unions.

Aurora's Ziman prescribes a less confrontational approach. She says commanders should recognize that the events of the last six months have undermined the morale of police around the country.

"The thing they're struggling [internally] with is ... 'I want to go out there and I want to do my job, but No. 1, is it safe right now? And the second is, what if I mess up? What if I do something wrong, and [am] basically living into the template that everything thinks I am?' "

Ziman says you rebuild morale by appealing to officers' sense of professionalism. For instance, she ended her department's "Blue Flu" partly by giving officers more choice in their assignments.

But it's not clear that kind of conciliatory move is possible in New York right now, where the weekly arrest stats are being read as an ominous barometer of patrol officers' mood.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The police in New York are not working as hard as usual. The number of arrests and tickets have dropped dramatically over the past two weeks in what is seen as a purposeful slowdown by officers who are angry at Mayor de Blasio. The New York Times editorial board has branded it a deplorable gesture on the part of police. But as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, New York is hardly the first city to experience that kind of protest.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: There are a lot of names for what's going on in New York. Some call it de-policing or a rule-book protest, meaning officers do the bare minimum required. Kristen Ziman has another term.

COMMANDER KRISTEN ZIMAN: Blue flu has been the one that's permeated my career.

KASTE: She's a police commander in Aurora, Illinois. A few years ago, the department there laid off some officers, and the rest of the force came down with a bad case of the blue flu.

ZIMAN: I think that low morale and that anger then really manifested into officers getting in their squad car and feeling that sense of apathy. And so for that reason, production went down.

KASTE: Production, in this case, means the number of traffic stops, which dropped by double digits. These police slowdowns are sometimes caused by contract disputes. Last summer, for instance, police in Memphis called in sick in droves when the city reduced their health benefits. But in the main, depolicing is something that happens on the job. This how retired cop in Seattle, Mike Severance, describes it.

MIKE SEVERANCE: In the simplest terms, officers aren't doing proactive police work. They'll respond to their calls. You know, if something heinous happens on view, I mean, if they observe, you know, an armed robbery in progress, the officer is still going to do what needs to be done. But they're not going out and looking for the bad guys.

KASTE: He says this happens when officers feel stretched too thin or overburdened by paperwork. It also happens when police feel whiplashed by what seems to be contradictory demands. Take the death of Eric Garner in New York last summer. Police say they were told to arrest people just like him for the minor crime of selling loose cigarettes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

PATRICK LYNCH: We went there because of those complaints. And police headquarters sent us there.

KASTE: That's the head of New York's biggest police union, Patrick Lynch, talking to NPR earlier this week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

LYNCH: And then what we had is we had someone that's resisted arrest and said I'm not going. So a lot of folks are telling us what we shouldn't do and what we can't do. But no one's telling us what we should do when a police officer is faced with a resisting arrest situation.

KASTE: Merrick Bobb has heard this kind of thing before. He's been advising cities on police reforms since the 1990s. And he remembers seeing slowdowns during the reform process in Los Angeles.

MERRICK BOBB: There was a period of time of getting used to the new rules. And there was a drop off of activity.

KASTE: But he says the situation in New York seems different.

BOBB: When I think you see in New York is an angry, sullen, in-your-face kind of rejection of the mayor and anybody else who sees fit to criticize the police.

KASTE: Bobb says the NYPD may be due for a fundamental reform program; the kind of thing the Justice Department has imposed on other cities. That would not go over well with the unions.

A less confrontational prescription comes from Commander Ziman in Aurora. She says departments should recognize that the events of the last six months have undermined the morale of police around the country.

ZIMAN: The things that they're struggling internal with is that I want to go out there and I want to do my job. But number one, is it safe right now? The second is what if I mess up? What if I do something wrong and here I am basically living into the templates that everyone thinks I am?

KASTE: She says you rebuild morale by appealing to the officers' sense of professionalism. For instance, she ended her department's blue flu partly by giving the cops more choice in their assignments.

But it's not clear that that kind of conciliatory move is possible in New York right now where the weekly arrest stats are being read as an ominous barometer of the patrol cops' mood. Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.