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.
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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.
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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.
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