I’m guessing that relatively few progressives are going to read this article about NYPD officers arrested for corruption and other officers on the force standing up to jeer the Internal Affairs officers who uncovered the scam and say to themselves “just another example of neoliberal police reformers who don’t get it.” I don’t know anyone at all who thinks cities shouldn’t have police departments, or that crime control is a trivial concern. But virtually all liberals are prepared to see that while many police officers are brave and dedicated public servants, many police departments also have problems of various kinds with corruption and mistreatment of suspects. It’s not, I think, “cop bashing” to suggest that a minority of police officers are substantially worse than average or that cities would be better off getting rid of those cops.
What’s more, it’s also obviously true that crime and crime control are complicated sociological phenomena driven by many forces that have nothing in particular to do with police officers or the internal procedures of police departments. But at the same time, if I were to observe that the leading sociological correlate of getting beaten up by the cops is being a low-income minority male I don’t think any liberal would conclude that the real problem here is poverty rather than police abuse. Rather, the problem is that when important public agencies underperform low-income people tend to be disproportionately victimized.
What I have in mind, of course, is perennial internecine fighting over K-12 education policy in the United States. This is obviously a complicated subject. But my experience is that a lot of people on the left, rather than arguing the merits of the issue, seem to take it as self-evidently un-progressive to try to improve the performance of a public agency in part by doing things that the people who work at the agency don’t like. When it comes to big city police departments, I think a much healthier attitude exists. Not one that says cops shouldn’t have rights in the workplace or that “cops are bad,” but one that recognizes a substantial tension between the liberal desire to have police departments work well and the police officers’ desire for high levels of job security and low levels of accountability.