THE BLOG

The Plight of Eric Garner and Undocumented Immigrants Highlight the Impact of Street-Level Bureaucrats

08/06/2014 12:24 pm ET | Updated Oct 06, 2014

The impact of what Michael Lipsky termed as "street-level bureaucrats" has been highlighted in a significant way this summer. Street-level bureaucrats are those "lower level" officials that deliver public policy with every encounter that they make. They greatly shape how a policy is carried out in what they do or don't do. These officials have a disproportionate impact on low-income people because they are the most likely individuals to not be able to afford goods and services in the private sphere and thus must look to the public entities for assistance.

One glaring example of the impact of street-level bureaucrats is the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding on the border with undocumented individuals who are fleeing their home countries in an attempt to get into the United States. The decision as to whether or not they will be allowed to stay in the U.S. will likely not be made by President Obama or the Governor of that state but the overwhelming majority of those decisions are made by street-level bureaucrats. The street-level bureaucrats in this case may be officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), judges, or personnel from a local enforcement agency (LEA) like a state or local jail. These officials would theoretically follow whatever state and federal laws that are applicable to a particular case but they would also exercise their own discretion in carrying out their interpretation of the law.

Discretion is the central element of the potential great power that a street-level bureaucrat has over the people that fall under their jurisdiction and is a critical part of how a policy is ultimately implemented. The likely illegal discretion that the New York City police officer who used the chokehold that lead to the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island is a sad illustration of the potentially negative impact of decisions by street-level bureaucrats. It is pivotal that the positive actions of street-level bureaucrats are uplifted and that the negative actions are reprimanded. The monitoring aspect of these actions is crucial to the implementation of legislative and agency policy. Ultimately, as Lipsky implied, to the extent that there is any discretion at all there is the capacity to make public policy through what they chose to do or not to do.

The inability of Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform has put even more of the onus of "policy making" on street-level bureaucrats. It is up to the local citizenry and other entities in different areas to monitor the impact of policy delivery at the grassroots level. Activists and those with media megaphones are tasked with highlighting and dramatizing the ways in which citizens are positively and negatively affected by this policy delivery. The patterns of behavior by street-level bureaucrats go a long way towards socializing people to the expectations of their treatment by the government and their potential potency in the political arena.

The activism of the National Action Network and other organizations around the death of Eric Garner in New York City has national ramifications in the area of discretion by law enforcement officials. A culture of injustice is likely to be cultivated and institutionalized if negative precedents of the abuse of bureaucratic discretion are allowed to go unchecked. Vigilance must be maintained at the street level to make sure that the high aspirations and dreams of solid legislation designed to protect the rights of all people don't turn into nightmares of unjust policy implementation that adversely impacts certain populations.

Marcus Bright, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of Education for a Better America and an Adjunct Professor in the School of Public Administration at Florida International University and Florida Atlantic University