THE BLOG
01/19/2015 11:05 am ET Updated Mar 21, 2015

What Would Kojak Do?

Wikipedia

The plight of the New York Police Department and the city it serves provides us with an object case of what can go wrong in an America that is subjecting itself to destructive forces of its own making. A toxic brew of paranoia originating in the trauma of 9/11 and now free floating, the recrudescence of raw racialism as a vector in society, the cynicism of a self-promoting political elite, and the self-indulgence of a wayward media is spurring behaviors that threaten the domestic peace and tranquility literally as well as figuratively. It is an oddity of our times that New York City should be the place where these regressions have come together to display just how tattered our civic life has become. For the city is renown for its multi-culture tolerance and liberality - if not for its civic virtue. Even the last has suffered mainly from old fashioned corruption (studded with bouts of negligent incompetence) rather than dogmatism and provocation.

It is not a pretty sight. At the direction of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, municipal authorities have broken from long established traditions to transform the NYPD and other elements of the city's judicial system into instruments for the systematic execution of a prejudicial political agenda. Many of the most contentious programs and policies have either been hidden from public view entirely or pursued without public debate and examination. Falling into the former category are the creation of an irregular anti-terror apparatus whose activities have included the comprehensive spying on New York's Muslim community (a program now scotched by the courts); an alliance with Wall Street's biggest players to establish a special public-private force to conduct 24/7/365 surveillance of all manner of "suspicious activity" in the financial district; the extra-territorial extension of the NYPD's anti-terrorism operations across the Hudson into northern New Jersey at the behest of the FBI and CIA (which is legally prohibited from understanding intelligence missions within the United States); and the sowing of agents into wholly legal groups whose aim is the challenge Establishment policies whether of an economic (Occupy Wall Street) or security nature (demonstration against unconstitutional surveillance or the war in Iraq).

Falling into the former category are: the draconian intensification of pre-existing "stop-and-frisk" police policies to ensnare hundreds of thousands of citizens (the vast majority of whom are people of color) on dubious charges that have had the effect of permanently blemishing records and ruining lives; the routine violation of NYPD rules and guidelines on the use of force; the transformation of courts into a mill the for processing the sweepings of these dragnets into official criminals that insults the principle of a fair and swift trial. New York media and the entire political class were almost uniformly mute on these egregious policies for years - including such liberal beacons as The New York Times.

This deformation of the city's authority to perform its police function has been sold to the public, when admitted, as absolutely essential to safeguard citizens against threats domestic and foreign. In this way, the lingering fears of the World Trade Center tragedy (rejuvenated by much publicized pseudo-plots) are stirred together with the latent anxieties about criminality seeping outwards from the city's inner city neighborhoods to threaten safety in the streets and peace of mind. The rise in worries about violent crime despite a drastic and steady drop in such crimes over the past 25 years attests to the how 9/ll inspired feelings of dread have lodged in the minds of New Yorkers - and all Americans. And behind this façade of emotion laden imagery, the city government under Michael Bloomberg gave free rein to the economic powerhouses centered in his home borough of Manhattan to ensconce a plutocracy that runs against the grain of the city's predominant political sentiments. Bloomberg has been an aggressive defender and protector of Wall Street bankers even since the financial crisis broke. At the same time, he fought the move to rais the city's minimum wage.

The election of Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a return to New York traditions - on all fronts. His proposed redirection of financial and social policies were more of a departure from those his predecessor than did his proposed changes in policing and associated functions. Yet, it is this latter that have proven most combustible. We now have a situation in which the NYPD, led by the firebrand head the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (union) Patrick Lynch is in mutiny against its commander-in-chief, the Mayor. What are the sins he has committed that they view as so grave as to rebel? One, he has slowly begun to amend marginally the terms of "stop-and-frisk" to bring practice into line with the original policy. That policy was developed by William Bratton under the administration of Rudi Giuliani, the same Brannon whom de Blasio appointed his Police Commissioner to replace Raymond Kelly who was a fierce advocate and promoter of the dubious programs noted above. That appointment is grievance number two. Three, he did not defend the police vigorously enough from charges of brutality centered on the killing of Eric Garner in Staten island who was strangled by a detective using a choke hold that explicitly has been barred by NYPD regulations. (Garner's "crime" - selling single cigarettes on the street) Although the Grand Jury's decision, supported by the prosecutor, not to press charges were widely criticized, de Blasio remained silent on the matter. Four, de Blasio has not been effusive enough in his praise of members of the NYPD = this despite repeated declarations of support for their dedication in performing a vital public service.

Against this backdrop, a large segment of the NYPD has declared war on the Mayor. Its leaders have insulted him verbally. They explicitly blamed him for the killing of two police officers in their squad car two weeks ago. 'De Blasio has blood on his hands" howled Lynch. Why? because he had "encouraged" demonstrations against police which allegedly inflamed the murderer. They collectively insulted him by turning their backs on de Blasio when he eulogized the two officers. They went on an undeclared strike for several days in non-enforcing the law on minor criminal acts and stopped patrols in some inner city neighborhoods. They thereby violated their sworn oaths.

These actions are unprecedented. They tear the very fabric of civil society. They reflect and intensify troubling trends in today's security obsessed America. Adulation of the police and military has become a staple of the country's public life. That carries with it inhibitions on criticizing them - criticism that immediately is declared intolerable and unpatriotic by those being criticized. In this sense, as well as in tactics and armaments, the country's police departments are becoming militarized. It fosters a sense of immunity and entitlement among the police that places them outside the bounds of what normally is expected of public servants. In New York that has meant outright insubordination.

Perhaps most troubling are the signs of racism rooting itself in the soil of anxiety, fear and self-aggrandizement. The hatred of de Blasio among so many New York police (percentages are unknowable) is irrational. Almost all observers feel, if they will not say, that an 'X' factor in the equation is de Blasio's marriage with an outspoken black woman and a son who sports a modified Afro - just as race is the 'X' factor in the vitriol directed at Barack Obama. It is an elusive reality since it operates at so many levels in so many ways. In addition, it is near impossible to separate it from the several other feelings and attitudes that have generated the noxious mood of the NYPD (a significant number of black and Latino officers participated in the actions noted above). To ignore that it is there and intensifying, though, is to be in denial.

De Blasio's response has been to make conciliatory gestures - leaning over backwards to placate the police rank-and-file. Lynch's sullen answer is to call for the Mayor to "apologize." For what exactly? That's unclear except for the fact that he is Bill de Blasio and not Michael Bloomberg.
What does Kojak What have to do with all of this? Lieutenant Theo Kojak was the central character in a 1970s TV series set in the detective bureau of Manhattan South. He, Captain Frank McNeill, and their team of detectives were depicted graphically in stories praised for their authenticity of personality, scene, plot and atmospherics. New York at that time was a deeply troubled city. It was on the brink of bankruptcy, violent crime was sky high (6 X current levels) - ignited by the crack epidemic, race was a raw issue, streets and subways were infested with tens of thousands of mentally disturbed people who had been ousted from state mental institutions without provision of half-way houses or care, and the NYPD had just been shaken by a series of old-fashioned scandals. All of this was conveyed vividly in the Kojak series.

The series was particularly popular among policemen. Many adopted its special vernacular and imitated some of the star's signature mannerisms. No one accused Kojak and his men of being wishy-washy in their commitment to law and order.

The characters' conduct and attitudes were somewhat idealized despite the genuineness of the overall production. But the NYPD was not idealized - all the flaws and weaknesses inherent to it or any big city force were woven into many of the plots. What stands out in those mini-dramas is a philosophy of policing, and law enforcement more broadly, that contrasts in important respects to what we are witnessing today. They are worth noting.

One, there were rules governing proper policy behavior which, if violated, carried consequences. They pertained to the entire array of functions - all were based on the principle that the system's fairness and integrity should not be short circuited. This principle applied even when feds intervened in a drug or security case. Those rules relating to the use of force were explicit: you only used force as necessary and required. Primal instinct had to be restrained however strong it might be in a given circumstance. There is admittedly a natural tension between the impulse to use force and the restraints incorporated into correct police practice for sound reasons of public welfare. If you couldn't handle the tension, you should take extended leave and then go into another line of work.

Two, effective policy entailing establishing and observing a set of priorities. In Kojak's world, petty rule-breaking was a nuisance not a threat to the social order. The theory prevailing today that harassing a kid who's riding his bicycle on the sidewalk somehow will lower the homicide was a foreign idea. That proposition has won acceptance as God's truth. It seems more problematic when you discount for all the other factors that explain the reduction in violent crime and take note that the same drop has occurred in cities where people "trespassing" in the halls of their own apartment buildings are not thrown into jail. In NYC, the sharp decline began in 1991 when the "soft on crime" black David Dinkins was Mayor.

Three, ethnicity and race are prominent in Kojak's world. His detective squad is diversity reified. That is a generally accurate depiction of the NYPD at that time and is even more pronounced today. (Such was not the case in the New York Fire Department). It is presented as an environment permeated with New York's traditional "live-and-let-live" social philosophy. The city around it is less uniform in its tolerance. The message, though, is clear: it is the obligation of those sworn to uphold law and order to adhere to an ethic that binds society together rather than divides it. One cannot measure personal attitudes among members of the NYPD in the 1970s and those of today. But it is a matter of record that the kinds of displays that we have seen recently did not occur then and would not have been intolerable in the ethos of the time. Now, 40 years later, we have regressed to an earlier era that predates by decades Kojak's NYPD.

Four, Kojak's NYPD respected authority. Not in blind obedience - he himself was anything but a drone. Rather it is because municipal institutions could not serve their public unless the principles of democratic governance embodied by authorities were acknowledged and accepted. Of course, individual behavior in one's personal life had moved off the conformity of the 1950s as it had in the country at large. But respect for the proper workings of public institutions remained among civil servants - conventional forms of corruption notwithstanding. The picture of hundreds of uniform officers turning their backs on the Mayor was inconceivable.

Today, in American public life, everything goes. "Do your own thing" - the hippie slogan - has been taken as the motto of politicians, media celebrities, Wall Street, the CIA and just about every other pillar of society. The NYPD is yet one more symptom of a sickness that desperately needs to be attended to.

A last word. The characters in Kojak stories were all grown-ups. There was no celebration of juvenilia (as in cinematography nowadays) just as there was no casual acceptance of juvenilia among public figures who these days seem to have shed whatever sense of accountability they had upon graduation from middle school.