Curfews Don’t Protect People

(Originally published in The Bulwark 6/3/20 https://thebulwark.com/curfews-dont-protect-people/)

Yesterday afternoon, President George W. Bush and Laura Bush released an extraordinary statement on the death of George Floyd. It says what needs to be said by every American across the political spectrum: “It remains a shocking failure that many African Americans, especially young African American men, are harassed and threatened in their own country.”

This is in the grand tradition of Republican support for civil rights and the classic tenets of liberalism. It reminds me why I voted for W. twice and used to be a registered Republican.

But that was back in the day when Republicans stood for limited government, strict adherence to the Constitution, and using economic freedom to improve everyone’s lives, not for shredding the Constitution and pitting Americans against each other while using public positions for private profit.

So last night I sat in my house in New York’s West Village, listening to helicopters overhead, forbidden to walk outside because we have an 8 p.m. curfew until Sunday. Because of the curfew local food shops, supermarkets, and restaurants offering takeout had to close as early as 5:00 p.m.—at a moment when they were just beginning to revive.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my 10 years covering counterinsurgency in Afghanistan, not only because of the familiar helicopter noise. There are analogies to restoring order in a violence-afflicted urban environment. It’s often just called community policing, an old idea involving getting cops out of their cars and having them walk their beats and get to know people. It works.

But instead of reaching out, the NYPD is retreating.

Monday morning, when I walked past my local police precinct in the West Village, the Sixth, I was dismayed to see that the street full of police cars was closed by a barrier at both ends. Not only does this make it more difficult and psychologically uninviting for citizens to enter to report a crime, it gives criminals and law-abiding citizens alike the idea that the police are afraid of them. And this is in one of Manhattan’s richest zip codes.

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The NYPD and departments nationwide need to be out there talking to citizens, rebuilding trust and discussing grievances. So do our mayors. Yet at a press conference today, Mayor Bill de Blasio was egregiously rude and disrespectful to reporters who asked about some much-photographed instances of looting nearly under the police’s eyes. De Blasio is locked in a struggle with Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has been very critical of the NYPD’s failure to rein in looting and advocated bringing in the National Guard.

As de Blasio correctly pointed out, bringing in outsiders who don’t know how NYC works could well lead to more violence.

But Cuomo is right that the NYPD are badly led and badly trained. If I were an outsider looking in (as I was in Afghanistan), I would call the NYPD an Irish-American militia, not a servant of the public. Though the force is only 53 percent white, NYPD leadership is still 72 percent non-Hispanic white, and arrogant in the way militia leaders are.

This may be the place to note that police in the United States are not in huge danger from criminals, especially in New York City where there are severe penalties for unlicensed handguns. No New York City cops were murdered in the line of duty in 2019, for instance. And across the United States, only 38 law-enforcement officers were shot and killed in the line of duty between January and mid-December 2019 (not counting deaths by friendly fire).

Overall, just over a thousand American civilians were killed by the police in 2019. And, totaling data from 2013 to 2019, NYC has had the lowest rate of police killings of civilians among U.S. cities with over a million people.

As these figures suggest, American police should not be afraid to engage with the community. I remember the remark of a bright young American captain I met in Afghanistan, Derrick Hernandez, who said to me, “If you tell me to defend this district center I’m not going to sit inside it.” It’s very easy for a fortress to become a self-licking ice cream cone—Army lingo for an outpost that exists only to defend itself, not to make the surrounding territory safer. Sure sounds like an NYC precinct house.

Curfews are very dumb. You can’t draw a line in the sand unless you’re prepared to defend it. If people break curfew, the government looks weak. Such rules breed contempt, not respect, for the law. Americans don’t like being told what to do, where to go, and what time to go there.

And order isn’t maintained by curfews that are unenforceable—or unfairly enforced—in a city of 8 million. Police Commissioner Dermot Shea opposed a curfew on Monday on the Today show. The NYPD department chief, Terence Monahan—who took a knee with protesters in Washington Square Park early Monday night—also said on Monday that he thought a curfew was unnecessary. Mayor de Blasio admitted in his press conference this morning that the curfew is unenforceable, more of an excuse for immediate arrest of criminals. Monahan made much the same point this morning on Today: “Protesters that were still protesting past 8 peacefully we allowed to continue, but when a group of people who were looking to cause mayhem broke off, we were able to take care of them very quickly.”

Mayor de Blasio doesn’t get it that there is a link between commerce being shut and the streets becoming dangerous, regardless of the George Floyd protests. Deserted streets are never safe streets. Taking law-abiding people off the streets leaves more space for criminality; it means those who remain can do what they want with less fear of censure from their fellow citizens. And looting leads store owners to board up storefronts, which in turn suggests that anything is possible, further eroding security.

What makes a city safe? Commerce and the resultant foot traffic by law-abiding citizens.

Last night, the NYPD managed to protect Soho’s stores from a repetition of earlier looting—by the simple expedient of blocking traffic. This could have been done without a curfew. It would be far better—and would not escalate tensions, and would invite far less risk of uneven discriminatory enforcement—if the streets were kept open, stores were allowed to stay open as they wished, and police stood at the ready to deal with problems as they arose.

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