Friday, May 7, 2010

Times Square: Some Early Lessons Learned

I'd like to say a few quiet words in praise of a group of people who are very hard to like -- the New York City police force.  I spend a fair amount of time in the Apple and I'm here to tell you that they've got that NYC 'tude: As a rule, they're angry, abrupt, and none too dainty about their language.

But when it matters, they're everything they should be.

Obviously, I was inspired to write this post by the Times Square incident when a street vendor noticed smoke coming from a parked SUV, flagged down a policeman, and the cop knew what to do and did it and another national trauma was averted.  But I wasn't surprised by that one whit.

I already knew that "the city so nice they named it twice" was not only the most appealing target in the USA for terrorists but the best prepared because I was driving there when what looked at the time to be a terrorist incident occurred.  It was actually a steam line explosion that sent a terrifying flume of smoke into the air, but it made me feel a whole lot better about the people paid to protect us.  Or at least those in New York City.

Here's how it happened:

I was in Manhattan and headed out of town when I stopped at a red light.  There was a cop in the intersection directing traffic.  I stopped and, idly staring forward, thought, Gee, this is a hard-charging town; everybody is walking really fast.  Then I thought, and they're all walking in the same direction!

Everybody was hurrying to the right, uptown.  The cop turned left, downtown, in the direction of the explosion, and said, "Shit."

Then he ran straight towards the explosion.

That's the stuff.  A year or two after 9/11, there was a major terrorist exercise in Harrisburg, PA.  Because it was the first such exercise ever attempted, they began simply.  The state police and other first responders were told it was coming, but not when, and the general outlines of the scenario. Then they ran it.

Nobody showed up.  Out here in the hinterlands, nobody takes terrorism seriously.  It can't happen here, they think, and they're probably right.  In NYC they take it very seriously indeed, because they know it can and has and probably will.  And they respond the way you hope to God your protectors would if it were your life on the line.

So, yeah, the NYPD . . . nobody you'd want to tangle with.  But good guys when it counts.



David Stone said...

When my wife (who is from China) first came to the US she was a little surprised to learn that people here look up to the police and often consider them to be heroes, even when they have not had to react to an extreme situation. I think the majority of places in the US are lucky to have some real stand up people watching over them.

Matthew Brandi said...

Here in the UK, I think WW2 (before my time--my mother was born during a V1 attack, or so my grandmother liked to claim) and the 'military' aspect of Irish republicanism have made us rather blasé about bombs: when government worries about their providing hiding places for IRA bombs led to the removal of bins from tube stations, we were against it--where were we to put our trash?

We're not so sanguine about coppers--institutionally and individually--, and now that they're more likely to carry guns (and other 'upgraded' weaponry), we're even more wary of them. Seeing a man in uniform carrying a submachine gun through the middle of London scared the pants off of me.

Maybe it's a class thing, maybe our lords and masters think the guns will never be pointed at them, and are less worried.

Anyway, I ramble. All I'd meant to say was that it is not clear that the effectiveness of an institution is determined by the moral worth of its functionaries. Is capital punishment any more effective, if the executioner is a 'stand-up guy'?

One might also doubt that the properties we're glad people in certain rôles have are all moral virtues: one might think that it is a good thing that soldiers kill on command without thinking that a good person kills on command. (The virtues of a screwdriver are not moral virtues, even if it is a good thing that there are effective screwdrivers.)

Michael Swanwick said...

These are extremely thoughtful comments and I couldn't respond adequately to them without putting in the kind of work that I normally reserve for projects that will bring in money.

I will say that the experience in the US is that the closer police adhere to Robert Peel's original model, the more successful they have been. And that the times they've been reimagined as a fast-response urban military strike force have been disasters.

Also that it looks like old-fashioned police work has captured more honest-to-God terrorists than all the Homeland-defending, self-aggrandizing anti-terror forces put together.

But that last is just my opinion. I freely admit to not having access to the numbers, whatever thy might be.

Matthew Brandi said...

Obviously, no attack was meant on any US police force, and none on any members of any US police force. Not because I defend them, but because I'm not qualified to judge them.

I just wanted to kick against the human resistance to judging an institution and its officers independently: a useful & well-run institution need not be staffed by especially virtuous individuals, and a group of individually worthy people might make up a shambolic and useless organisation.

That's not to say that individual virtue & vice never count for anything, of course.

If you've skepticism about 'special measures' to deal with terrorists, I share it.

Matthew Adams said...

In Australia I work for the government in the Disability sector as a residential care officer (RCO), which is just a fancy name for carer, or care giver. We focus on those who have intellectual impairment, not physical (though often they have both). We are being swamped by all these new policies reqarding the rights of the individuals we are looking after, and how we are to look after them. The ideas behind a lot of these policies are good and very worthwhile, and most of the RCO's, being people who have a caring nature and general dispositon to giving people the best chance they can, are trying in their work to live up to the policy. But this is what becomes the problem in the end. Instead of just caring for our clients, we have to now focus on policy practices.

We have become like the New Testament Pharisees, so intent on keeping the outward law, we have forgotten the heart or reason behind the law. And as long as we follow the outward aspects of the policy, we can happily use the loop holes in the policy to practice abuse, all the while proudly claiming "I have kept the law!"

In fact, policy is the ladder which many of the least skillful RCO's use to climb up the ranks.

Maybe the cops in New york are just getting on with their job, while the >>>Homeland-defending, self-aggrandizing anti-terror forces<<< are living up to their policy.

Michael Swanwick said...

I forget who it was who said, "You should never underestimate the police, because they're operating from hundreds of years of experience." But let's be honest, the DHS is making it up as they go along.

Matthew Brandi said...

Or maybe--and just maybe--the Department of Homeland Security is there to meet a psychological need (the need to do something high-profile & unpleasant?), rather than to serve a practical purpose.

Neil_in_Chicago said...

As a native Chicagoan, I will stay out of the direct discussion of police, except to point out that "police" generally conflates two only loosely related mindsets. I use the terms "peace officers" and "law officers". Your original post was about an example of the former; the less positive of the responses dealt with the latter.

It bears repeating that the person who first noticed the smoke in Times Square and began to raise the alarm was a Muslim immigrant . . .