I heard on the radio this morning that 1,400 police officers took part in an operation to shut down Occupy Los Angeles. When I got online I saw the now-familiar images of riot police dragging away unarmed campers. Heavy equipment was hauled out to remove protesters who fled into trees. Meanwhile, on the other coast, a massive show of police force resulted in another crackdown on illegal camping in Philadelphia. That raid on Occupy protesters resulted in injuries, including one induced by a police horse.
I’m becoming accustomed to these excesses of police force and to the outrage I feel as a result. But this morning, when I heard the sheer number of police involved in the effort, it suddenly struck me what a complete recklessness of public resources goes into these operations.
Imagine, instead, if 1,400 police officers were deployed to clear a neighborhood of violent crime. I used to live in a neighborhood in Detroit that had far worse problems to overcome than tents going up without permits. Friends and neighbors were beaten, burgled, kidnapped, raped, and gunned down. I remember the first time I was there when drive-by shooting occurred on my block. The shooter missed the mark. My roommates—two people who are paragons of virtue and have a deeper sense of civic responsibility than almost anyone else I know—just went about their business. “Should we call the police?” I exclaimed.
They shrugged. “If you want. I mean, it’s not like it will hurt anything to call them,” said one.
“It’s really unlikely they will come out, though,” said the other.
At the time, I was naively shocked. But I learned that it was true. Even when the criminals don’t miss their mark, the police take an extremely long time to arrive. When my elderly co-worker was beaten and robbed right outside the office, it took so long for the police to arrive that it she eventually decided it was more important to go to the hospital than to sit around and wait. Even when an officer met her there, she wasn’t able to file any paperwork. Instead, she had to take off work to go to the precinct the next day, where she filled out forms that would clearly never be viewed by another person—except for the insurance company. She needed a copy of the form to prove to the insurance company that she really had been robbed and thus needed replacement medication.
You might think that the police are just too overwhelmed to respond. That would be a charitable view. At one point, my neighborhood was suffering from a stunning string of breaking and entering. Almost every day, another home was broken into. In fact, my own home was entered by the burglar, but my neighbor saw him and ran in to chase him out. With another neighbor, they attempted to catch him as he ran down the street, but he escaped. The spree went on for weeks until, foolishly, the burglar broke into the home of our state representative. Suddenly, when Mr. Big Name (who was actually a good guy) called to report that he was the victim of a crime, the police took a series of unprecedented steps. These might seem like ordinary and routine steps if your main interaction with police comes from watching crime shows, but I assure each of these action represented a minor miracle. They included:
- Police officers returned the victim’s call!
- Police officers came to his home—at a time they arranged to be convenient for him—to take evidence. They even took fingerprints!
- They assigned police to solve the crime.
Within two days, they caught the culprits and the string of burglaries stopped.
I know for a fact that in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Oakland, Portland, New York, Denver, and the other cities where police have turned out in force to break up protesters, there are neighborhoods suffering from a lot of violent crime. Just like my neighborhood in Detroit (and my neighborhood was not hardly the toughest neighborhood you could live in), people are trying to raise families, eke out a living, and enjoy life. But every day, they face the risk of physical harm befalling them or their families. These are good communities, and they shouldn’t have to deal with this level of crime.
So when I hear that 1,400 police officers are dispatched to break up the heinous crime of camping without a permit, it shows me who the police are really working for. The people who give the orders, from the mayor on down, don’t have to live with the consequences of taking resources out of poor neighborhoods and into political repression. If they cared about the average citizen the way they care about the people who work in the financial districts (who often live in suburbs instead of in the cities themselves), they would put the riot gear on the shelf, get out into the communities to talk to people, and then they would set to solving crimes as if the people who live in the city—and not corporations—are actually people.