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A Short History of Police Protest

From Calvin Coolidge to Bill de Blasio.

So far, there is no agreed-upon term to describe the precipitous drop in low-level policing by New York law enforcement, a two-week undeclared protest against a mayor many cops believe does not show them due respect. Much coverage has called it a “virtual work stoppage,” a label assigned by the New York Post, where data about the decline in arrests and ticketing was first published – though the term, when deployed in other publications, tends to remain in quotes. Police Commissioner William Bratton has quibbled about terminology, too: “I haven’t used the word ‘slowdown,’” he said. “If that’s what it is, we’ll call it that and deal with it accordingly. We’re not in a public-safety crisis in any shape of the word,” he said.

In 1919, then-Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge sent in militiamen, photographed above, to temporarily replace striking police officers in Boston.

In 1919, then-Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge sent in militiamen, photographed above, to temporarily replace striking police officers in Boston.

One thing it certainly hasn’t been called is a strike. Americans have a robust history of striking – they’ve been at it since before they were even officially Americans – but cops, charged with safeguarding the public, are generally expected to stay at work. When 80 percent of Boston police walked off the job in 1919, the profession’s first major strike, Massachusetts Governor Calvin Coolidge set an unflinching precedent for handling unruly cops: he mustered the state’s militia, restored order, and declared, “There is no right to strike against the public safety by anybody, anywhere, anytime.” Cast as a hard-line defender of law and order, Coolidge was nominated to be Vice President one year later.

New York’s first police job action didn’t happen for another 50 years. In 1971, an estimated 20,000 patrolmen refused to report for duty, citing the so-called “Blue Flu.” They coordinated six sick days, while Mayor John Lindsay – apparently having Coolidge’s unyielding legacy in mind – vowed he would fire the entire police department if it came to that. The union president finally managed to get his ranks into line and call off the strike. But even once the Blue Flu had passed, many bemoaned a systemic cultural change. The Daily News wrote:

The image of the New York cop has changed. No more is there a kindly dedicated officer in blue twirling his nightstick and polishing an apple on his beat. Make way for the new look: the young man interested in high salary, early retirement. Perhaps it was inevitable. The police cruiser took the cop off the street and made him impersonal. Electronics replaced human contact. Job dedication in America in the '60s generally bowed to economic concerns, and the cop wants his own.

The next decade saw a string of police strikes throughout the country – in Baltimore, San Francisco, Cleveland, and New Orleans – many with enduring legacies of their own. San Francisco turned to “patrol specials,” or private police officers, to fill the much-depleted ranks of law enforcement. The vestiges of this arrangement still remain in the city today: public and private cops continue to coexist in a two-tiered system, distinguished by considerable differences in authority, though only subtle differences in uniform. (Regular cop uniforms bear a six-pointed star; special police uniforms have a seven-pointed one.) In New Orleans, the strike is an especially memorable event: 1979 was the year the police effectively cancelled Mardi Gras.

Many of these walk-outs were staged to demand pay increases or better bargaining rights – issues that have yet to be raised in New York’s current stoppage – although it is noteworthy that the police are in contract arbitration. But a strike by Milwaukee police in 1981 bears remarkable similarities to the racial tension and political showdown that have unfolded in recent weeks. In December 1981, two police officers were shot and killed in an alley by a black teenager. In the wake of the killings, Milwaukee Alderman Roy Nabors said in a public statement that the shooting might have been the product of fear: “Anytime a policeman approaches a person in the black community,” he said, “there is that fear.” Milwaukee cops perceived this snippet of Nabors’ statement, which he later argued was taken out of context, as disregard for the loss of police life.

Controversy over police conduct and reform had been simmering in Milwaukee for months. Three cop-involved deaths that year – of a black man in police custody, a businessman accosted during a traffic chase, and a nightclub dancer – had raised concern about police brutality and inflamed tensions between law enforcement and the public. The police union president called one Milwaukee district attorney a “persecutor” for investigating misconduct. This is gentle language, perhaps, compared to officers who have referred to Mayor Bill de Blasio as a “cop hater,” but it was a strong enough sentiment to prompt a department-wide walk-out. There is no record of how many officers participated in the strike, nor any evidence of whether it had any impact on city crime rates; it lasted only 16 hours.

The Milwaukee conflict’s speedy denouement is a sharp contrast to New York’s protracted protest. In Milwaukee, the city council was eager to put the incident in the past: policy makers promised to disavow Nabors’ statement about race relations in the city and agreed not to prosecute officers for illegally walking off the job. No one in New York seems ready to sweep animosity under the rug. This week, cops proved they aren’t shying away when they flouted Police Commissioner Bratton’s entreaty to forgo protest at the latest police funeral, and turned their backs against Mayor de Blasio during his eulogy. For his part, de Blasio is taking pains to sound optimistic. At a press conference this week alongside Bratton, he emphasized the city’s declining crime rate.

And while commentators try to make sense of what they’re calling a “slowdown,” the mayor conjured a rosier picture for the new year: “We will,” he pledged, “build on last year’s momentum.”