NEW YORK - Nationwide, this flu season looks to be the worst in many years. And here in the Big Apple, the flu has been especially ferocious, felling almost an entire class of workers: the employees of the New York Police Department.
I'm referring to the local strain of "blue flu," which occurs when discontented police officers simultaneously call in "sick" because they're legally barred from striking. But in an interesting twist on the old strategy, NYPD officers - dedicated public servants that they are - have essentially chosen to work while "sick." In a sort of walking-pneumonia version of blue flu, they're apparently clocking in despite being so ailed that they can't seem to do their jobs properly.
For two weeks now - since the despicable, vigilante-style execution of two colleagues - police have essentially stopped enforcing the law. They've halved their arrest rates and all but ceased issuing tickets or court summonses. During the week ending Sunday, for example, DWI arrests were down to 70 from 231 during the same period a year earlier. Just 22 people were arrested or ticketed for jumping a subway turnstile, compared with almost 1,400 a year ago.
Everything about this seemingly coordinated (in)action has been disorienting, starting with the fact that no one wants to take credit for it. Labor leaders have denied organizing the slowdown, blaming it instead on safety precautions such as doubling up on patrol cars. And in contrast with your standard sickout, typically motivated by contract negotiations or some similarly concrete dispute, it's not clear what the cops' actual demands are. Plenty has been written about how officers feel underappreciated by protesters, the mayor and the bean counters who rely on police-issued tickets for city revenue. But unlike a wage hike or more generous pension, wanting to be loved is not exactly an actionable demand.
Rhetorical bedfellows have also been newly, and peculiarly, rearranged.
You have conservative pundits such as Bill O'Reilly - typically so condemnatory of government waste - pretzeling themselves to cheer on public workers who are being deliberately unproductive. Then you have a pro-labor mayor condemning what seem to be multiple coordinated labor actions. Add a police commissioner who is one of the foremost proponents of the "broken windows" theory - the idea that aggressively pursuing petty law-breaking creates a sense of order and prevents more serious crime - offering potential excuses for why it's not such a big deal that cops have stopped enforcing certain laws. To add to the confusion, commentators who usually disparage broken-windows policing as an excuse to harass and shake down poor minorities - such as the late Eric Garner - are criticizing the police for failing to execute such policies.
The reactions of the people the cops are supposed to serve and protect have been equally fractured, with some fearing for their safety and others celebrating the fact that they're being hassled less often. Presumably the only party unambivalently pleased is the city's committed, and newly less fettered, criminal element.
In other words, thousands of public servants appear to be slacking off, and no one can agree on what it means, what their objective is or even whether it's good or bad for social justice and public safety. Though you can bet recent events will launch a raft of bad academic studies trying to answer that last question.
I am conflicted about the fact that police are turning a blind eye to (mostly petty and nonviolent) crime, particularly since many low-level fines and tickets exist not just for broken-windows reasons but also because they provide highly regressive back-door taxes. That said, it's the role of elected representatives and voters to decide whether such policies serve the public interest and to change them if they don't - not for police officers to unilaterally, and undemocratically, nullify existing law.
But I am most disappointed by many cops' willingness to draw a paycheck while not doing their jobs. If they're trying to send a message by not working, whatever they decide that message is, perhaps they should save taxpayers some money and just go on strike. Of course, under New York law, striking by public workers is illegal and can be punished with two days' wages docked for every day on strike (a penalty cops endured when they struck in 1971). But these workers are already breaking the law by choosing not to enforce it. How about manning up and putting their money where their mouths are?
Catherine Rampell is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.