A brief defense of Bill DeBlasio

He may not be a good mayor, but he is right about hate speech and the role of police in our society.

In response to recent attacks targeted against Asian-Americans, New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio recently suggested that the NYPD should do something about it:

The mayor went on to add:

One of the things officers are trained to do is to give warnings. If someone has done something wrong, but not rising to a criminal level, it’s perfectly appropriate for an NYPD officer to talk to them to say, “That was not appropriate, and if you did that on a higher level, that would be a crime.”

Bill is getting blasted on Twitter for this take by basically everyone, but especially by anti-woke people, right-of-center commentators, and even by cops and ex-cops with whom I usually agree:

I don’t like Bill DeBlasio. I think he’s a wet noodle of a mayor, I think his criminal justice policies have largely been terrible, and I think he bears a substantial amount of blame for rising crime and public disorder in New York City. But when you logged onto The Graham Factor for the first time, it warned you that there were contrarian takes to be found, and this is one of them: DeBlasio is right.

Police exist to solve social problems

I won’t rehash my entire article about how police should do more than just enforce the law. (Although if you haven’t read that article yet, please start there.) But DeBlasio’s suggestion is entirely in line with my own thinking about the role of police in our society, and the outraged reactions to his suggestion are an excellent example of the hyper-legalistic thinking about policing that has so come to dominate both elite discourse and the profession itself. DeBlasio is not a fascist for suggesting that police ought to reinforce important community norms via non-criminal intervention.

Let’s imagine DeBlasio’s idea in a slightly different context: Imagine that a white person in your community was regularly using the “N-Word” on social media or in public places like a school or community center. Would we have a problem with a teacher, employer, pastor, parent, or other non-police authority figure stepping in to intervene? I feel confident that most of us would not. But we live in a post-industrial, urbanized society with declining levels of social capital. Many people do not have the kind of relationship with an employer, pastor, or parent that might have once allowed for this kind of informal social control. So if police don’t say something, who will?

Or imagine that you are standing on the street, and see a white person yelling racial slurs at a person of color as they stand at a bus stop. You then look across the street and see a uniformed police officer standing there. Yelling racial slurs on a public sidewalk is free speech. What do you want that cop to do? Do you want him to step in and say something? Or do you want him to wait until an actual crime has been committed? I want that cop to intervene and say “Hey you! We’re living in a society! Quit being a jerk.” Maybe it won’t work. But it’s better than doing nothing.

What about the First Amendment?

Some people might argue that this has a chilling effect on hate speech, to which I reply: Yes, it would. And this is not a problem. Reasonable people might disagree about what constitutes “hate speech” and that is a legitimate concern. But even the biggest free speech advocates agree that some behavior (i.e., white people yelling the n-word at a Black person) is totally unacceptable. And I think that a friendly warning from an authority figure is much less draconian than being forced out of your career over teenaged tweets. To the extent some people are rightfully concerned about an overly-loose definition of hate speech, the solution is to develop a better definition.

To be clear: I’m not suggesting that police should arrest people who say hateful but non-criminal things. I’m not suggesting they should even threaten to arrest them. Police should not detain, threaten, investigate, or use force on people who are not committing a criminal act. But that’s not what DeBlasio was suggesting either. He was just suggesting that police should politely inform those who engage in hate speech that at a certain point, it can cross the line into criminal harassment. This is nothing more than an accurate statement of the law in New York State.

When I last wrote about policing and discretion, I wrote about how I and another officer informally warned a registered sex offender who was behaving in a suspicious (but non-criminal) manner. An insightful critic argued that by behaving in this manner, police effectively substitute their own values for society’s values, which are reflected in the statutes adopted by the legislature. I responded:

Statutes often [reflect society’s values] in a way that influences police behavior without commanding it. For example, we had a mandatory arrest law for domestic violence in my state. I made a lot of DV arrests that were mandatory, but I also made a lot more DV arrests that weren't mandatory, because I understood (and was taught in training and by supervisors) that the policy of the state and city was to crack down on domestic violence. The same is true for sex offenders: I feel entirely comfortable that my decision to put extra scrutiny on a sex offender was in line with the values of my (mostly left-leaning) community, in part because the statutes already provided for extensive surveillance of sex offenders.

This same logic applies to non-criminal hate speech. We don’t criminalize hate speech itself, but we do impose more severe penalties on criminals who are motivated by racial, sexual, religious, or other animus. New York City actually has an entire office dedicated to preventing hate crimes. These statutes and systems reflect, in part, our very reasonable concern that hate speech might presage an actual hate crime. So an NYPD officer who verbally warns someone spewing hate speech is not substituting his own values for the community’s - he is using his position of authority to reinforce the community’s values, making it a better place to live.

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DeBlasio’s other failings

A more trenchant criticism of DeBlasio’s comment might be that when it comes to problem-oriented policing, he is remarkably inconsistent. For example, at the height of the pandemic last summer, he decided that the NYPD would no longer enforce mask mandates. So apparently he’s fine with police addressing some kinds of anti-social behavior but not others, which lends itself to serious questions about why he would want police to take on this particular job.

And in the grand scheme of things, NYPD probably cannot practically do what DeBlasio is talking about here. Their budget was recently cut by a billion dollars. They are facing a record wave of retirements. Murders and shootings are on the rise. And as I discussed previously, truly problem-oriented policing would require other substantial changes in patrol strategy that seem unlikely to happen in this day and age.

But in my ideal world? Police issuing warnings in response to non-criminal but unacceptable behavior would be the norm - not cause for widespread outrage.