People around the country, including New Yorkers, are calling for major policing reforms in response to perceived abuse, most vividly illustrated by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Some activists are demanding that police departments be abolished entirely, others insist on radical “defunding” of police budgets, and others suggest more modest reforms.
Here in New York, even as we debate big policy changes at the intersection of racism and policing, there’s a concrete step we could take soon to attack the impunity with which some officers behave. Placard abuse may sound picayune, but it’s not.
Placard abuse is a set of common practices associated with the special parking permits given to city employees. It ranges from minor to serious, highly visible violations of the law that leave the public wondering, Which other laws are our public servants flouting?
The behavior includes using illegal license plate covers to escape traffic safety cameras; using placards outside of business hours; the sale of counterfeit placards or paid PBA union cards for “special friends” of the NYPD; and the general practice of parking private and city-owned vehicles on sidewalks and in bus and bike lanes.
This is all done without regard to the law, and negatively affects the quality of MTA bus service, the safety of cyclists and pedestrians forced into general traffic lanes, and the public interest generally. While Mayor de Blasio has railed against the issuance of easily abused parking placards for some time, he’s also entrenched placards by extending them to thousands more insiders.
The abuse by cops of parking placards is an unambiguous example of low-level yet blatant corruption that suggests a lack of public sector and police accountability. Significant, yet incremental, reforms like transferring the Traffic Enforcement Division from NYPD to NYC’s Department of Transportation could be worth exploring to align those who set the rules of the road with those who enforce the rules of the road — and thereby unbundle from police responsibility a civil enforcement activity that does not inherently require police involvement.
Placards are a highly corruptible perk that signal a general culture of venality. It is well established in global development literature that widespread, low-level corruption is worse for governance overall as it erodes trust and tears the social contract. It also signals that public servants can get away with more corruption too; for this reason, NY1’s Errol Louis actually calls placard abuse a “gateway drug.”
Louis correctly makes an explicit connection in these pages between placard abuse and broken windows policing, which, as controversial as it may be today, argues that tolerating low-level abuse and disorder signals a tolerance for more and greater criminal behavior. In this case, that low-level abuse is coming from public servants themselves. No public servants, but especially not those charged with upholding the law, should be above the law.
The Knapp Commission of the early 1970s exposed mass, low-level corruption throughout the NYPD, generally in the form of small cash bribes that cops would accept to overlook violations. Though each bribe was relatively petty, the aggregate cost to the city in lack of trust in the police department was immense. Reforms eliminated much of the minor graft that used to be considered routine in New York City, paving the way for the policing revolution of later decades.
Reform works. The number of people killed by the police nationally is declining. In New York City, careful training and the promulgation of use-of-force rules have made the city safer and broadly reduced the rate of violent interactions between police and the public. Majorities of all backgrounds unambiguously support community policing and better training, not abolition of police departments.
As that work proceeds, here in New York, we should immediately move to quash the abuse of parking placards by public employees who are supposed to uphold the law. Transferring traffic enforcement to the Department of Transportation is a good first step.
This piece originally appeared at New York Daily News