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The bigger problem revealed by a viral fight between NYC police and subway riders

The altercation in New York City highlights a deeper problem — and mask mandates are a canary in the coal mine.

On Tuesday, a man named Andrew Gilbert approached two New York police officers in a Manhattan subway station and asked why they weren’t wearing masks, in accordance with police department and city public transit policy. As bystanders filmed, the unmasked officers forced Gilbert off the platform through an emergency exit door. Video of the incident has been viewed close to three million times.

While the video is striking, the behavior it illustrates has been going on for well over a year now. Americans riding public transit, shopping in stores, and walking on the street have repeatedly asked why are so many officers not wearing a cloth covering medical officials have proven can reduce the likelihood of transmitting Covid-19? (The trend is so prevalent it has inspired Twitter accounts.)

It’s bad enough that mask mandates seemingly do not apply to the officers often tasked with enforcing them. But the altercation in New York City highlights a deeper problem: The way police seek to penalize or harass anyone who dares question the unofficial and ultra-legal privileges of being an officer.

Mask mandates are a canary in the coal mine. If there is no plausible way to get all officers to wear a small strip of fabric that does quantifiable good for the public, what does that say about the institution as a whole? Who really controls police?

We’re told that police are there to protect and serve the public. It’s written on the side of police cars and on badges across the country. And yet, when it comes to mask and vaccine mandates, both of which experts say limit the spread of a pandemic, these words ring particularly hollow. In cities like Los Angeles or states like Oregon, police and state troopers are willing to face fines or firing in order to avoid getting a vaccine.

In an act of cosmic irony, police really do not like being told what to do.

In an act of cosmic irony, police really do not like being told what to do. For a profession that continues to claim that obedience provides a magic armor that will prevent motorists and pedestrians from being injured by police, some members of law enforcement feel emboldened to disregard orders, policies, and laws with aplomb.

Covid has punctuated this reality, but it is not a recent phenomenon. For as long as commissioners and mayors have been giving orders, police have resisted them if they have contradicted their understanding of the job or their vision of themselves.

In 1917, New York City Police Commissioner Arthur Woods publicly toyed with the idea of requiring police officers to wear wrist watches. Chaos ensued. What began with a trifling suggestion in an attempt to make paperwork more accurate ended in revolt.

Some officers joked to the press that if required to wear a wristwatch, they would wear them hidden above the elbow or strapped to the small of their back. Others chaffed at the idea that the commissioner, a political appointee and not a uniformed officer, would dare to try to impose reforms on the rank and file. One officer harkened back to the romanticized earlier days of policing, claiming that the manly patrolmen of the past would reject watches as being “dandy-ish” and a sign of weakness. “Why, every gang on the beat,” he said, “would be waiting for you to beat you up.” This small reform chafed against officer’s image of themselves as tough and unrestrained.

The officer concluded by telling journalists, “When they put that rule into effect I guess I’ll ask to retire.”

One century and two pandemics later, police are still resistant to top-down orders that interfere with their vision and image. The politics of police and their unions have also become more entrenched and strongly partisan. Watches don’t benefit the public good in the same way masks do, but still the rebellion continues. In Los Angeles, New York, Kansas City and a number of other cities, mayors, governors, and commissioners have pleaded with officers to follow mask mandates. But as we can see, these calls can be ignored.

And the idea that police reforms can be ignored is quantifiably dangerous. In July 2014, State Island resident Eric Garner was killed by a police officer using a chokehold the New York City Police Department banned in 1993. Around the country, bans of chokeholds going back decades have not impeded their continued use. Similar bans on shooting at moving vehicles have also been ignored, as was the case in the police killing Sean Bell in 2006.

Police officers, and their union leaders, appear able to resist changes to policing and policy, in part because of accumulated political power — and because of the ace up their sleeve. Police can always threaten that if pushed too far into change or reform, they can walk off the job — prompting fears that cities would descend into chaos. It’s why police are invested in perpetuating the notion that people are constantly in danger, and that they are the only institution that can provide relief. It’s also why, despite calls for serious police reform, police department budgets universally increased in 2021.

Cities have found themselves in a Catch-22: they have underfunded alternative institutions designed to address public well-being to the extent that police are often the only branch of government able to respond to calls for service. That gives them considerable leverage over the democratically elected people who run cities and it's why so many elected officials seem powerless to enact any street-level change whatsoever.

It’s unclear if anything can contain the conduct of police on the street. If policy, laws, and pleas from superiors and elected officials have, historically and in the current moment, had little impact, what is the public to do? The hard lesson may be that policing as an institution is perhaps too politically entrenched, too resistant and too subject to inertia to be reformed.