They may never jump the barricades, but after their pay, benefits, and job security has been put on the line, they may say 'enough is enough.'
You could make an argument that clashes with police turned the media narrative about Occupy Wall Street from a rabble of confused hippies to a force to be reckoned with. Nate Silver at the New York Times ran the numbers and saw significant spikes in coverage after every run-in, most significantly when innocent protesters were hit with pepper spray and when police were said to lead protesters onto the Brooklyn Bridge only to arrest them in droves. Tension between the NYPD -- and police departments in other cities as the protests have spread -- and protesters continues to run high.
Which is why news that police in Albany refused to arrest protesters, even as the mayor urged them to do so, was so extraordinary. This is the first time that the police haven't simply obeyed orders to round up, pen in, and otherwise intimidate peaceful protesters.
Some (admittedly including myself) have been hoping that the police will cross the barricades and join the protests as soldiers in Tahrir Square did. The idea doesn't always seem so far-fetched. After all, policemen are solidly in the 99%. The median annual wage for a police officer is $55,620; the Wall Street Journal's percentage calculator (which, it should be noted, gives a very limited picture, not taking into account geography, family size, etc.) puts that salary in the 59th percentile. Even the 1% of the police force (okay, the top 10 percent, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn't break it down into that much detail) only falls into the 74th percentile at $83,510 a year.
They're also on the frontlines of post-recession state and city budget cuts. A bunch of states, including New York, are pushing their budget crunches onto cities, who in turn are scrambling to find places to slim down. And many have turned to benefits, pay, and jobs for public workers who had nothing to do with causing the budget holes. After New York Governor Andrew Cuomo decided not to restore $302 million in aid to New York City, Mayor Bloomberg has asked city agencies to find $2 billion in cuts. And he's warned before that the NYPD may have to shrink because of the tight budget. "We cannot afford the size [of the] police force, fire department, of any of these agencies if we have a $400 million deficit," he said in April.
The police force knows that lawmakers have set their sights on it. In fact, when the police in Albany refused to arrest protesters, an official brought this very subject up. "We don't have those resources, and these people were not causing trouble," he said.
This sentiment, of being slimmed down, stretched thin, and now asked to do even more in dealing with the protests, came through when Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones talked to some officers in New York. One officer, Harkinson reports, has
been posted to Occupy Wall Street since Day One, and all the mandatory overtime is wearing him down. "I'm really working hard for this," he says. "I'm getting yelled at, I'm getting cursed out; I'd rather be at home with my family right now." ... [He] has seen his retirement fund cut in half by a declining stock market, from $40,000 to $20,000. He worries that his kids won't be able to afford college or find jobs. And he's frustrated about not being able to talk about it openly.
While policemen are being asked to work harder to curb the protests, their benefits, pay, and even job security are all being put at risk.
This fantasy that I harbor that the police will jump over their own lines and join the Occupiers may never actually come to pass. Allison Kilkenny is very doubtful. "I've just seen cops violently collide with protesters too many times to imagine a world where the folks in blue and activists join hands in a circle and together skip under a rainbow," she writes. And she may very well be right. As she points out, there will always be a cop, like Anthony Bologna, who is unnecessarily vicious, and there will always be a protester who yells slurs at police. But maybe what happened in Albany is the compromise. Given their decreased resources and upped hours, police may simply refuse to enforce unnecessary crackdowns. They were already stretched to the limit because of tight budgets, and now they're being asked to do even more to curb the protests. No wonder the police in Albany felt enough was enough.
Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.