Last week, a pedestrian walking through Times Square in New York stumbled upon the monthly Critical Mass demonstration, where legions of cyclists take to the streets en masse to raise awareness about transportation alternatives. Typical of a tourist in Times Square seeing something interesting, this pedestrian whipped out their cell phone and began shooting video. However, the pedestrian did not expect to witness a police officer violently shoving a cyclist off his bike and sprawling onto the ground. Naturally, like any good Gen-Y technophile, the pedestrian quickly uploaded the clip to Youtube (1.4 million hits and counting).
The cop involved in the skirmish, which I shall dub “Shovegate,” is a 22 year-old rookie. He’s also a 3rd-generation police officer (not sure if the chip on his shoulder is genetic). Initial reports of the cyclist being held in precinct jail for 26 hours were unfounded, thankfully. The police officer’s official report is perhaps the most audacious part of the whole thing, in which the cop cites that “the defendant steered [his] bicycle… directly into [the cop’s] body, causing [the cop] to fall to the ground and… suffer lacerations.” Clearly this cop had heard the old adage long revered by police officers on power trips: “never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Not surprisingly, days after the video surfaced he was placed on “modified assignment” and was told to turn in his gun and badge.
This kind of modern-day muckraking, where Average Joes with cell phones can become today’s Abraham Zapruder, must’ve tipped off somebody at the New York Police Department. “Hey, wait a second. Why don’t we set up a program where people citizens can send video of crime [subtext: police brutality] to the NYPD?” Well, now you can. In the aftermath of Shovegate, Police Commish Ray Kelly declared that within two months any John or Jane Q. Serpico will be able to send video or photos of criminal activity directly to the 911 number. On top of that, this past Wednesday the Police Department unveiled a new service where concerned residents can text anonymous tips to police officers.
This is a great move. The NYPD has effectively deputized everyone in the city. This isn’t a local phenomenon either; Boston’s PD has a similar anonymous text-messaging-tips program. And why shouldn’t it? It works. Law enforcement agencies have realized that for many young people (including criminals) text messaging has replaced traditional phone conversations as the primary means of communication. Some critics have called this an amateurish and knee-jerk move by the NYPD in particular, saying that text messaging can never replace a good old 911 call. Clearly this is the case, but the text messaging service isn’t trying to supplant 911 – rather, it’s trying to bolster it. Texting and uploading criminal evidence helps remind citizens that they are part of the social contract that creates the police department in the first place. The new programs remind citizens that sometimes, it’s necessary to take the law into their own hands – and pockets, and purses, and backpacks…