Out of character?

Aside from race and politics, two topics this nascent blog has addressed thus far, The Wire also focuses on the organization and machinations of the Baltimore Police Department, with an emphasis on the difficulties created by the department’s chain of command.  Recently, in New York, there was an incident involving the NYPD which caught my eye, not only because it is an example of not being “good police,” but because it seems uncharacteristic of the way I understand responsibilities to be meted out in the vertical hierarchy of a police bureau.

Critical Mass, the regular convening of bicyclists in New York City and beyond, has regularly been subjected to New York’s various methods of police enforcement, ranging from citations and arrests to more aggressive acts of restraint.  Recently, a Critical Mass legal observer — a neutral bystander who accompanies protesters to document any acts of police abuse — was caught in the fray, allegedly being thrown off her moving bike by a police officer and, in the aftermath, being ticketed by the same officer for a fabricated traffic violation.  While the use of physical force by a police officer in the midst of a protest is hardly novel, what was surprising in this case was that the offending officer, Bruce Smolka, was an assistant chief of police and a commanding officer for the Southern District of Manhattan.

If we have learned anything from The Wireabout the internal structure of a major police department, it is that “real” police work — that which happens on the streets, out of the office — is often practiced by officers who are lower in the chain of command.  Hence, McNulty, who is happiest doing work unencumbered by the upper echelons of the police bureaucracy, asks to be placed in the Western district, on foot patrol and away from internal office politics.  Real police work, I imagine, is more physically taxing than being an administrator and, as this case reveals, street-level operations put officers in positions where they have to make decisions that, if chosen poorly, could jeopardize their career ambitions.  Thus, this case of Assistant Chief Smolka seemed strange to me, given the fact that he is so high in the chain of command and could harm his potential upward mobility by engaging in this kind of overly-aggressive riot policing.  Could you imagine any of the police chiefs on The Wireparticipating in this kind of grunt-work and facing retribution from within the department and from outside it?  (Litigation brought by the National Lawyers Guild on behalf of the legal observer is imminent.)

I would be curious to know if anyone has additional information on this case, or if readers think that this sort of street-level policing is, in fact, uncommon for higher officers to partake in. 

Explore posts in the same categories: Police

2 Comments on “Out of character?”

  1. Shoals Says:

    the concept of “real police” is worth getting into, since to me it seemed like the province of detectives. street-level cops are mostly the head-busters, with herc and carver caught between the two worlds (entrenched in one, with a glimmer of a better day). hence mcnulty’s decision seems, in some ways, a retreat from the angst of being “real police” in a system stacked against it.

  2. Murky Says:

    It’s not so surprising to me, especially if the department has made Critical Mass any kind of priority. These guys may be bureaucrats, but at some point they were cops — and probably the tough-guy variety, since that’s part of seems to impress the hierarchy.

    For a related example from the show, I’m thinking of Rawls leading the charge on Hamsterdam. He could easily have had a similar encounter with one of the junkies in that case.

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