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Friday, January 16, 2015

Michael C. Dorf: Civilian Control of the Police

Civilian Control of the Police 

in NYC


Roman emperors formally staked their power on Senate recognition, but in practice their authority depended on support from the legions and the Praetorian Guard. Despite its republican traditions, in its imperial phase, Rome was a dictatorship—sometimes a benevolent one, but a dictatorship nonetheless—because truly representative government demands civilian control of state force. For that reason, Article II of the U.S. Constitution makes the President, a civilian, Commander in Chief of the armed forces.

As with the nation, so with its parts. Thus, recent actions by a not inconsiderable number of New York Police Department (NYPD) officers to challenge the authority of Mayor Bill de Blasio by refusing to enforce the law should raise loud alarms. Police officers are entitled to express pointed disagreement with their civilian leaders, but when that disagreement crosses the line into defiance, democracy itself is threatened.

The Underlying Dispute

In considering where to draw the line between permissible protest and mutiny, it is important to set aside the substance of the underlying disagreement. That may be difficult to do in this instance, because the position of protesting NYPD officers is, not to put too fine a point on it, ugly.

Consider the now-infamous statement of NYC Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch that Mayor de Blasio had “blood on his hands” for the murder of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu by a man who may have drawn some inspiration from anti-police-brutality protesters but was clearly a dangerous and deranged criminal.

What, exactly, did de Blasio do to render himself culpable in the killing of Ramos and Liu in the eyes of Lynch and his supporters? In the wake of a Staten Island grand jury’s failure to issue an indictment for the choking death of Eric Garner, de Blasio had the temerity to speak the indisputable truth that young African American men like his own son are at elevated risk in encounters with the police. De Blasio has repeatedly acknowledged the difficult and dangerous work that police do, but that was not enough to satisfy Lynch, who sees police–civilian interactions in Manichean terms: Because de Blasio does not offer all NYPD officers 100 percent backing in everything they do, Lynch denounces him.

Legitimate Speech

Police Chief William Bratton and some supporters of Mayor de Blasio have criticized the NYPD officers who turned their backs on the mayor at the funerals for Ramos and Liu on the ground that they were exploiting a tragedy to make a political point. That is a legitimate criticism of the officers’ judgment, but the officers were within their rights to exercise bad judgment or even to give offense. Although not entirely analogous, the Supreme Court’s 2011 ruling in Snyder v. Phelps underscores the proposition that the First Amendment protects offensive speech, even offensive speech that aims to use a funeral for political purposes.

More broadly, police officers have a right to speak out on matters of public concern, even if doing so could be seen as somewhat undermining the authority of their civilian leaders.

As a Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in the 1892 case of McAuliffe v. Mayor of New Bedford that a plaintiff who had been fired from his position as a police officer “may have a constitutional right to talk politics, but he has no constitutional right to be a policeman.” Yet constitutional law long ago rejected the Holmesian view that the state may, as a condition of employment, suppress otherwise protected speech.

Under the modern employee speech doctrine, public employees do not forfeit their right to speak as citizens on matters of public concern simply by virtue of accepting a government job. Government may not suppress such speech by its employees unless doing so is necessary to the effective provision of services.

The NYPD officers who turned their backs on Mayor de Blasio were expressing an odious view, but they were nonetheless “speaking” as citizens on a matter of public concern. And while the incidents caused embarrassment to the mayor, the police commissioner, and others, they did not interfere with the provision of police protection in any clear way.

To see why the First Amendment protects NYPD officers in expressing their displeasure with the mayor, imagine that they were making a different point. Suppose that in the wake of the Garner non-indictment, the mayor gave a public speech praising the NYPD for its aggressive use of force, and that some officers turned their backs at that speech. Surely many of the people who now condemn the NYPD officers for their treatment of Mayor de Blasio would praise the hypothetical officers for their courage in confronting their leaders, for speaking truth to power.

An Illegal Strike

Police officers also have a legal right to another kind of speech. They can organize to form a union that, in turn, can collectively bargain on their behalf. Some of the issues that are legitimately subject to collective bargaining are also matters of public policy. For example, whether police must be outfitted with body cameras is both a matter of working conditions for the police and civil rights of the public.

But New York law generally denies to public employees the right to strike. Whatever the merits of the general provision, the reason for the prohibition of police strikes is obvious. A strike in some other sector may cause financial losses and public inconvenience, but a strike by the police threatens the very foundation of government.

The NYPD are not formally on strike, but over the last several weeks, the number of arrests and tickets for relatively minor offenses as well as some not-so-minor offenses (such as gun possession and drunk driving) reportedly declined substantially. Although there is no clear evidence of a coordinated refusal by police to enforce the law, the same report (a New York Timesstory) indicates at least informal coordination. Call it a stealth strike.

Whether overt or covert, a police strike is dangerous and illegal. Where, as appears to be true here, the tacit strike threatens the public safety unless elected leaders give in to the strikers’ policy demands, democracy itself is under attack. There is no place in New York or America for a Praetorian Guard.

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Michael C. Dorf, a Justia columnist, is the Robert S. Stevens Professor of Law at Cornell University Law School and the principal author of The Oxford Introductions to U.S. Law: Constitutional Law. He blogs at

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

David L. Kirp on the National Opposition To Common Core

David Kirp
Rage Against the Common Core


STARTING in the mid-1990s, education advocates began making a simple argument: National education standards will level the playing field, assuring that all high school graduates are prepared for first-year college classes or rigorous career training.

While there are reasons to doubt that claim — it’s hard to see how Utah, which spends less than one-third as much per student as New York, can offer a comparable education — the movement took off in 2008, when the nation’s governors and education commissioners drove a huge effort to devise “world-class standards,” now known as the Common Core.

Although the Obama administration didn’t craft the standards, it weighed in heavily, using some of the $4.35 billion from the Race to the Top program to encourage states to adopt not only the Common Core (in itself, a good thing) but also frequent, high-stakes testing (which is deeply unpopular). The mishandled rollout turned a conversation about pedagogy into an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing. The misconception that standards and testing are identical has become widespread.

At least four states that adopted the Common Core have opted out. Republican governors who initially backed the standards condemn them as “shameless government overreach.”

Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican and a onetime supporter of the Common Core, sued his own state and the United States Department of Education to block the standards from taking effect. When Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, recently announced his decision to “actively explore” a 2016 run for the White House, he ran into a buzz saw of opposition because of his embrace of the Common Core.

Rebellions have also sprouted in Democratic-leaning states. Last spring, between 55,000 and 65,000 New York State students opted out of taking tests linked to the Common Core. Criticizing these tests as “unproven,” the Chicago schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, declared that she didn’t want her students to take them.

In a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll conducted last spring, 57 percent of public school parents opposed “having teachers in your community use the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach,” nearly double the proportion of those who supported the goals. With the standards, the sheer volume of high-stakes standardized testing has ballooned. “The numbers and consequences of these tests have driven public opinion over the edge,” notes Robert A. Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest.

Students are terrified by these tests because the results can jeopardize their prospects for advancement and graduation. In New York, the number of students who scored “proficient” plummeted by about 30 percentage points in 2013, the first year of testing. Some 70 percent scored below the cutoff level in math and English; the 2014 results in math were modestly better, but the English language scores didn’t budge.

Many teachers like the standards, because they invite creativity in the classroom — instead of memorization, the Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving. But they complain that test prep and test-taking eat away weeks of class time that would be better focused on learning.

A Gallup poll found that while 76 percent of teachers favored nationwide academic standards for reading, writing and math, only 27 percent supported using tests to gauge students’ performance, and 9 percent favored making test scores a basis for evaluating teachers. Such antagonism is well founded — researchers have shown that measurements of the “value” teachers add, as determined by comparing test scores at the beginning and end of the year, are unreliable and biased against those who teach both low- and high-achieving students.

The Obama administration has only itself to blame. Most Democrats expected that equity would be the top education priority, with more money going to the poorest states, better teacher recruitment, more useful training and closer attention to the needs of the surging population of immigrant kids. Instead, the administration has emphasized high-stakes “accountability” and market-driven reforms. The Education Department has invested more than $370 million to develop the new standards and exams in math, reading and writing.

Questioning those priorities can bring reprisals. During the search earlier this year for a New York City schools chancellor, Education Secretary Arne Duncan lobbied against Joshua P. Starr, the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md., in part because he had proposed a three-year hiatus on high-stakes standardized testing.
Last year, Mr. Duncan said that opposition to the Common Core standards had come from “white suburban moms who realize — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”

He has only recently changed his cavalier tune, acknowledging, “Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy and cause unnecessary stress.”

It’s no simple task to figure out what schools ought to teach and how best to teach it — how to link talented teachers with engaged students and a challenging curriculum. Turning around the great gray battleship of American public education is even harder. It requires creating new course materials, devising and field-testing new exams and, because these tests are designed to be taken online, closing the digital divide. It means retraining teachers, reorienting classrooms and explaining to anxious parents why these changes are worthwhile.

Had the public schools been given breathing room, with a moratorium on high-stakes testing that prominent educators urged, resistance to the Common Core would most likely have been less fierce. But in states where the opposition is passionate and powerful, it will take a herculean effort to get the standards back on track.

David L. Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author, most recently, of “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools.”