The real-time criminal justice disasters in New York City and other urban centers are enough to make those in blue Nashville count their blessings. Safeguarded by a firmly red state government, the city likely won't descend into the same chaos that afflicts its more liberal counterparts—for now.
No matter the city, the mass deterioration of public safety will prove an uphill battle to navigate as long as the profession of policing at large is undermined by insatiable progressive impulses toward bail reform and decarceration.
Joseph Giacalone, a criminal justice professor at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, spent 20 years in the NYPD as a police officer, retiring as a sergeant in 2012. Since then, he has been a regular voice on the criminal justice beat, most recently predicting the detrimental effects New York’s infamous bail reform laws would have on crime.
“People like myself, we were labeled as fear mongers…. We called this over two years ago about the rising violence, too many reforms too soon, and not enough thought behind them,” Giacalone told The Pamphleteer.
In October 2019, Giacalone penned an op-ed anticipating major crime spikes ahead of the progressive frenzy to enact bail reform laws, which went into effect the following year.
“I can’t wait until January, when Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s 'reform' plan takes full effect, to see what happens next... Good luck getting anyone to help the police ever again. This will cause further victimization, higher crime rates, more mothers missing their sons,” Giacalone predicted in 2019.
In just a few short years, the city's famous gains on public safety brought about by the Broken Windows policing revolution of the 1990s have changed course, with few rays of hope amid the negative trajectory.
Murders in New York City spiked from 319 in 2019 to 468 in 2020, then up to 488 in 2021, according to NYPD data. So far this year, murders are down 11 percent year-to-date, standing at 282 homicides, but are still 31 percent above 2019 figures. And, other major crime categories remain a far cry from their 2019 levels, with robberies up 39 percent and assaults up 24 percent.
Nashville, meanwhile, is dealing with its own recent crime spikes. In 2019, the city's murders totaled 84, ballooning to 114 in 2020 before dipping slightly to 102 in 2021. As of late August, murders came in at 73, on pace to rise to 112 by the end of the year, according to WSMV's estimate.
New York's public safety crisis should serve as a clear example of which direction not to take. And yet, officers who recently left Nashville Metro Police told The Pamphleteer about the department’s choice to march down its own path of decline, bringing the profession itself to the brink.
PAWNS ON THE BOARD
One officer explained his decision to take a reduction on his retirement package: he wanted to freeze it in place, he said, and leave the force early, thanks to the drastic drop in quality of life on the job. This officer, like the others cited in this article, spoke to us on the condition of anonymity.
Before the 2020 protests kicked off, the Nashville police department was predictable in how they assigned shift work, the officer said. But, during the peak of the chaos, the department redirected much of its manpower to the downtown area in order to quell any potential violence. This heightened state of alertness persisted for about a month that fateful summer, but after it died down, the department did not give up its newfound ability to move officers around the chessboard as it saw fit.
As officers quit in the wake of the riots, the department faced a shortage in manpower, he recounted. Those who remained faced serious disruptions in shift assignments and workload.
“Mandating people became a common occurrence after that, because they knew they could do it,” the officer said. “They've taken that focus on the type of police work that's actually being proactive and trying to prevent crime, it's all been scaled back and now they're doing community-related [initiatives, like] dealing with the homeless.”
This abrupt change in strategy forced officers to operate outside of their areas of expertise, with those on beats like traffic duty and sex abuse being reassigned to handle on-the-street patrolling.
“They're not used to being that tactical, even though they want to give you the argument that we all go through the same training,” the officer said. “That's true, but there is a difference when you're not dealing with that environment all day long….There is always the potential threat of having to fight somebody, but that is a big-time different element as opposed to being downtown on Friday night at ten o'clock and having to go to bar fights.”
On top of being thrust into unfamiliar scenarios, the officers also face an environment of unforgiving optics.
“Everybody is skittish and not really wanting to engage in anything. Because hell, they're afraid they can get prosecuted... If you're a decent-sized guy, and you're sitting there fighting somebody, and they're the wrong color and that video gets on the news, you're done. Why put yourself in those situations?”
Another Nashville police officer who also recently quit corroborated the former's grievances regarding work mandates, adding that the department was pushing its officers to work almost every day for about a month straight amid the dual impacts of COVID and the riots.
With more than 20 years of service, this officer had already accrued enough time to leave and qualify for his pension.
“When I became a cop, my whole mentality was, ‘I'm going to be tougher, more stoic, and I'm going to be more stalwart than the people I'm going up against. I'm going to have more integrity than they had, and part of that meant being honest with myself.’ Being honest with myself meant, I had to realize I was too stubborn to leave at the time.”
After the riots wound down, the department showed no signs of returning to its former pace.
“This is just snowballing. There's no logic to any of this. I can leave, so I decided to leave.”
He said the radical shift from proactive policing to “community-oriented” policing missed the mark; the latter was more about optics than addressing problems.
“You move one resource from this to another. It's just a never-ending battle if you try to do that. You focus on things other than the mission, the original mission you intended to do, then, what's going to suffer is the original mission.”
FROM PROACTIVE TO INACTIVE
Like for those in Nashville, day-to-day life for officers in New York nosedived, worsened by the city's pre-pandemic backdrop of a progressive drift toward their aforementioned pet projects: bail reform and “decarceration.”
With the removal of qualified immunity, the institution of vague anti-chokehold laws, and a neurotic, laser-like focus on policing tactics, a current NYPD officer lamented that cops have no incentive to go beyond the absolute minimum.
"A lot of cops, including myself, are deciding it's better to be hands-off. Unless a crime happens in my face, there's no reason for me to be proactive because the job doesn't have my back. God forbid, shit happens, I'm on my own. That doesn't exactly leave a good feeling.”
When the conversation turned to bail reform, the officer recalled a domestic violence case where a man was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife. Previously, he explained, the man would have been held on bail until charged. But, because of the law, he was released on his own recognizance, meaning no monetary bail is paid and he simply promises the court to return. Two days later, he said, officers showed up once again to arrest the man because of a domestic dispute.
“You arrest the guy, they don't even have to go to court... You cut them loose, and it's on them to go to court on their own time…. Now, these people, I'm not going to say all of them, but some of them now will feel like 'Hey, there's no consequences because I just committed a crime, and here I am back out on the street six hours later. What's to stop me from doing the same thing again?'"
Throwing more fuel on the criminal justice dumpster fire, the New York City Council cut the NYPD's budget by about $1 billion in 2020—almost 20 percent of its previous $6 billion budget—in response to the frenzied demands of police defunding advocates after George Floyd. Since the cut, the officer said, the NYPD's already mediocre training capabilities have been gutted.
Previously, he explained, he would be brought in approximately every two months for in-person training, which consisted of live presentations and hands-on scenario role plays, like clearing a room in an active shooter situation.
After the cuts, a chunk of the training has been scrapped in favor of video presentations sent to officers' NYPD smartphone app, with brief multiple choice questions after the videos. So far this year, he has only received one in-person training, but almost 20 training video modules.
Before the cuts, there was a mandated shooting range exam held twice a year, testing officers at 7 feet, 15 feet, and 25 feet. To pass, officers must score at least 78 percent, according to a 2019 Gothamist report. The piece cited former NYPD firearms instructors who decried range training as inadequate, even back then.
Since the budget cuts, the exam is now held just once a year, the officer said. He added that to score a passing mark, candidates can simply make most of their 7-feet shots, and a few on 15.
“I've seen people missing at 7 feet. The 25-feet one, you get five shots, some people miss it. I'm like 'Alright, that's fine,' but you should not be missing at 7 feet, nor should you be missing at 15.”
A BLEAK OUTLOOK
Since the officer's time in the NYPD, more than half of the officers in his unit have left, with most transferring to other departments around the state or even across the country.
“The general consensus among all of them: the grass is definitely greener on the other side. They are much happier.”
He confided that the state of the job has left him depressed and looking for a way out, either by transferring or by holding out until he can qualify for a pension. He sees the problems as too complex to solve with ad hoc solutions, requiring “very painful changes” that can only be brought in by a radical political upheaval.
“There's just so many problems, you can't just unfortunately just focus on one because they're so intertwined with each other,” the officer said.
With the profession in such a sorry state, officers are jumping ship, with retirements at record highs. Unfortunately, fresh recruits are few and far between.
Professor Joseph Giacalone used to field inquiries from kids aspiring to be police officers, but now, he cannot “in full faith recommend any large urban department.”
“If you think things are bad now... just wait until you see what they hire over the next five years because they're so desperate that they're going to have to reduce their standards in order to get people,” he said.
The New York Post reported in July that the NYPD dramatically lowered requirements of its physical exam in a bid to draw in more applicants. One of the six tasks in the exam previously required recruits to scale a 6-foot wall. The wall has been replaced with an easier-to-climb chain link fence. Also, the exam previously had a time limit of 3 minutes and 28 seconds, which is now extended by a full minute. And, sources told the Post that NYPD officials were considering getting rid of the additional requirement of running 1.5 miles in 14:21 seconds or less to graduate.
The first Nashville police officer we spoke with said their department also recently lowered the bar, with candidates previously required to complete 60 semester hours of college courses, recently adding an alternative of possessing three years of work experience.
The Nashville.gov website specifically reads, “A high school diploma or GED and have 3 years of full time (40 hour per week) responsible work experience.”
“They can't get anybody to apply for this job. They've lowered their standards on who to take because, one, they don't get enough people to apply, and the people that are applying would not normally be accepted if times were good and they had a big pool to choose from,” the officer said.
In August, 61 officers graduated from the Metropolitan Nashville Police Academy, still short of the department’s shortage of almost 200 officers since February.
To further address the shortage, Nashville citizens recently voted to pass a Metro Charter amendment that revises physical standards for police recruits, as reported by News Channel 5. The charter previously required recruits to abide by U.S. Army and Navy fitness standards, which included skin conditions and childhood asthma. Now, the civil service commission can set new physical standards.
Though progressives likely will not get as far in Nashville as they can in New York, the gears may already be turning for the further unraveling of the criminal justice system, even in Tennessee. Just weeks ago, Shelby County District Attorney-elect Steve Mulroy came together with the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union to announce a total overhaul of the county's bail system by February 2023.
“There is a tremendous cost to incarcerating too many people, especially those who don’t need to be in jail, particularly for long periods of time. It’s one of Shelby County’s highest expenditures,” said Andrea Woods, ACLU staff attorney, as reported by the Tennessee Lookout.
The changing of the guard from former DA Amy Weirich, a Republican branding herself as “tough on crime,” who held the seat for 11 years, to reform-minded Democrat Mulroy all but guarantees an impending leftward drift for Memphis and Shelby County.
The recent spree shooting murders of suspect Ezekiel Kelly and the high-profile kidnapping and murder of Eliza Fletcher by suspect Cleotha Abston underscore an ailing region plagued by escalating violence.
Just two years ago, the 17-year-old Kelly was charged with attempted first-degree murder, pleading down to a lesser charge of aggravated assault. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but was released early.
Abston, 38, has had a lengthy rap sheet since age 11, with convictions spanning rape, assault, and unlawful possession of a weapon, culminating in a 2000 gunpoint kidnapping and robbery at age 16. For the latter, he was sentenced to 24 years in prison, but was released early in November 2020 for credits from previous jail time served and for serving in the prison job program.
DA Mulroy told WLVT news “of course,” Abston should have served a longer sentence, but took the opportunity to emphasize rehabilitation.
“I think to a large extent we’ve given up on using prisons to rehabilitate,” Mulroy said. “The shame of it is if we took the rehabilitation seriously, we would actually reduce the repeat offender rate over the long term.”
Regarding advocates for decarceration and police abolition, in general, former NYPD sergeant Giacalone did not mince words:
“They're just going to keep moving the goalposts until they get what they want: the destruction of policing and the destruction of communities. It's ironic that the people they want to help out the most, the ones living in the inner city neighborhoods. Those are the ones they're actually helping to destroy. They just can't see that or they won't see it.”