Many police departments have adopted some version of the somewhat standard or all-purpose police motto: “To serve and protect.” Last night, as NYPD officers, some in riot gear, cleared protestors from Zuccotti Park, some bystanders could be heard chanting, “Who Do You Serve! Who Do You Protect!” These are questions worth asking.
A few weeks ago, when I followed Chris Bellavita’s lead and began considering what the Occupy protests might portend for public safety and homeland security, I questioned what we could count on police officers and firefighters to do in the face of mounting public unrest and pressure to restore the status quo ante. My question was predicated on two observations: 1) Many cops and firefighters feel just as alienated and fearful in the current economic climate as many of the protestors do and 2) cops and firefighters, despite their relatively favored standing in public opinion have garned little public support as they have confronted job cuts, threats to collective bargaining rights and the looming prospects pension reform and benefit reductions.
Over the past few days, my questions have been answered. Cops and firefighters in city after city have seen fit to faithfully follow instructions and act against protestors, often upon the slimmest pretexts. Take for instance the characterization of Zuccotti Park and other Occupy encampments as threats to health and safety. In several instances, this was predicated at least in part on the operation of gasoline generators to produce electric power. The exhaust fumes were deemed hazardous sources of the toxic combustion gas carbon monoxide. The hot exhausts and fuel cans were also considered fire hazards. The close quarters in which these operations were conducted was said to compound these risks.
Now let’s consider what usually happens when fire inspectors find such conditions: Essentially nothing. You see, the model fire prevention codes adopted in nearly very city and state in the country, including post-9/11 New York City, do not address these hazards directly in such an environment. They simply do not envision such circumstances or call them out as dangerous. As such, the fire inspectors had to conclude based on the “professional judgment and opinion” that these conditions constituted a danger to life per se.
I’ve spent nearly all of my professional career crafting, interpreting or applying these codes, and I can say with complete confidence that this opinion is both baseless and unwarranted. That is unless you consider the intense political pressure fire officials must have been under to give the mayor and police commissioner the requisite pretext for acting against the occupation.
It saddens me to say this, by I find such behavior sorry and shameful. I reach this conclusion in substantial part because such action is so unprecedented even when it is clearly warranted. A case in point: No action was taken to suspend operations or seize private property in the Deutsche Bank Building when inspectors became aware of dangerous conditions during its demolition following the 9/11 attacks. Two firefighters sent to combat a fire there in August 2007 died, and 46 more suffered serious, career-ending injuries because of confusing and obstructed exit paths, failure to maintain firefighting features, and the use of high flame-spread materials and uncontrolled heat sources during asbestos removal operations. These conditions conspired to allow an otherwise minor fire started by discarded smoking materials to spread through 10 floors before it was controlled.
In the aftermath of this fire, two very telling truths emerged. First, despite permit conditions that required inspections at least once every 15 days, city authorities had failed to conduct any recorded inspections of the demolition operation between March 2007 and the date the fire occurred. Second, the city enabled if not facilitated the contractor’s malfeasance by taking a laissez faire approach to overseeing demolition operations despite repeated warnings a disaster could result. (I use the term “malfeasance” advisedly: The demolition contractor- employed by the Lower Manhattan Development Authority–the ironically named John Galt Corporation–was found guilty of reckless endangerment in 2009, although construction supervisors employed by the company were acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges.)
If inspectors can so willingly look away in the face of clearly dangerous conditions like those present at Deutsche Bank, what makes them so eager to see fire hazards in Zuccotti Park when no such violations exist in fire codes? Is it possible they fear the fate of so many others who are now unemployed if they fail to accede to their superiors’ expectations?
I am reluctant to answer these questions, but I don’t mind asking them of those who made these decisions. In the end, the questions in play here are the same timeless ones we all face when values and principles collide: Who or what do you serve? Who or what are you protecting?