First week at John Jay

After four days of settling into life in this crazy, fun, noisy, expensive, exhilarating city it was a welcome distraction when, on Monday morning, work started. It was nice to get up with some purpose and make my way down to John Jay College for the first time. It has been more than two years since I first contacted the academics at John Jay to try and arrange a scholarship, so to walk through the doors of the imposing building for the first time was a strange feeling: satisfying and a little surreal. I met with the head of the international office for a general ‘welcome to John Jay’ chat, which was indeed very welcoming. Plenty of scholars from all over the globe pass through the doors here, so they are well versed in getting all the logistics sorted and extending a New York welcome.

After lunch in the cafeteria (aka canteen), I met with the Professor who has sponsored my attendance at the College. We immediately hit it off. He started his career as a researcher in the Newark Police Department, before moving into academia – so he has a great perspective, derived from both ‘doing’ and ‘researching’.

In my last blog, I mentioned how refreshing it was to see the directness of New Yorkers, not obsessing about being offended – saying things how they see them. It didn’t play out quite that way on Monday evening at Madison Square Garden when we saw Jimmy Carr doing a 15-minute set as part of a charity comedy gig. His dark, crude humour had me in stitches – probably more so due to the gasps of the audience around us. “Did he really just say that”…. “Yes, he did”!! Just wonderful.

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On Tuesday, in driving rain that belted down for the whole day, I met with my contact from the NYPD in a coffee shop just south of Brooklyn Bridge, in lower Manhattan. The Lieutenant has been incredibly supportive over the last couple of years, always willing to help. We spent a couple of hours going over the basics, the set up of the NYPD, current crime challenges, workforce issues etc. All of the stuff I’d read about online, but really helpful to hear about it from someone who is living and breathing it every day. The similarities between the Met and the NYPD are frequently apparent: two cities of a similar size (circa 9 million people), diverse populations in terms of ethnic and socio-economic profile, a big river, significant public scrutiny, similar number of warranted officers… the list goes on.

I’ve got a great little base from which to work at the University building. A nice open plan area with other scholars. This is the view from my 6thfloor window.

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On Wednesday evening, I attended my first lecture. Delivered by Dr Jon Shane and Zoë Swenson who have recently authored a monograph entitled “Unarmed and Dangerous, Patterns of Threats by Citizens During Deadly Force Encounters with Police”. This research centres on the context that sits behind the events where police in the US have killed unarmed citizens. As you would expect from a progressive city like NYC, in a broadly liberal college like John Jay, there were lots of challenging questions from the students. Shane and Swenson have broadly adopted a position that defends the rights of law enforcement personnel in these situations. They describe the context that sits behind statistics, therefore articulating the complexity of the situations that led to firearms being discharged. Whilst I had expected police use of force (deadly or otherwise) to be one of the themes that emerged during my time here, I hadn’t expected it to be the sole focus of attention in the very first lecture. However, I was reassured that the students felt inclined to challenge firearms use by law enforcement personnel in the US. That was until we got into the details of the case study played out in the video clip below (WARNING: CONTAINS DISTURBING SCENES).

With the huge caveat that I wasn’t there, so can only make observations based on the video, it would seem that the list of tactical options that were not utilised in this situation was extensive. A tactical withdrawal (run away), taser, punching, kicking, wrestling…. The list goes on. Shooting the bloke dead was simply not what I expected to happen and was so far removed from what officers in the UK would do. But, here’s the bit that really surprised me…. The very same students, who had been so liberal in their views for much of the lecture, when faced with this video footage, were largely supportive of police action. The drawing of the firearm and the shooting of the suspect was, to the majority of the class, justifiable in the circumstances. Without trying to do justice in this short blog to the full breadth of the conversation that played out in the classroom, the headline is that the cultural acceptance of firearms usage, even in the progressive democracy that is NYC, is so entrenched, that even a group of liberal millennials with an appetite for doing things differently and challenging the status quo were OK with what they had seen. It’s far too early in the trip to draw conclusions as to what this all means, but suffice to say, plenty to think about!

I’m pleased to say that Brexit and all the chatter that goes with it now seems a distant memory. It’s just not really touching the mainstream news here. I’ve now got the CNN app pushing notifications to my phone, rather than the BBC. It seems that 90% of these alerts contain the word Trump. Low point of the week was surely Trumps awful interaction with CNN Whitehouse correspondent Jim Acosta. If you didn’t see it – link below. The political shadow he is casting over this city, which saw the Democrats winning by a margin of something like 22% in 2016, is clear. Not least because of the presence of Trump tower on 5thAvenue and the significant NYPD presence that surrounds it (I’m not sure it would still be standing if the NYPD officers weren’t looking after it 24/7).

https://www.cnn.com/videos/media/2018/11/08/trump-jim-acosta-enemy-of-the-people-midterms-sot-vpx.cnn/video/playlists/business-media/

The political narrative extended into the second lecture of the week. I joined a second year PhD class, where we spent three hours debating the relationship between politics and criminal justice policy in the US – Trump was never far from the debate. They were an extremely impressive class, a really diverse cohort. I was made to feel very welcome and gave a British perspective whenever I could. We discussed how ‘weaponising’ language can be extremely effective when trying to advance a particular political position. Stop and search (or stop and frisk as it is called here) is an example seen on both sides of the Atlantic, which politicians of all persuasions frequently try to ‘weaponise’ and use to advance particular arguments.

On Friday afternoon I made my first trip to NYPD HQ. This is a very impressive building, opposite City Hall. This was an introductory meeting, to discuss what I hope to achieve during my time in the US and secure senior support for my research. We spent the best part of an hour comparing notes on how things are done in our respective organisations. Direct entry, workforce turnover, retention of talent, policing of large events, knife crime, political oversight and funding challenges were all interesting areas of discussion where we are clearly experiencing similar challenges on both sides of the pond.

We finished the working week with a Friday evening trip to see some more comedy – this time at the impressive ‘Town Hall’ venue, just off Times Square. More heavy rain, but it didn’t dampen the spirits as US favourite Anthony Jeselnik delivered his particular brand of dark humour. A great evening, part of the NYC comedy festival. Comedy is clearly a big thing here, so we look forward to seeing lots more over the next few months. Oh, and just a word of advice, if you go to watch comedy in NYC, leave your gun at home….

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Finally, today was Veterans Day (no apostrophe apparently, because it is not a day that ‘belongs’ to veterans, it is a day for honouring veterans). So whilst the Centenary of Armistice Day was being remembered in Europe, it was nice to be able to pay our respects at the parade on 5thAvenue, albeit the tone was somewhat different to that which we are used to in London. We witnessed a fervent display of national pride. Whilst there was some reference to the conflicts of 100 years ago, the overriding narrative today was in relation to armed conflicts that US military personnel have been involved in since 2001. This has been, and remains, the war that sits front and centre of the public conscience. The veterans we were greeting on 5thAvenue today were not only the grey haired heroes from the early 1900’s, but those in their late 30s or early 40s who have been in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere over the last 17 years. Whilst of course remembrance Sunday in the UK also offers a time to reflect on more recent military sacrifice, it seems to be much more weighted toward recent conflicts in this city. Stating the obvious perhaps, but 9/11 hurt NYC more than I had really ever realised. The memorials are everywhere and the memories still very real (and recent) for so many of those that live here.

All of that said, I did conclude that today was all about America. In the context of Emmanuel Macron’s pointed warning to world leaders at the Arc de Triomphe today, espousing the dangers of rising nationalism, this was exactly what I witnessed in NYC today. The chants of “USA, USA, USA” were relentless. Of course, if this is just a different way of expressing gratitude in the way we may offer polite applause in the UK, then that is fine with me. But my sense is that this was about ‘Team USA’ – a perception that the US is thought of in the same way as a sports team might be, passionately supported, at the expense of all others. Having departed the UK, with the tiresome narrative of the Brexiteers ringing in my ears, today’s chanting appeared to come from a similar vein – and entirely at odds with the global positioning that the consistently impressive Macron was articulating today. I’ll try to follow this up with colleagues at John Jay this week, to see if my conclusions are accurate.

So with more than 25 miles of walking over the last couple of days and yoga this evening, I think I’ll sleep well tonight. Back into John Jay first thing tomorrow, with some stalking of a number of professors planned – trying to meet all those folk whose articles I have been reading for so many years.

I’ll leave you with some music…. Until next week…. Thanks for reading….

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