Having seen the colours of autumn, the cold of winter and the first days of spring, my time in New York City has now come to an end. The Fulbright experience has been everything I hoped it would be and a whole lot more besides. I’m now at 40,000 feet over the Atlantic, heading back to London with mixed emotions. Living in apartments the size of a cupboard for the best part of 6 months has been a little tricky, so getting home to some space will be welcome. Beyond that, I’m not yet ready to get back to normality and there is much that I would still like to do in the US. It’s been a busy last few weeks, trying to squeeze in as much as possible and soak up all I can from this fantastic opportunity.
Here’s a few headlines…
Some good friends of ours made the unenviable journey from Singapore to NYC to visit. They opted for the most direct route, on the longest commercial flight you can do – something like 18 hours in the air, over the top of the North Pole and down through Canada to reach NYC. A complete switch of time zones, providing a horrible dose of jet-lag. It was great to have some familiar faces in the City and a good opportunity to do a few more of the touristy things we have yet to experience.
It looks like New York State (as opposed to City) will vote on Governor Cuomo’s proposal to legalise cannabis in the next few weeks. He’s been advocating for this law change for some time and is justifying it on the grounds of job growth, CJ reform, economic opportunities for small and medium size enterprises and increased tax revenues to fund public services. However, in a typical example of localism trumping (no pun intended) state/federal statutory instruments, there have already been some pre-emptive legislative steps taken to counter the anticipated law change from up-state in Albany. A task force in Nassau County was commissioned to explore the likely impact of cannabis legalisation in the area. They concluded that the proposed law change would cause an increase in traffic accidents, expose cannabis users to other drugs and would increase the costs of public health provision significantly. Therefore, Nassau County has passed a law that says they will not adopt the state law, if/when Cuomo gets his way and legalises the drug. An interesting development and an example of the polarised views on cannabis that may well play out in other parts of the state as things progress.
NY State has also recently approved a new budget. With that, comes a number of new policies that now have funding in place to enact them. Traffic congestion charges in NYC is one example of a state driven policy that looks like it will now be implemented (albeit not for another couple of years). A ban on single use plastic shopping bags and a tax on paper shopping bags is a further headline grabbing policy that Governor Cuomo is pursuing. The plastic bag issue is one of those big cultural things that is very different to the UK. With the 10 pence charge having had such a significant impact on their use in the UK, it has been very noticeable how extensive their use is here. With the behaviour change we are now used to back home, it feels so terribly wasteful to walk into a supermarket, buy a Twix and then see it placed into not one, but two plastic bags (just in case the weight of a chocolate bar causes the first bag to break). A request to de-bag often gets a look of disgust! As experience has shown in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, there is nothing quite like taxation to nudge behaviour in the right direction, so I expect the current way of doing things will shift pretty promptly once the new laws have passed.
NYPD cops have recently been protesting at City Hall in pursuit of a pay increase. The discrepancy between their pay and that of other, comparable public service roles is their main point of contention. A news report quoted NYPD cops as earning $85,000; MTA (transport) employees earning $100,000; State Troopers on $103,000 and officers working a short distance away in Suffolk County’s police department as earning $139,000. This final statistic is perhaps one of the most surprising elements of this discussion. Each police department in the US is free to set its own salary scale. A small department, with just a few hundred officers has absolute freedom to pay significantly more than a large, city police department just over the county border. Small doesn’t mean poor. So an officer doing the same job (quite possibly with better equipment, better technology and less demand) might be getting paid close to twice that of an officer in the neighbouring department that may be much busier, much riskier and a much more difficult place to work.
One of the nice things that has crept up on me in the last 6 weeks or so has been a real sense of belonging and with that a confidence in how to navigate life in New York. A few things have emerged that have given rise to this sense of ‘getting’ how the city works. In a couple of the different cafes I’ve been going to, I am now in the position of asking for my ‘usual’. Rather than being the weirdo Englishman they can’t understand, it’s now got to the point where the (mainly Mexican) waiting staff tease me when I decline the addition of sugar to my fruit smoothie, with them recognising that their English customer doesn’t quite have as sweet a tooth as their American patrons. I went to a comedy night again this week, some of the more nuanced jokes that, 5 months ago, I wouldn’t have understood, now had me in stitches. More so when I look around the room and see the tourists looking just as perplexed as I was when I first arrived. Even the different accents are now much clearer to me – the comedian from Jersey, versus the comedian from LA, versus the Comedian from the Bronx – I could quickly pick out the differences in how they speak. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still on the fringes in many respects, but I am certainly able to deal with everyday stuff here, build new relationships and understand what is going on with much greater ease than I did when I first arrived.
A further dimension to this is in relation to a sense of ownership of the area where we live and the community we have been part of. One of the nice things about being away from London and away from my local community was that stuff that would annoy me at home, didn’t need to annoy me here. Because New York wasn’t mine to care about. Particularly as a cop in London, you can’t help but see the yob dealing drugs at the bus stop, the litter being dropped in the park or the bloke who can’t hold his drink shouting and swearing at the cab driver. All police officers are naturally super-sensitive to this stuff, because dealing with those who can’t behave is what we do for a living. It can lead to a perception of a lower quality-of-life, because you see all this stuff and can’t always ignore it in the way that other members of the public are able to. In the first couple of months in NYC, I was seeing this kind of thing but was able to shrug my shoulders and say ‘not my city, not my problem’. That was very liberating. The more wedded to the city I have become the ‘not my problem’ feel has lessened considerably. The person who can’t behave in a civilised way here, now p***es me off just as much as it does in London. I found this to be a really interesting dynamic: developing a sense of ownership and belonging.
In other news…
I love watching live sport. Once our dates for the trip were confirmed, it was apparent that baseball would be in the off-season, but that we might just catch the season opener. That’s exactly what we did. Chris, one of the chaps at the University, was kind enough to get hold of some great tickets, just behind the home plate, to watch the Yankees take on Baltimore. It was a beautiful sunny day and a superb atmosphere. Live baseball is a classic American pass time and I loved every minute of it. As with so much time spent in the US, you feel like you’re on a film set. This was certainly the case at the baseball. Whilst the intricacies of the game are still perhaps a little bit of a mystery, it was a close finish and we spent last 30 mins or so on our feet. Clearly we didn’t cheer loud enough though, the Yankees didn’t secure the win.
On the way back from Yankee Stadium, which is about 20 minutes north of Harlem, we stopped at ‘Paris Blues’. This is a really authentic jazz bar that has live music every night of the week. It’s a really small place, that looked like it hadn’t been renovated (or cleaned) since it was opened 50 years ago. The same guy, ‘Sam’ that opened it back then is still at the helm today. He was a typical Harlem character – warm, a little eccentric and with plenty of stories to tell. We asked him how the area had changed. His response: “we used to be poor, now we are rich”. The 4 storey building he owns will easily be worth $4m. No wonder he had a big smile on his face.
So as we now head for home, with the inflight map telling me we are just over half way, what have been the highlights….? There’s a long list! The Super Bowl with Chris and his family, Church and lunch with Frank and his wife Patricia in Harlem, spending time at Marywood University in Scranton (and the drive home in the snow after – still not quite sure how we made it back safely), Niagara Falls, the amazing curry in Toronto, visitors coming from home to see us, Wednesday lunchtimes with the gents from the Department of Law and Police Science, the helicopter flight over Manhattan, the Caribbean cruise, watching the Yankees, breakfast in Santa Monica after the LA conference, braving the cold in Chicago, conversations with Eric Piza’s PhD class (frighteningly intelligent people), lecturing on policing to the John Jay undergraduates, the road trip through the southern states, exploring Washington DC, meeting new friends in North Carolina… the list goes on and on. In terms of simple pleasures, walking/jogging/cycling around Central Park has been an absolute pleasure and, in the city of bright lights, noise and expensive pass times, a mooch around the quiet parts of the park on a sunny Sunday morning is actually about as good as it gets.
From a practical perspective, I think I am really going to miss the ease of travelling around on the Subway. It is a brilliant, 24/7 service. I have used it multiple times, every day, for more than 5 months – and only missed one appointment due to a delay with the service. Considering I always leave the smallest possible window of time to get anywhere, that is a pretty impressive level of service by the folks at the MTA.
So this final week has been a real sprint to get the last few things done. A farewell lunch with the team at John Jay (French Toast with banana and Maple Syrup, as usual – I am going to have to face-time in next week), a final run around Central Park, last minute gifts and souvenirs from Chelsea Market, a 7am meeting with a friend in Times Square to talk through some research we are going to kick-off in the next couple of weeks, dinner in our favourite restaurant, a last couple of yoga classes with the great team at Bodē NYC on the Upper East Side, a bit of credit card bashing in Macy’s (Levi’s going for just $40), watching ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’ being filmed and a visit to Grand Central Station. Whilst we have done so much here, we could easily do another year and not have too many repeated experiences. I fear suburban life in SW London may feel a little slower paced and, dare I say, boring, for the first few weeks as we settle back into normal life. I googled the top 10 tourist destinations in the world the other day, it seems that this trip has given us the opportunity to see half of them – not a bad return I say! https://www.travelandleisure.com/slideshows/worlds-most-visited-tourist-attractions#2
In terms of less favourable memories, there’s just one stand-out thing that has been a daily occurrence: the highly visible and utterly awful wealth inequality that exists in New York – further defined, for the most part, on the characteristics of race as well. I’ve blogged about the homelessness situation previously and the prevalence of unchecked mental ill-health being so commonplace in all public areas of NYC. In a city of such wealth, in a country that prides itself on ‘leading the free world’ this is and should be a source of much national disquiet. On the flip side, it also leads to some wonderful acts of kindness being witnessed on a daily basis. From my experience, it is frequently those in their late teens and 20s handing over their sandwiches, giving money or a buying someone a coffee, just to make their day a little bit more bearable. We have done what we can here, always clutching a dollar to give to the next person who approaches and handing over some food when we could, but it does nothing to resolve the underlying causes of this terrible situation. This requires a change in public mood and some genuine commitment from the political establishment to shift this dire problem in the right direction.
So….back to London….what happens next….?
I’m not returning home with a silver bullet that is going to be the answer to any specific organisational dilemma which the Metropolitan Police Service is facing. Indeed, in terms of organisational culture and maturity I believe we can be pretty satisfied in London and UK policing more generally, that we are very well placed, particularly in terms of our appetite for reform and capability to modernise. What I am providing is a new network of research contacts in the USA with whom I will be working with for many years to come, to the benefit of policing in this country, in the US and elsewhere around the globe. That is a tremendous privilege and a responsibility I take seriously.
In being fortunate enough to be selected as a Fulbright Scholar, I made a commitment to being a long-term advocate for this cultural exchange programme. So it doesn’t end here. I have established friendships and working relationships in the US that have delivered a long list of new research outputs which I will now set to work on. I hope that the Met will see fit to send more scholars to the US in future. I will be making a number of recommendations to ensure that those which follow me over the pond can get the most from the experience that they possibly can – tweaking how the programme works to make it as enjoyable and as beneficial as possible, for all concerned.
Thanks for taking the time to read these blogs. If you have followed throughout, I hope you enjoyed the journey. If you’ve just joined in the fun today, better late than never!