A Balancing Act for the Police Department

In the binary system offered by Machiavelli — “it is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both” — the New York Police Department loses on either count.

The police in a big city can’t expect to be truly loved; it’s not part of the job description. At the same time, it is hard to imagine that the fondest wish of the department brass is to be feared. What, then, would distinguish them from an occupying force?

But there is a third possibility not covered by the Machiavellian construct. It is a middle path, arguably the sanest choice of all: to be respected. That’s where the department has been struggling of late, on several fronts.

Its surveillance of Muslims as part of its counterterrorism strategy has led to a concerted pushback from Islamic groups. The huge numbers of New Yorkers affected by its stop-and-frisk policy, principally young African-Americans and Latinos, have produced cries of racism and legislative attempts to limit the practice. Its battles with Occupy Wall Street have generated criticism that it fails to respect the rights of those engaged in lawful dissent.