The push to reform policing is moving on multiple fronts. Not only are governments across America targeting law-enforcement agencies; they’re also imposing new regulations on society. In mid-June, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law State Senate Bill 8492, which imposes a civil penalty for calling the cops on a black person, or any other member of a “protected class,” when there’s “no reason to believe a crime or offense, or imminent threat to person or property, is occurring.” It was prompted by the Amy Cooper affair. Cooper is a white New Yorker, who, on Memorial Day in Central Park, called police over a dispute with Christian Cooper, a black man unrelated to her. His bird-watching was disrupted by her dog running free (illegally), and she interpreted his request that she leash her dog as a threat.
More broadly, the law targets “Karenism.” The stereotype of a “Karen” is a middle-aged, middle-class white woman excessively attuned to small inconveniences and signs of disorder. She may sometimes call 911, but she’s more often seen asking to “speak to the manager.” Entitled and incapable of minding her own business, she inflicts misery on low-level retail and service workers.
In short, a Karen is a busybody. Traditionally, the busybody was a type associated with small-town life. Big cities, by contrast, promised anonymity and liberation. But to contend with the risks of crime and disorder, cities eventually had to embrace the benefits of busybodiness, as ably explained in that urtext of Karenism, Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs famously celebrated nosy neighbors’ and shopkeepers’ “eyes on the street” as a form of community peacekeeping that obviated the need for a robust police presence. Jacobs relates an incident in which a crowd of neighborhood residents descended on “a suppressed struggle going on between a man and a little girl of eight or nine years old.” The man was trying to persuade the girl to come along with him. Though it turned out that the man was the girl’s father, Jacobs nonetheless cites approvingly the community’s forthright response as showing how the system should work. One wonders how a similar incident would be viewed nowadays were the man black and the assertive neighbors white.
Traces of Karenism can also be found in “community policing,” a phrase understood by the late criminologist George Kelling to mean a community’s participation in its own law enforcement. Like Jacobs, Kelling wanted to minimize the role of cops, but this required, again, people keeping their eyes open. Most of us feel better on vacation knowing that our neighbors would call 911 over suspicious activity at our homes or apartments. We’d be upset with them if a burglary transpired while they opted to mind their own business. Those who never ask to speak to the manager free-ride on those who do.
In highlighting the need for legislation to address future Amy Cooper–type incidents, WNYC radio host Brian Lehrer invoked the risk that her 911 call, in which she mentioned that Christian Cooper was black, may have prompted police to show up “with guns drawn,” resulting in fatal consequences for him. This is the logic of the “1 percent doctrine,” whereby one must act on the assumption that the most remote possibility is likely to occur.
What if, by contrast, reducing the risk of bigoted 911 calls increases the risk of people making fewer legitimate 911 calls, for fear of becoming the next Amy Cooper? (A Barack Obama and Pete Buttigieg supporter, Cooper got fired from her job, is being prosecuted for falsely reporting an incident, and now endures Internet infamy.) We risk a Ferguson effect for civilians. For many years, Americans have struggled to reconcile their “eyes on the street” responsibilities with political correctness. On 9/11, for example, Portland International Jetport ticketing agent Michael Tuohey gave himself a “mental slap” (his phrase) for suspecting that Mohammed Atta was a terrorist.
Transit systems enjoin us to “say something” if we “see something.” A something worth speaking up about will differ depending on the circumstances. A schizophrenic man’s erratic behavior may be recognized as harmless within his family circle but threatening amid a crowd of strangers. Late at night in a near-empty subway station, if a homeless man persistently asks for money from a petite woman waiting for a delayed train, she will likely feel threatened. But a large male, in a group during rush hour, would probably not feel threatened by the same situation. What constitutes “threatening” behavior, of course, was the nerve of the dispute in the Amy Cooper episode.
Shared public spaces require shared standards of order. It would be considered bizarre if a Karen from the Upper West Side showed up at an NYPD community council meeting in the South Bronx to demand that something be done about youths smoking marijuana outside local bodegas. Maybe something should be done, but it’s not her place to make that demand. Everyone has a claim on Central Park, though: European tourists, NYCHA residents, bird-watchers, dogwalkers, flaneurs, joggers, and people playing sports. These and other groups’ varying standards of order will become harder to reconcile amid ever-escalating levels of racial sensitivity. A likely result will be more minding of one’s own business, an increasingly privacy-oriented population that withdraws from public spaces, and more segregated cities. Hope it’s worth it.