This is a tale of two agencies, both of them suffering constant criticism from those they serve, both of them suffering constant meddling by those who think they know how they should be run. Both of their most recognizable employees wear blue, both do their work in all kinds of conditions, both have a well-known motto, both are absolutely crucial to civilization, both are being forced to make do with less.
But there most comparisons must end. For while one of these agencies has shown it can do more with less, racking up a more successful record of late than it has since reliable records were kept, the other seems perennially on the verge of disaster.
The two agencies are, of course, the New York Police Department and the United States Postal Service.
The NYPD, you may have noticed, has brought violent crime to record lows. That’s its primary job. The murder rate has fallen 80 percent — 80 percent! — in the last 20 years. If you know of another societal malady cut by 80 percent in a generation, hit me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I don’t.
The Police Department has done this while taking on a whole new line of work, counterterrorism, where it’s also had great success, thwarting more than a dozen serious attacks against the city since Sept. 11, 2001.
And it’s done all that with a force that’s been cut from 41,000 officers at its peak to about 34,500 today.
Yet those who think they know how to run a police department better than Commissioner Ray Kelly, among them some would-be mayors and a federal judge, would cut the cops off at their proverbial knees.
Meanwhile the Postal Service, while adhering to its creed vowing mail delivery in all weather, has been hemorrhaging cash year after year. Its administrators periodically release plans to save money by closing down some postal stations, only to have Congress — which makes the rules for the USPS but doesn’t answer for it — kill the measures. Apparently not a single substation can be shut down, not here in Queens and not in the most rural corner of the country.
So last year the Postal Service lost just under $16 billion.
The agency’s latest plan to stay afloat is to end Saturday mail service. Can’t have that either. Last Sunday postal workers, civic activists, elected officials and regular old citizens held a big rally against the plan, set to take effect in August, outside the majestic James A. Farley Post Office Building in Manhattan. Among them were Queens Rep. Grace Meng (D-Flushing) and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who’s running for mayor. State Sen. Tony Avella (D-Bayside), who’s running for Queens borough president, had wanted to be there but was stuck in Albany, his spokesman said.
“New Yorkers for 6 day” read the ralliers’ grammatically incomplete signs, and “Don’t dismantle our Postal Service.”
That’s great, but what are the protesters’ ideas for putting the USPS back in the black? Certainly not layoffs; these are the unions. Not the closures of underutilized stations. The only substantive idea critics of postal cutbacks ever offer is repealing the 2006 law that forces the agency to fund retiree healthcare 75 years into the future. That’s probably worth doing, but would only save about $5.5 billion a year. What about the other $10 billion the USPS lost last year?
Mail service is one of the few government functions actually mandated by the Constitution, though in true Constitutional fashion, the wording is brief and open to interpretation, only giving Congress the power “to establish Post Offices and post Roads.”
What is now the Postal Service had been the U.S. Department of the Post Office until 1971, when President Nixon — prompted in large part by a postal strike in New York City — created the quasi-independent USPS. Now there are calls to privatize the agency to economize, but those seem misguided, given the Constitutional mandate for Congress.
Maybe instead the answer is to resurrect the old Department of the Post Office to make clear who has authority over mail delivery and who should be held accountable for financial failings. There’s no reason that could not be done simultaneously with modernization and cutting of the bureaucracy, as well as amendment of that 2006 law.
What doesn’t need amending is oversight of the NYPD, which answers to the mayor and is already subject to investigation by the city’s five district attorneys, the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the City Council. Yet some, such as mayoral candidate and Council Speaker Christine Quinn, want to create a redundant inspector general’s office to monitor the department.
That’s mostly due to complaints about the NYPD’s stop, question and frisk policy, which is a big part of why crime has fallen but is the subject of federal lawsuits brought before Judge Shira Scheindlin. Though she has yet to rule, Scheindlin seems sympathetic to the argument that police step on the rights of minorities because they’re the people most often frisked, and could order the practice stopped. But minorities are also the people whose lives have been saved the most.
The last thing we need is outside micromanagement of the police. Cops work under enough bureaucracy as it is. We don’t need the NYPD to be further hamstrung by another layer of administration — like, say, the Postal Service.