By Alejandro Ingkavet
I recently had the good fortune of an unknown New Yorker finding my wallet and turning it into the police department.
It had been less than 24 hours since I lost it, and I was ecstatic to receive the call that my wallet, along with all the items inside and $150 in cash, had been returned to a station uptown. I was told I could retrieve it whenever I wanted to.
The following day, I made the trip to an Upper West Side precinct to find that none of my possessions were there. They had been sent to police headquarters.
Okay. Not a big deal. I had enough free time to travel to City Hall, where its cold, marble hallways and tall, exposed ceilings greeted me. But the next challenge proved to be more difficult.
“If you have my wallet,” I told the guards, “then I don’t have any sort of personal identification on my person right now.” They found this troubling, as if there was no protocol for this. After I was tested repeatedly to see if I knew my own social security number and date of birth, I was allowed to proceed to the next building, but only because the officers were “having a good day” (normally a birth certificate would have been needed).
Already, through this interaction, they had made it clear who held the power, as if they were doing me a favor by giving my belongings back.
I was able to get everything back that day except for one crucial item: my cash.
I understand that currency moves through a separate system, but I find it pointless to only allow a visitor to claim their money between the hours of 8am and 2:30pm. This is pure police bureaucracy. Do they all have somewhere else to be, or are they just trying to find the most inconvenient hours for you?
When I was finally able to get to their headquarters again, on Election Day, the guards were bored and annoyed, feet up on their desks, acting as if I were the worst problem the entire city was dealing with at the moment. They told me the currency unit was closed because the banks were closed. Okay. Understandable.
I asked when I could come back. They replied with what I already knew: before 2:30 on weekdays. I then inquired, if both my parents work full time and I attend school during those hours, what am I supposed to do?
One guard responded with, “maybe you just forget about it” and laughed. I turned to the other officer, who took me seriously. He told me I’d have to come back on my own time. I asked if he meant I should cut school to pick up my own money. This last remark seemed to personally offend him. I was suddenly told to get out.
I suffered one final indignity: I left, irritated, but not before crashing into the “pull” door and being laughed at as I ran out, humiliated.
I wasn’t so much angry as I was perplexed. This is how the police department treats its guests. In any other industry, customer service is essential to staying in business. Any entrepreneur knows that having a friendly, human connection is key to building a customer base and easily weeding out rude competitors.
If the police department has little to no checks and balances the way the federal government does, how can anyone ever really disagree with them? A lawsuit attempting to tackle anything more than a singular event would only result in embarassed prosecutors as the over 35,000 officers carried on with their lives. No amendments would be enacted to prevent further police misconduct.
You might ask me, if it might help to eliminate cops who abuse their power, why I didn’t report them. This feels like a futile attempt to receive some personal validation for being dealt with in a disrespectful way. It does not provide a chance for any legislation to be created and implemented to build broader change.
Now, I am not advocating for the police to switch to a private sector matter (that can go wrong in many ways). I’m pointing out the deeply flawed system which doesn’t give the police a sense of pushback.
We settle with the service we get because we know it’s in our best interest to do so. Although I am extremely grateful that an unknown New Yorker returned my wallet, this act of good faith was diminished by the very organization which is supposed to model good citizenship. There is no alternative if you want to reclaim lost property. Indeed, now, more than ever, ordinary citizens must understand how vital it is to be treated with courtesy, professionalism, and respect, even if there is no incentive to put “customer” needs first.