Ending the Era of the Warrior Cop?


If Bill de Blasio is elected mayor of New York City today, he'll have two choices in dealing with the New York City Police Department (NYPD).

He can make a strong statement that the NYPD is no longer the department of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Or he can proceed cautiously, cognizant that he's dealing with an institution that has dramatically decreased New York's crime rate every year for the past 20 years—reducing homicides, robberies, and auto thefts by over 75 percent, nearly twice the rate of the rest of the nation.

Whatever change is in store for the NYPD, it's a sure bet that it will also have an impact on big-city policing across America.

The travails and triumphs of the 35,000-member-NYPD have riveted national attention over the past 40 years, in large part due the department's extraordinary size and New York's position as America's media capital.

From the 1960s to the mid-1990s, one of America's biggest continuing domestic stories was of big-city cops and crime—told most often through the prism and real-life experience of New York and the NYPD, a trend that is now sure to continue.

During the 1960s and 1970s, New York-centered films like “The French Connection,” “Serpico,” “Prince of the City,” and the revenge-seeking New York vigilante movie series “Death Wish” all perfectly captured the zeitgeist of urban America's growing concerns about crime and violence, and corrupt, incompetent and calcified police departments.

Bernard Goetz's 1984 shooting of four muggers on a New York subway, followed by his being hailed as a hero by New Yorkers; and the savage 1991 beating of the Central Park Jogger, both became national stories that underscored those concerns.

In September 1990, Time magazine, ran a cover story entitled “The Rotting of the Big Apple,” which focused on America's fear of crime, and presented New York City as the classic example of the problem.

National coverage of New York and the NYPD began to change in early 1996, when the image of the department's new reform-minded commissioner, William J. Bratton, was emblazoned on another classic Time magazine cover, this time as the face of hope for urban America.

“Finally,” read the story's cover line, “We're Winning the War Against Crime. Here's Why.”

That story made Bratton a national figure.

'Smart' Policing

At the same time, it presciently proclaimed the NYPD as the prototype of smart, innovative policing that would be a highly influential factor in the dramatic reduction in, and prevention of, crime in urban America.

Bratton, who is considered a leading candidate to head the NYPD once again, introduced modern, data-driven, managerial concepts and strategies to American big-city policing.

In the process, he transformed the department's operational philosophy from traditional, after-the-fact law enforcement and judging success by arrest numbers, to crime prevention and gauging success by crime reduction statistics.

Bratton’s use of decentralized decision-making encouraged innovation at the precinct level as well. He instituted “hot-spot policing” (deploying cops where the crimes are occurring); and introduced CompStat, a computer-based system for holding precinct commanders and top brass accountable for crime reduction and prevention in their areas of responsibility.

Finally, he implemented quality-of-life (so-called “broken windows”) policing, while greatly increasing the use of stop-and-frisk.

Many of those concepts and strategies have been adopted and successfully implemented by Bratton's disciples around the country.

They include Dean Esserman, the former chief of the Providence, Rhode Island Police Department, who now heads the New Haven, CT police force; Garry McCarthy, the former Newark Police Department Director and current Chicago Police Superintendent; and in Los Angeles, where Bratton instituted many of these reforms himself – his legacy is now being skillfully expanded by his leading acolyte, Chief Charlie Beck.

It's therefore ironic that, 20 years later, the very stop-and-frisk tactics on which Bratton had placed great emphasis while NYPD Commissioner are at the center of controversy over the NYPD's future.

Editors Note: The controversy continued last week, as the New York federal appeals court for the second circuit halted implementation of Judge Shira Schiendlin's ruling which ordered changes in the strategy, including the establishment of an independent monitor over the NYPD. It also ordered the judge to step aside from the case.

What happens in New York policing “will send a message to the rest of the law enforcement community,” Nebraska University criminal justice professor emeritus Samuel Walker told the Wall Street Journal.

The message from the courts on stop-and-frisk, he said, was “you can no longer do this type of thing; and if you do you will be sued.”

But how the larger story plays out in media and policing circles could also help define the next stage of policing reform—which could well be a vision of community policing that is focused more deeply on the buy-in and input of the people being policed.

As journalist John Buntin has pointed out in The New York Times Magazine, studies conducted by Yale Law Professors Tom Tyler and Tracey Meares and others have shown that concepts at the heart of give-and-take community policing can be key factors in obtaining and maintaining public safety in poor impoverished black and brown urban communities.

The concepts include: measuring police legitimacy through the perspective of those who are policed; fairness and respect by the police for the community; listening to what the community wants; and adhering to the spirit as well as the letter of the Constitution.

The LAPD Approach

The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) has been grappling with these very issues, first under Bill Bratton, and now under Chief Beck.

The LAPD experience is of a department so out of touch with its poor black and Latino constituents because of the indiscriminate use of policies such as stop-and-frisk, that in 1992 those constituents rose up in the worst American insurrection of the 20th Century.

Having learned its lesson, the LAPD has been moving to the forefront of community policing.

Its efforts have included curbing gang violence through trained, neighborhood gang intervenors; and developing a host of new initiatives and policies focused on gaining community trust—and acceptance of—the department's crime prevention strategies.

Whether or not Bratton is chosen as the next NYPD commissioner, his extraordinary influence on 21st century American policing views is almost certain to influence de Blasio's approach—and, by implication, the approaches taken by other big-city mayors.

Editor’s Note: In an Oct. 3 discussion with Paul Romer, director of the NYU Stern Urbanization Project, Bratton explored the lessons learned in a policing career that has spanned more than four decades. Read the whole transcript here.

Bratton, who's met with de Blasio during the course of the New York mayoralty race, has remained extremely supportive of Beck's community policing efforts in Los Angeles since leaving the LAPD in 2009.

And while Bratton has described stop-and-frisk in an earlier interview with this reporter “as something that you have to have, and cannot police any city without,” he's also been highly critical of its implementation in New York City during the Bloomberg administration.

Calling aspects of its application “abhorrent,” he said that “you have to train for it (and) monitor it.”

He added bluntly: “Effectively, in New York City, they were not focused on supervision and management—not just the police, (but) the whole criminal justice system.”

'Chilling' Initiative

Not all of the country's top cops agree.

John Timoney, who served under Bratton as first Deputy Commissioner before going on to become Philadelphia Police Commissioner and Chief of the Miami Police Department, argued in an op-ed piece last August in The New York Times, that efforts to demonize stop-and-frisk strategies have “chilled officers' enthusiasm and initiative” and affect the morale of front-line cops.

What he failed to mention, however, remains at the heart of a continuing, extremely consequential story.

If, as Timoney points out, “The number of stops has dropped sharply, from 203,500 in the first three months of 2012 to fewer than 100,000 over the same period” in 2013,” why is it that the number of homicides in New York City in the first half of 2013 also dropped from 202 in the first half of 2012 to 154 in 2013?

Commissioner Kelly himself recently called the drop “miraculous.”

The discussion of the NYPD's future makes an ironic counterpoint to de Blasio's campaign which lambasts the Bloomberg Administration for creating “two cities” –one comprising a wealthy elite and the other an increasingly powerless and impoverished working class.”

It's a story of two approaches to policing.

Stop-and-frisk in New York as practiced by Ray Kelly's NYPD is an example of an older “warrior cop” approach reflected in militaristic rhetoric, such as “wars” on drugs and crime.

In many parts of America, that approach still dominates. Dressed in combat gear, wielding surplus army weapons and manning combat vehicles, police have been conducting “no-knock” raids that have grown from “2,000 to 3,000 a year in the mid-1980s, to between 70,000 and 80,000 a year in 2010,” as USA Today has reported.

“SWAT teams, which were deployed an average of 3,000 times annually during the mid-1980s, are now being deployed an estimated 45,000 times a year, often on routine searches and on unsubstantiated tips from informants.”

These tactics of course are a long way from New York's controversial stop-and-frisk policies, but the NYPD's defense of aggressive policing borrows from the same “warrior mentality.”

On the eve of this week's election, de Blasio said he wanted his next NYPD commissioner to “rebond” with the community, but gave no clear hint of what that means.

“I would choose people—and this begins with police commissioner and schools chancellor—who are already cognizant of the need to rebond their approach to the people they are serving,” he told The New York Times.

“I think that requires a certain amount of being out among the people.”

But the question still remains: will NYPD's most recent hard-edged approach win the day—or will the smart, consensus-building tactics pioneered by the same force 20 years ago become the national norm?

That's the real story which the criminal justice world will be—and should be—watching out of New York in the year to come.

Joe Domanick is chief of the West Coast Bureau of The Crime Report and associate director of the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD, to be published by Simon & Schuster in the Spring of 2014. He welcomes comments from readers.

Comments are closed.