Reforming the NYPD–Beyond Stop and Frisk


With Bill Bratton back at the helm of the New York Police Department (NYPD), many New Yorkers who remember his term of service in that post during the Giuliani administration are experiencing a bit of déjà vu.

We recall his launch of CompStat, the NYPD system for ensuring command accountability at the precinct level, now replicated by police executives across the globe. And the return of George Kelling as an NYPD management guru appears to signal a reaffirmation of Bratton's famous “broken windows” approach to crime control in New York City.

Many New Yorkers welcome these developments, believing that Bratton's strict enforcement of “quality of life” crimes was the driving force that won our city's victory against the 1980's epidemic of violent crime.

However, New York University sociologist David Greenberg disagrees. He says that while crime rates have plummeted, it's not because of the NYPD.

Greenberg points out that the crime decline actually began in 1990, three years prior to Bratton's introduction of “broken windows” and CompStat – and that, during the 1990s, crime rates also dropped rapidly in other major cities across the US.

His analysis of precinct-level data shows that the increase in misdemeanor arrests was not the driver of reduced levels of homicide, robbery, or aggravated assaults.

And recent research conducted by Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at the University of Missouri, finds little support for the idea that the NYPD's stop-and-frisk campaign had much impact on crime rates.

While he found some effect on robbery rates, he found none on rates of burglaries, and he questions whether the disproportionate impact of stop-and-frisk on racial and ethnic minorities might outweigh any modest gains in crime control.

These research findings are in line with those reported by researchers years ago.

Bernard Harcourt published a report in 2006 that concluded that there was no evidence that broken-windows policing had reduced crime in New York City.

My own analysis, published in 1999, compared violent crime rates in NYC and San Diego. While crime had dropped by equal rates in both cities over the 1990s, the strategies adopted by the police were dramatically different.

San Diego had introduced “problem-oriented policing,” a form of community policing that addresses specific problems in neighborhoods that foster criminal activity. As crime rates declined, both felony and misdemeanor arrests fell in step.

Meanwhile, the broken windows strategy in NYC produced a steady increase in misdemeanor arrests, in step with a sharp increase in complaints filed before the Civilian Complaint Review Board and the number of law suits alleging police misconduct and abuse of force.

The current controversy over the stop-and-frisk strategies pursued under the previous administration of Mayor Mike Bloomberg filled the front pages of our local press when Federal District Court Judge Shira A. Scheindlin issued her August 2013 opinion, in Floyd v. the City of New York, that the practice was being performed in an unconstitutional manner by NYPD patrol officers.

She ordered a number of key reform measures to address the problem, including retraining for patrol officers, and retooling of NYPD supervision, monitoring and disciplinary procedures. She appointed a federal court monitor to oversee the reform process.

Last November, Judge Scheindlin's order was put on hold by a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Last week the new mayor, Bill de Blasio, moved to drop the City's appeal so that he can move forward with the reforms.

But settling the case is just the first step toward the hard work of changing how NYPD officers patrol the streets.

At least one particular feature of the judge's order should have great appeal for Commissioner Bratton, who has promised a more “collaborative” approach to policing the streets of our city.

Judge Scheindlin ordered a “Joint-Remedy Process,” a six-to-nine month effort to bring stakeholders from the communities most affected by stop-and-frisk to the table along with NYPD brass and representatives of the police union to determine the specific reforms that will be necessary to bring NYPD policies and practices into compliance with the Constitution.

She cited the Cincinnati Collaborative Process as a model for shaping the Joint-Remedy Process in order to assure direct involvement of community leaders in the development of reform strategies for the NYPD.

And she appointed Nicholas Turner, director of the Vera Institute of Justice, to facilitate the process.

In Cincinnati, the killing of an unarmed black teenager by a white cop (the 15th such event in less than five years) had sparked three days of full-blown civil rebellion in 2001, focusing the attention of the city's elite on the seriousness of the problem of police misconduct.

Local reformers and their lawyers convinced a federal judge to order a settlement that included a structured, collaborative process that provided them with a seat at the table, along with the police union and city hall.

The negotiations in Cincinnati produced a ground-breaking mutual agreement between all the parties, leading to a new rationale (problem-oriented policing) to guide patrol officers. This “collaborative agreement” was enforced by the federal court. Community leaders were involved in every step of implementation over the next decade.

Public opinion research showed a marked improvement in perceptions of the police department's effectiveness, as well as its relationships with community residents.

An assessment by the Rand Corporation judged the innovative strategy to have reached highly successful results, and the concept of collaborative involvement has sparked interest in other cities struggling with issues of police misconduct.

In Seattle, many years of steady pressure by a remarkable coalition of leaders from all sectors of Seattle's nonwhite communities brought matters to a head. A task force on police accountability organized by Seattle's three-decades old Minority Executive Director's Coalition worked closely with the ACLU to demand a Department of Justice investigation of racial profiling and excessive use of force.

These demands were reflected in a 2012 federal court consent decree that established a Community Police Commission (CPC).

The CPC includes 15 commissioners representing Seattle's diverse communities, including two police union representatives. They are working closely with Merrick Bobb, the Federal Court Monitor, to assist the Seattle Police Department in creation of new policies, and will monitor their implementation.

Commissioner Bratton should welcome implementation of the Joint-Remedy Process in our city as a key feature of his efforts to ensure that NYPD policies and practices conform with constitutional requirements and – as well – an excellent opportunity for innovative, inclusive development of his “collaborative policing” model.

Police accountability is not a goal that can be won once and for all.

Police policy reforms are not simply items on a check-off list, or computerized data systems created to guarantee changed practice on the streets. The two examples cited above make the point that effective police reform is a dynamic process that requires sustained engagement “from the bottom to the top.”

The effort to reform policing requires participation of community leaders and patrol officers as well as police executives.

And it takes an attitude of “let's roll up our sleeves and get this done” on all sides.

Judy Greene is an independent criminal justice policy analyst and a founder of Justice Strategies. She has been a Senior Research Fellow for the Institute on Criminal Justice at the University of Minnesota Law School, Program Director of the State-Centered Program for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and (1985-1993) was Director of Court Programs at the Vera Institute of Justice. She welcomes comments from readers.

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