City Journal

William J. Bratton and George L. Kelling
Taking Back the Streets
The NYPD continues its transition to community policing by taking a more assertive approach to the city's problems.
Summer 1994

The New York City Police Department is fundamentally changing its basic strategy. This shift is in response to strong demands from local residents for police help in dealing with neighborhood problems such as illegal firearms, youth violence, drug dealing, domestic violence, and public disorder. The more assertive policing this new strategy entails does not, as some have suggested, represent a retreat from community policing. To the contrary, for police to become more assertive in handling complicated social problems is the essence of community policing. It reflects a break from a half-century of conventional wisdom about policing.

In brief, the old style of policing was characterized by strong centralized command and control that aimed to prevent police corruption and abuse by limiting contact with the general public, by a paramilitary model that emphasized “crime fighting” rather than crime prevention and order maintenance, and by a reactive approach in which the police became involved only after a crime had occurred. This approach failed on its own terms: crime increased and corruption and abuse, though reduced, persisted. It had other adverse consequences as well: the creation of an insular police culture, a focus on arrest statistics to the exclusion of preventive methods of crime control, and an inability to respond effectively to the proliferation of public disorder. The result has been a pent-up demand for qualitatively different policing to deal with neighborhood problems. (The intellectual evolution of community policing has been detailed in several past City Journal articles, including, most recently, “Making Community Policing Work,” by George Kelling, Winter 1994.)

In New York City, police commissioners back to Patrick V. Murphy (who served from 1970 to 1973) have struggled with these problems. Murphy experimented with team policing, which bore many similarities to community policing. Benjamin Ward (1984-89) implemented the Community Patrol Officer Program, which created special community policing units. Lee Brown (1990-92) took the first steps in carrying out his vision of department-wide community policing, and his successor, Raymond Kelly (1992-94), continued the process, setting up formal networks of communication to give line officers a voice.

But although the shift to community policing has been in progress for some time, it is impossible to exaggerate the extent to which the practice of involving patrol officers with issues like drug dealing; and the quality of life is a departure from the recent past of policing, both nationally and in New York City. Citizens, for the most part, are eager for a resolute police presence in their neighborhoods. Yet establishing such a presence puts police into ambiguous moral, social, legal, and constitutional territory. In implementing community policing, the NYPD will have to deal with complex issues involving civil liberties, the fear of harassment and abuse of minorities, the possibility of violent conflicts between police and citizens, the potential for corruption, and resistance within the department from officers and leaders steeped in conventional police culture.

Civil Liberties

Jane Jacobs defined the terms for understanding the significance of disorder in cities in her classic book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Urban civility depends on what Jacobs calls the “small change” of city life: the “built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together on civilized but essentially dignified and reserved terms”—that is, the myriad of mundane street observances and rituals through which people communicate their reliability and predictability: limiting eye contact, respecting personal space, modulating voices, walking to one side of the street.

Wesley Skogan of Northwestern University, in his research in forty cities, confirmed both Jacobs’s intuitive understanding and the “Broken Windows” hypothesis—that disorder left untended escalates into serious crime. Citizens, regardless of social class or ethnicity, generally agree about what constitutes disorder, and they want something done about it. Rules of civility are not impediments to pluralism and diversity. On the contrary, civility is a necessary condition for tolerance.

Yet neighborhoods are capable of pettiness and meanness as well as care, sustenance, and protection. As Harvard’s Mark Moore has said, “Citizens should neither take nor give offense easily.” Built into our social system are individualistic political values that place great importance on free expression and personal autonomy. These freedoms benefit communities as well as individuals, by enriching political and social discourse through innovation, creativity, and even deviance.

Thus all citizens, and their police, stand in a tension between individual rights and the interests of communities. This tension has led to legal and political conflict in city after city. In Chicago, public housing, officials, on behalf of desperate tenants, seek some form of authority to rid the projects of weapons—invoking search-and-seizure issues. In New York, the Larry Hogue fiasco, in which a seriously disturbed man terrorized a neighborhood for years, with mental health and court officials claiming that nothing could be done without violating his personal freedom, epitomized the city’s struggle. In Seattle, City Attorney Mark Sidran has been hung in effigy for proposing that street people should not be able to lie down on commercial streets during shopping hours.

On one side in the dispute over public order are civil libertarians, especially the American Civil Liberties Union, who fear that society is dusting off old vagrancy statutes to harass the homeless and hide the dire circumstances of poor citizens, especially minorities. On the other are representatives and residents of neighborhoods, now allied in most cities with their police, who are faced with the devastation that a seriously disturbed, substance-abusing and predatory population—only some of whom are actually homeless—is wreaking on city streets and in public spaces.

This alliance between neighborhood residents and police against civil libertarians represents a strong shift in policing. Whether explicitly or not, American police and civil libertarians have maintained an important conceptual and practical alliance for decades. When libertarians say, for example, “Police shouldn’t worry about problems like panhandling—they should do their real job, concentrating on serious violent crime,” their position is identical to that of a generation of American police. “If only police could concentrate on crime, they could really make a difference” was the oft-heard 1950s and 1960s police lament. Police and civil libertarians have, of course, taken this position for different reasons. But the similarity in their rhetoric is striking.

The tension between individual rights and assertive policing takes another form as well. As police are called on to deal with problems of youth and domestic violence, they come into more intimate contact with institutions, such as the family and schools, in which American society has been loath to have police involved. Crime within these institutions interferes with their functioning and threatens the values that they bring to society: families fail to nurture; schools fail to educate; homes and neighborhoods become places of terror and pain instead of refuge. Police are in a tension between respect for the integrity of these institutions and the need to assert themselves when things begin to go awry inside them. Old-style “crime fighting” seemed clear-cut and unambiguous; assertive community policing is fraught with ambiguity.

Police and Minorities

There is no denying the historical and contemporary reality of a troubled relationship between minorities and police. Yet the relationship is far more complicated than such an acknowledgment would imply. The reflexive conclusion that minorities despise police, want them out of their communities, will not cooperate with them, and certainly will not tolerate assertive policing can
become a self-fulfilling prophecy that deprives many minority communities of quality policing.

George Kelling (one of the authors of this article) recently met with a group of public housing residents in a predominantly black neighborhood of a large Midwestern city. Although Kelling preferred to meet in one of their homes, the citizens insisted on meeting in a nearby church. Later they explained that they feared meeting in the development because Kelling was white, and local hoodlums, assuming he represented government or police, would retaliate against them. These representatives were desperate: gang members had taken over the project and made life impossible for residents. The residents, all African-Americans, went on to express their anger with police—not about brutality or abuse, but about the lack of police presence and assertiveness. They believed that police had abandoned them.

The next evening, Kelling rode in the same neighborhood with a young police officer who had been on the job patrolling the area for two to three years. Riding past the same public housing development, the officer told Kelling: “Every citizen in that project hates us.”

Neither the wishes of the citizens nor the beliefs of the officer were atypical. Minorities in focus groups of New York City subway passengers; neighborhood residents in New Haven, Connecticut; and minority citizen groups in Boston, Chicago, Indianapolis, and other cities express the same longing for a robust police presence. Such views are so pervasive that Chief Rueben Greenberg of Charlotte, South Carolina, who is black, says he has never heard African-Americans complain about too much policing. Likewise, national opinion polls demonstrate that minorities are even more frustrated with the effectiveness of criminal justice agencies, including police, than whites are. This is not surprising, since victims of crime are disproportionately minorities. They want police in their neighborhoods—not strangers who whiz in and out responding to calls, but police whom they know and who are predictable.

The officer’s belief that minority citizens hate police cannot be dismissed as foolish or racist. Such beliefs, widespread in policing, have their basis in street experience. Both of us—Bratton as a cop on Boston streets and Kelling as an observer in cities including New York—have witnessed innumerable situations in which police are called to a housing project and arrive at the scene only to be greeted by surly looks and citizens unwilling to provide information. These citizens, desperate as they may be to protect their children and properties, are afraid to be openly friendly to police, both because they fear retaliation by neighborhood troublemakers and because they fear that police will reject their overtures.

The problem for officers is that little in their backgrounds prepares them for such experiences. Most police, with working- or middle-class origins, are unfamiliar with minority neighborhoods. Their training has tended to alert them to the dangers of such places, but they know little else about them. Police tactics have isolated officers in cars, and policy discourages “idle” conversation. Neighborhood residents or their representatives have sometimes met with community relations officers or middle-managers, but rarely with the officers who patrol an area. The unfortunate but predictable consequence is that officers fear minority neighborhoods. The officer who said that “everyone hates us” was expressing this fear, not racism or cynicism.

Happily, police leaders increasingly understand the costs of isolating officers from the neighborhoods they patrol. In Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Kelling has walked with a neighborhood patrol officer, a white woman in her late twenties who has been on the NYPD for about two years. Asked how long it took her to become comfortable patrolling her beat, she responded: “Oh, after about four months—when citizens stopped referring to me as ’white lady’ and called me by my name.” This was not a naive or foolish officer; she knew that this was a troubled area. But she also knew that she had strong backup from her colleagues, and, more importantly, she knew and was known by neighborhood residents. She knew that the vast majority of them are law-abiding citizens who were delighted by her presence in their neighborhood and, as good citizens in every neighborhood, protective of “their” police officer. Her experience confirms the findings of Robert Trojanowicz’s research in Flint, Michigan, during the 1970s: officers riding in two-person cars were more fearful than officers walking alone in the same areas.

The NYPD must work hard to forge the relationships with citizens that will enable them to regain control of public spaces. The idea that minority communities are implacably hostile to police is as outlandish as the idea that all police are racists bent on harassing and abusing minorities. Perpetuating these myths may serve some political agendas, but it also exacerbates the problem. Keeping police from doing their work in minority communities is no way to make up for the sad history of relations between police and minorities.

Violent Encounters

Leaders and observers of police departments raise legitimate concerns about whether more assertive policing will lead to more violent encounters between citizens and police. We must emphasize, however, that this is not inevitable. When William Bratton was commissioner of New York’s Transit Police Department, ejections for violating subway rules tripled in a matter of months. Yet complaints against police did not increase, and there is no evidence that the number of violent confrontations rose. It is also important to note that police cannot be held hostage to the possibility of increased violence. If they were, some of New York’s most dedicated and vicious criminals could continue to operate with impunity. Police must do all they can to avoid violence, but if confronted with resistance from offenders, they must be prepared to use force, legally and skillfully—and efficiently (that is, using as little force as required).

As sociologist Egon Bittner has pointed out, the core capacity of police is their ability to use force, whether in dealing with crime or in their other peace-keeping and service functions. Of primary importance, however, is how to avoid the need to use force, which endangers both citizens and police. This issue is as old as policing itself. Sir Robert Peel, who set up London’s first police force in 1829, instructed police about their duty to earn approval and gain compliance by persuasion, negotiation, and exhortation. “Keeping peace by peaceful means” was how Peel described the work of police.

Sometimes, of course, police must preemptively threaten or use force. But they should not rely too heavily on preemptive “strikes” to forestall resistance. Most officers, in most interactions with citizens, use their authority discreetly and respectfully. Nonetheless, enough situations of preemptive force develop, especially in minority communities, and especially when police deal with male youths, to justify concern.

Conventional policing, with its military-style training, insular culture, and warrior mentality, reinforces a tendency to use preemptive force. Police, conditioned to be wary of citizens, often begin their encounters not with conversation to persuade, but with confrontation to overwhelm. Because police believe (with some good reason) that they must win any confrontation, citizens—often male youths—must lose, deserving or not. This cycle further increases tensions, as officers become more aggressive and youths become more resentful. When crises occur, circumstances may spin out of control. In critical confrontations, when officers need support, community members often withhold it. In the worst of cases, observers come to the aid of the offender rather than the police. In some neighborhoods, even good citizens refrain from supporting police—partly out of fear of retaliation from the youths, but partly in response to their own observations and experiences with police.

Police are not warriors involved in all-out, no-holds-barred conflicts with citizens or entire neighborhoods; they are peacekeepers who must keep peace by peaceful means. Police training must teach officers how to use force skillfully and effectively. Persuasion and negotiation are some of the most basic use-of-force skills.

Corruption

Increasing police involvement in neighborhoods—especially where drug dealing is a problem—prompts fears of police corruption. Indeed, a central justification for isolating police from citizens has been the desire to keep officers away from the temptation of corrupt activity. Three principles must underlie anti-corruption efforts.

First, withdrawing police from neighborhoods is not an acceptable way to avoid corruption. The problems of the city are too grave to allow the NYPD the luxury of keeping the vast majority of honest police from doing their jobs in the name of controlling the small percentage who might become corrupt.

Second, reducing the authority of precinct commanders over their personnel dilutes the effort to decentralize authority, a vital step in making the NYPD responsive to neighborhood concerns. Precinct commanders must have the authority, resources, and responsibility they need to ensure the quality of policing in their areas. While people of good faith may debate the value of civilian review, external investigative bodies, and internal affairs units, none of these efforts should be implemented in a way that dilutes the accountability or responsibility of precinct commanders.

Third, the same admonition holds for the commissioner: nothing should dilute his accountability for ensuring both his department’s integrity and the quality of its policing.

Citizens, however, have an important role to play in maintaining the integrity of police. Traditional policing isolated officers from citizens through secrecy, secluded socialization of recruits, the development of an insular culture, and the creation of organizational boundaries that were largely impenetrable by civilians. Those days are over. Civilian researchers are all over policing; civilians have moved into key policy and training positions. The recruitment of minorities and women has made police culture more open.

The devolution of authority to precinct commanders makes the NYPD more open to its “consumers,” the citizens and guests of New York City. Decentralization acknowledges the diversity of New York and its problems. As officers move into communities, citizens have more influence on police. Whereas demand for police service had been channeled centrally through 911, the presence of officers on neighborhood streets makes them available for direct communication and requests for service.

Officers’ increasing availability, combined with an aggressive integrity program at all levels of the NYPD, defines a role for citizens in the maintenance of integrity as well. Just as police departments across the country have made it easier for citizens to come forth with complaints of abuse, so departments must increase their receptivity to complaints of corruption.

By no means do we suggest that citizen input alone can ensure the integrity of a police department. The department also needs strong management, personnel, and investigative processes to reduce corruption. But more openness to citizens, while it may increase the opportunities for corruption, can also create new ways of ensuring integrity.

Changing Police Culture

It is no secret that many officers, in New York and elsewhere, are dubious about community policing. This is a testimony both to the power of conventional police ideology and to the scant attention police leaders have paid to changing the culture of their departments.

Mid-century reform leaders used powerful metaphors to support the changes they were putting in place: police were a “thin blue line”; they fought “wars” on crime; they were “professionals.” These leaders dismissed many historic police services such as order maintenance as “social work”; the only true police business was “crime fighting.” Virtually the only things police departments counted were serious crimes and arrests; other police activities came to be labeled as “junk” work or much worse. Yet empirical studies have shown that crime fighting accounts for only about 20 percent of police work.

Moreover, police departments created elite investigative and special units to which “high producing” officers—those who made many arrests—were promoted. Officers who paid attention to citizen and neighborhood concerns were accorded far less respect.

Community policing represents a fundamental departure from this ethos. Police leaders have done a superb job of communicating this change to political leaders, the media, and citizen groups. President Clinton and Attorney General Janet Reno are touting and funding community policing. This would have been unimaginable to those of us who were wrestling with the concept during its inchoative stages in the early 1980s.

But police leaders have largely failed to communicate effectively with their own personnel. For one thing, they have been influenced by the old reform idea that administration thinks, supervisors oversee, and line officers do. In truth, officers have contributed a great deal to the changes in police strategy, and police leaders need to make a systematic effort both to understand officers’ concerns and to provide them with information about the new direction of their departments. Another problem is that many police executives inadvertently describe community policing in “soft and woolly” terms—making it sound like social work. Reared on crime fighting, most officers are initially skeptical of what sounds like “soft” policing.

But once officers, even grizzled veterans, get involved in community policing, most find that it gives new meaning to their work. They discover for themselves the links between disorder, fear, and serious crime; the importance of the information they gather from cooperative citizens in preventing and solving crimes; the deep appreciation citizens have for assertive policing; and the salutary effects their activities have on citizens and neighborhoods. Eventually, many come to say something like: “This is why I went into policing in the first place.” Police leaders need to close the gap between the new definitions of function and their department’s tactics, and between the organizational structure and its managerial processes, as rapidly as possible. Contemporary police leaders must develop metaphors for community policing that are as powerful as the war metaphors of an earlier era.

Solving Problems

Police leaders and scholars have not asked all the needed questions about policing, or given all the answers. This may seem obvious, but it is an important lesson from police history. During the 1960s, when disorder, fear, and crime were becoming national problems, police executives generally thought little was wrong with the way they did business. Oh, some technical improvements, seemingly well-understood, had to be implemented. And police departments had to develop community relations programs to convince neighborhood groups, especially minorities, that while they might not like how they were being policed, police methods were so effective that citizens must accept them.

We now understand that matters were far more complicated than the then-dominant vision of policing acknowledged. As we develop community policing, it is important to bear in mind that police must act in accord with the many different, sometimes competing, values of the society in which they work. How we translate these values into policy must be the subject of vigorous public debate.

This is a particularly salient point in New York, where critics of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have claimed that his “tough talk”—in particular, his questioning whether police should do “social work”—represents an abandonment of community policing.

In fact, the NYPD remains committed to community policing. The issues Mayor Giuliani has raised, like the tensions we have discussed in this article, are important matters of professional debate about which considerable diversity exists in the field. Many members of the police and academic communities, who are not divided along racial, political, or professional lines, are asking basic and searching questions. Should police do for citizens what they can do for themselves? Should police do for citizens what other agencies have been chartered and funded to do? Should police be involved in organizing communities? What activities are legitimately included as police crime-prevention efforts? What should police refuse to do? What is the role of private security? Should police engage in major operations to retake neighborhoods when citizens will not become involved? No conceptual template can predetermine the “correct” answers to such questions; they can be found only through debate and experience.

The NYPD and other departments will resolve many of the tensions we have discussed through improved training, procedures, organizational values, and policies. Some cities, including New York, are trying to go further to ensure that the public is kept apprised of how police departments are shaping new strategies. The NYPD has recently published five strategic documents, detailing the department’s plans for dealing with illegal firearms, youth violence, drug dealing, domestic violence, and quality-of-life issues. Their primary purpose is to provide guidance to precinct commanders about city-wide priorities, but they are also public documents that put forth the department’s values, the shape of particular problems in New York City, the NYPD’s understanding of current research about particular issues, the tactics the department will use to address these problems, and a target date for preliminary evaluation of the efforts. They expose the NYPD’s legal, analytical, and tactical thinking and encourage public and professional debate, not only about priorities, but about the rigor and quality of departmental thinking as well.

These documents establish accountability in the process of determining priorities and methods. They represent the NYPD “thinking out loud” about the tensions and dilemmas of policing in a democracy. In a free society, order—and the means we use to secure it—can be as big a problem as disorder. By asking difficult questions about complex problems, the NYPD is facing up to its critical challenge: restoring order to urban neighborhoods while preserving individual rights.

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