Over the last quarter of a century, the United States has seen historic drops in crime—most famously in New York. These gains, once thought impossible, were achieved largely through dramatic innovations in policing, especially the adoption of an approach that stressed order maintenance in communities, data- and intelligence-gathering, and a problem-solving approach to crime and disorder.

In recent years, however, antipolice sentiment has risen in the U.S., sparked in part by a series of tragic, high-profile police-involved killings in major cities but also by the work of critics, mostly on the left but also on the libertarian right, who argue that targeted policing aimed at public disorder is coercive, hostile to community life, and often racist. These critics see such policing as the antithesis to what they call community policing. The arguments that have gained popular currency among police critics have essentially blinded them from seeing that the sort of aggressive policing that they object to can actually be an element of a community-policing model.

The increasingly widespread view that community policing and order-maintenance efforts are at odds represents a fundamental misunderstanding. In reality, the proactive policing that New York first undertook in its subway system under then–transit police chief William J. Bratton in the early 1990s—informed in significant part by Broken Windows theory—was a core element of community policing. Indeed, the very behaviors that residents wanted more heavily policed called for exactly the sort of approach that many modern community-policing advocates now decry.

For decades prior, the prevailing model saw the role of police as responding to serious crime, and it relied on traditional measures of enforcement actions such as arrests and response time to gauge whether they were accomplishing their mission. Call it the law-enforcement model. Policing and criminal-justice policy were, as I wrote in City Journal back in 1992, driven by “the official crime problem as defined in crime, response, and arrest statistics.” But a shift was already under way; soon, police forces would begin to focus their attention on what community members perceived to be the most serious problems that their neighborhoods faced.

Origins of the paradigm began to emerge around the country during the 1980s, when some of its basic ideas began to be implemented in programs such as team policing, increased foot patrol, and improved community relations. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that there was, in the Big Apple, a full-scale reorientation of policing around the community; and that development constituted a once-in-a-generation paradigm shift, setting an example that would be followed by urban police departments across the country. Integral to this move was Bratton, at the time a young police chief from Boston. He would serve first as chief of the transit police in New York City, from 1990 to 1993, and then as NYPD commissioner from 1994 to 1996. He returned for a second stint as New York’s police chief, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, in 2014, serving until 2016. I worked with him as a consultant during both periods.

Community policing is often portrayed as being soft on crime. A Google search of the phrase turns up images of smiling police officers allowing children to sit on top of motorcycles, posing for pictures, playing touch football, and making presentations to schoolchildren. This risks making community policing seem like a publicity stunt, an insincere attempt by cops to foster a gentler image—what some law-and-order critics mock as “hug-a-thug” enforcement. Community policing, rightly understood, can be, and often is, aggressive and even intrusive, depending on the community’s concerns.

It’s important to understand the context in which the new policing model emerged; today’s police critics fail to appreciate that context. In essence, they can’t help but see the efforts of New York City cops in the 1990s through 2019 eyes. Compared with today, the New York of the 1990s was a very different world—and residents’ worries were different, too. The decay of public spaces was at the forefront of many New Yorkers’ minds. People wanted to use public parks, ride public transportation, and walk in their neighborhoods without fear of being victimized by an aggressive beggar, mentally disturbed street person, or young gangbanger.

Crime was then a daily fear for New Yorkers. In 1990, New York saw 2,262 murders, along with more than 100,000 robberies; in 2017, by sharp contrast, there were 292 murders and 14,000 robberies in the city. Yet, scary as crime was, community fear has always been more closely correlated with public disorder. And by the early 1990s, as City Journal readers know well, New York City was two decades into a meteoric rise in visible disorder. Subway trains were covered in graffiti. Times Square was overrun by prostitutes, pimps, and drug dealers. A drive through the Bronx would reveal whole blocks on which only one structure—if any—remained standing. A trip to the corner store would often require cutting through a group of youngsters dealing drugs, drinking, playing loud music, or catcalling young women.

As this kind of disorder worsened, law-abiding residents began to feel increasingly vulnerable to more serious street crime. The disorder made people feel that no one was in charge, and if no one was in charge, anything could happen. More and more New Yorkers began to avoid many public spaces. And the absence of law-abiding citizens from public spaces allowed those spaces, and the surrounding neighborhoods, to fall further into disorder. Eventually, this breakdown encouraged more serious criminal behavior. My colleague James Q. Wilson and I explained the phenomenon in a 1982 article for The Atlantic. I saw my role as a consultant working with Bratton in the 1990s as helping police to incorporate this reality into how they approached their jobs.

The only way to give law-abiding citizens the confidence to begin taking back public spaces from those ruining them—with litter, noise pollution, overaggressive panhandling, drug dealing, boorish behavior such as public urination, and more serious criminal acts—was to respond to their concerns. Police needed to make clear that the problems that the community identified as priorities would be addressed. This focus on the community was an all-important first step in turning New York City around.

Though there is a popular conception today of what “community policing” means, it was actually a concrete idea that my colleague Mark Moore and I described in great detail in a 1988 paper published as part of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Session on Policing. In short, the various forms of policing are best understood as integrated organizational strategies with seven essential elements: the function of police in society; how police departments are organized; how police manage demand for their services; how police interact with the external environment; how police measure success; the sources from which police obtain their legitimacy and authority; and the tactics that police adopt to perform their function. Community policing, properly understood, reflects a department’s reorientation around public concerns with respect to each of those elements. Though some police department officials had been paying lip service to community policing for nearly a decade, it had never truly and fully been done until Bratton and his colleagues ushered in a new approach with respect to each of these elements. This process involved considerable trial and error.

The new approach broadened the main function of earlier policing—law enforcement and response to crimes after they are committed—to include crime prevention, order maintenance, and fear reduction. Instead of just reacting, policing in 1990s New York started to pursue crime prevention, partly by recognizing the relationship between disorder and crime. As Bratton often acknowledged, the idea that cops could and should prevent crime and disorder could be traced back to the father of British policing, Sir Robert Peel, whose nine principles of policing, promulgated in 1829, opened with that preventive role. When Bratton arrived in New York, police were still being told that they couldn’t do anything to deter crime. But experience told him that wasn’t true: “I could do something about crime,” he said. “I could do something about disorder; and it was key to do both.”

Enlisting the public in this battle was a key aspect of Bratton’s plan to turn New York City’s crime crisis around. As he saw it, police had to work with everyone with skin in the game. The broader and deeper the partnerships the police forge with community members, the stronger the resulting trust, which will be crucial in times of stress, such as when police make inevitable mistakes. As chief of the transit police, Bratton ensured that the department assumed responsibility for reducing the then-endemic crime and disorder in the subways and that it made its efforts as visible as possible, in order to make riders feel more secure. One example: transit cops began regularly to board trains and address any issues they came across—such as a homeless person sleeping on a row of seats—and announcements of an inspection would be made on the train’s public-address systems, so that riders knew that it was happening. Another example: the department launched new anti-fare-evasion efforts, which included the use of “bust buses”—hollowed-out transit-authority buses deployed as mobile arrest-processing centers. This signaled to the public that the transit police were doing something about fare-beaters, and it also cut down on the overtime logged by arresting officers, who no longer needed to go all the way downtown to do their bookings.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority did its part to promote the change, via clever subway ads. Bratton remembers “a wonderful cover photograph done in black, white, and blue fogged images, which was used on posters that were put up in the subway to advertise Transit Police efforts, to say ‘we’re here, we’re working.’ ”

Responding to the subway disorder had early and unexpected benefits. Transit police found that one out of every seven fare-evaders was wanted on a warrant, while one out of 21 was carrying a weapon. Cops called it the “Cracker Jack box” effect. Kids would buy a box of the caramel-covered popcorn snack for the toy inside as much as for the popcorn itself; when it came to enforcing laws against fare evasion, the “toy”—the thing that made the effort even more worthwhile, for both the cops and the public—was the weapon or wanted criminal taken off the street. By making what turned out to be important arrests through the enforcement of what was (and is still today) regarded as a minor offense, transit cops began seeing their role as preventing more serious crime through order maintenance; previously, the sense among the rank and file was that they were there primarily to protect the city’s revenue stream.

Reorienting police also required fundamental changes to how they were managed and organized. Prior to the early 1990s, police departments were highly centralized, both geographically and structurally. Now, geographic decentralization and discretion for lower-level management and beat cops were promoted. Limiting discretion had its uses—it lessened opportunities for officers to engage in corruption, for instance. But beat cops and lower-level supervisors were closer to the neighborhoods that they policed and had greater insight into their problems than did their departments’ executive officers. Empowering them made the police more responsive to the public—and more effective at fighting crime.

Decentralization encouraged less reliance on 911 and more direct contact with precinct officers, allowing police to manage demand for their services more directly. One of the most effective ways of creating such interaction is through police/community meetings, where citizens can air their concerns. But foot patrols are perhaps even more important. Foot patrols place officers within arm’s reach of the community, looping them into disputes and allowing them to field requests for service on the spot, with no middleman. In addition to making cops more accessible, foot patrols help restore the sense of security that citizens need in order to do their part to enforce community norms, knowing that backup is not far away.

“While working with the community as a partner, police sometimes have to take unpopular, tough stances.”

Community policing, as we understood it, called for an unprecedented level of interaction between police and the external environment—which included the public as well as the private sector. When it came to giving the community a voice in identifying and dealing with problems in the subway, the MTA used focus groups to learn what subway riders thought about the system. The results enabled transit police to understand public frustrations. Abundant research on community concerns taught Bratton that disorder, unlike major crime, was something people experienced every day, viscerally and personally. If robberies declined, people might not feel the effect immediately; but if fare-evaders and aggressive beggars disappeared and subway stations were cleaner and brighter, people using the subway would feel safer. Not only did focus groups give police a better idea of the public’s priorities; they also proved useful in getting a sense of whether their efforts were alleviating the public’s fears about crime and disorder. Using these sorts of data to measure success is another example of how policing in 1990s New York bucked the old standard.

The NYPD also worked with the private and nonprofit sectors on initiatives to restore public order. For example, the department partnered with local business-improvement districts to identify areas of New York that needed cleaning, better lighting, and other services.

While working with the community as a partner, police sometimes have to take unpopular, tough stances. It’s true that disorder drives public fear—and that members of minority groups themselves wanted relief from it—but addressing it meaningfully was not easy, given racial tensions in New York City during the late 1980s and 1990s. Because crime in New York wasn’t spread equally throughout the city’s five boroughs, the disproportionate impact of enforcement efforts put significant strain on the department’s relationship with some members of New York’s black and Latino communities. Much of the crime—and, by extension, the law enforcement—was concentrated in these areas. Yet the city’s extraordinary crime problem demanded a strong police response. “It had to be done,” Bratton says. “The police had to be more assertive.” (The assertiveness of Broken Windows misdemeanor enforcement, however, does not equate with “zero tolerance” policies and high-arrest strategies, as is sometimes alleged; done correctly, order-maintenance policing does not rely on such practices.) The resolve paid off: in the years following, major (and minor) crime declined enough to save countless lives, reduce public fear, and make the city’s meanest streets walkable again—and the greatest drops citywide occurred in heavily minority neighborhoods.

In a city with, as Bratton puts it, “something like 275 recognized neighborhoods, all with different priorities and problems that changed from time to time,” the NYPD also had to be adaptive. No two expressions of community policing will be identical across locations and communities—whether in New York or any other city. Changes in the characteristics of one element of the strategy require complementary adjustments in others: for example, the development and use of more aggressive tactics to deal with particular crime problems requires that police involve citizens even more closely to maintain their consent and support, because part of the paradigm shift involved a recognition that the police derive their legitimacy and authority from the public they serve. Likewise, a move toward decentralization requires administrative refinements: those gaining new authority on the ground will need additional training and accountability measures to handle their expected use of discretion in problem-solving, while managers will have to develop new skills for supervising their officers’ wider-ranging activities. For community policing to work, ongoing and continual adjustment of its various elements is required; it is not set in stone.

Police forces have many tactical options at their disposal. For the NYPD, perhaps one of the most important tactics was the use of data to inform police in deploying their resources, allowing them to develop solutions to specific problems. Bratton saw CompStat—the computer-based system allowing police to record and analyze crime patterns and enforcement activity—as the ultimate blend of data and accountability. Making crime data available in nearly real time helped the police track their progress and measure success. Giving power away also required ensuring that it was being used appropriately. Using data to track crime and enforcement activity made it possible to hold precinct commanders accountable by showing clearly whether their approaches to crime in their jurisdictions were effective. CompStat enabled the police to prioritize high-crime areas and target the types of offenses that community members were most concerned about.

One reason such initiatives were so effective in reducing crime was that they reflected an understanding of the critical link between crime and disorder. That connection was stronger than most thought, as my colleague William Souza and I documented in a 2001 report for the Manhattan Institute. It found that, on average, every misdemeanor arrest in a given precinct was associated with 0.036 fewer violent crimes. Order maintenance serves effectively as a tactic for overall crime reduction, partly because of the overlap between violent and nonviolent offenders.

Unfortunately, some New Yorkers seem to be noticing a regression toward the sorts of public disorder that characterized the city decades ago. That perception has followed an official push on the part of some city leaders to roll back police authority to deal with such public-order offenses as fare evasion and public urination. The push reflects a misunderstanding of what true community policing is. New Yorkers who don’t wish to see the city’s gains eroded only need look to the transformation that its police were responsible for bringing about in the early 1990s—one that set an example for cities and police around the country. The lessons learned then remain applicable today; but applying them properly will require recognition that the law-enforcement model should give way to real community policing.

Photo: In addition to making cops more accessible, foot patrols helped restore citizens’ sense of security. (GLASSHOUSE IMAGES/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next