The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.” This, the first of Sir Robert Peel’s nine principles of policing, remains as true today as when the founder of the London Metropolitan Police articulated it in 1829. Over the past quarter-century, American police have excelled at this mission: the nation’s overall crime rate has plummeted nearly 40 percent since 1991. Peel’s second principle—“the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions”—is no less true than the first, but in recent years, police departments in cities across the country have found it harder to achieve.

Four years ago, police-involved homicides of black men on Staten Island (Eric Garner) and in Ferguson, Missouri (Michael Brown), set off national protests. Over the next 24 months, the upheavals drew attention to the “Great Divide,” as some criminologists call it—the chasm that exists between the police and many minority communities, owing to America’s unresolved quest for racial equality. This was followed by allegations of a “Ferguson Effect,” in which officers pulled back from proactive law enforcement owing to heightened scrutiny, a phenomenon first explored at length by City Journal’s Heather Mac Donald. Additionally, the nation has seen a spike in violent crime since 2014, marked by surges in shootings and homicides in some major cities.

Fortunately, a Peel-inspired template exists for how policing can effectively confront the Great Divide, prevent crime and disorder, and address other pressing problems such as the opioid epidemic, homelessness, and quality-of-life concerns—a strategy built on lessons from earlier crucibles, best practices from around the country, and effective collaboration among political leaders, the police, and the public. Coauthor Bratton and his executive team, of which coauthor Murad was a member, named it “precision policing.” The NYPD implemented it during Bratton’s second stint as New York City’s police commissioner, from 2014 to 2016. It helped the NYPD achieve new standards of crime control and police legitimacy, achievements that have continued and strengthened under Bratton’s successor, James O’Neill. We believe that precision policing represents the next phase of the policing revolution. It draws on previous innovations, like CompStat (the NYPD’s crime-mapping and accountability tool), and criminological advances, like quality-of-life policing, but goes beyond them. Precision policing is an organizing principle for the complexities of structuring, managing, motivating, and leading a twenty-first-century police force. We believe that it can make any city, town, or neighborhood a safer—and fairer—place.

This is no small goal. At the height of national attention to the Great Divide, the possibility of finding common ground on public safety often seemed distant. Too often, people on the various sides could not see each other for who they are, nor the world from each other’s point of view. Many cops and their supporters argued that the media were exaggerating police misconduct, and thus worsening police–community relations; they pointed out that the vast majority of cops are dedicated public servants, willing to risk their own safety for that of others. Activists, by contrast, insisted that unfair policing, driven by racial bias, was endemic in minority communities, a problem much larger than just a few bad apples.

For two years, protests roiled American cities, with activists demanding fundamental changes in policing. The demonstrations became synonymous with the activist group Black Lives Matter, but hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life participated in them. Though the preponderance of these events were peaceful, too many were marked by disorder, and some exploded into riots. Even the nonviolent protests frequently exhibited vitriol directed at the police, and sometimes police responded heavy-handedly.

In New York, the frequency and scale of demonstrations intensified in November 2014, following the death of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old African-American man shot by police in Brooklyn, and a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict the Ferguson officer who shot Brown. Unlike the Ferguson protests, the New York demonstrations did not end in arson and tear gas; nor did the NYPD use military-style long guns, camouflage, or armored vehicles to quell the disorder. But the ranks of protesters swelled again in early December, after a Staten Island grand jury refused to issue an indictment in the death of Garner. These protests were more chaotic and included several assaults on officers. Some nights saw hundreds of arrests, though not nearly as many as there might have been, had the NYPD not improved its crowd tactics after the Occupy Wall Street protests three years earlier.

Still, New York teetered on the edge of bedlam—until the assassination of Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn by a madman claiming retribution for Garner and Brown. The killings knocked the wind out of the more vehemently antipolice protesters. Anger at and even hatred of police didn’t vanish: a third NYPD officer, Miosotis Familia, was killed just for the uniform she wore in July 2017. But large-scale antipolice protests never regained their momentum in New York.

Big demonstrations continued elsewhere, though, usually motivated by new police-involved shootings, often of black men, some unarmed. But the ambush of Dallas cops at an otherwise peaceful march on July 7, 2016, which killed five officers and injured nine others, and the shooting of six Baton Rouge officers ten days later, killing three, changed the national tenor. There would still be protests—in Charlotte and Sacramento, for example—but by this point, too, the press had mostly turned away from the movement, beguiled by the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, whose election may owe in part to cultural backlash against the protests.

Fewer protests do not mean that the Great Divide has disappeared. It was long in the making, and four years of protests and reforms will not undo it. In neighborhoods where cops are ubiquitous—and where people need them the most—citizens still encounter the Great Divide, not just during police-involved shootings but also in more quotidian reports about police rudeness and double standards. Cops experience it, too, in the cell phones that seem to appear every time they take an enforcement action or in what they believe is a greater willingness by some suspects to resist arrest. Most alarmingly, the police point to the rising number of felonious line-of-duty deaths that cops have suffered this year—up almost 50 percent through the first five months of 2018 over the same period in 2017.

“When Bratton returned to the NYPD in 2014, he sought to implement a new emphasis on quality over quantity.”

These worries have seemingly led to one of the most self-defeating outcomes of the Great Divide: in places where public trust was already tenuous, some officers apparently began to ease off policing, damaging public safety and eroding trust yet further. Delivering a speech in October 2015, then–FBI director James Comey noted “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement.” This Ferguson Effect remains a contested hypothesis, though a University of Utah study in March 2018 found “empirical evidence that the reduction in stop and frisks by the Chicago Police Department beginning around December 2015 was responsible for the homicide spike that started immediately thereafter.” Few police officers doubt the phenomenon’s existence, even in cities where its impacts—decreased enforcement and higher crime—aren’t apparent.

In New York, for example, following the 2014 protests and the assassinations of Ramos and Liu, the NYPD went through a brief enforcement slowdown in December 2014 and January 2015. The decreased enforcement was not accompanied by higher crime, however. In our view, the pulling back was ad hoc, driven not by the police union or a particular plan, but instead by the perhaps inevitable reaction of exhausted men and women. They had policed ten weeks of demonstrations in cold weather, maintaining order while being shouted at, goaded, and even spat upon. Then they were appalled when a deranged man, claiming connection to the protests, killed two of their brethren. For Christmas, they got funerals.

Bratton and the NYPD’s executive staff used the unplanned slowdown to advance the idea of a planned “peace dividend”—strategically decreased enforcement, to match the city’s still-low crime rates. When Bratton returned to the NYPD in 2014, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, he sought to implement a new emphasis on quality over quantity. The department, we believed, had become too wedded to over-enforcement of the sort produced by lessened officer discretion. Officers had been primed to view arrests as better than summonses, and summonses as better than admonishments, regardless of on-the-ground conditions. This inflamed relations with residents in some neighborhoods. The slowdown gave us the opportunity to temper enforcement in a thoughtful way.

On their own, the cops had figured out how to relax some enforcement—summonses, certain misdemeanors—while maintaining response times to “heavy jobs” (the radio-triggered responses for in-progress felonies) and continuing to make felony arrests. Much of what they moderated, they believed, were activities that contributed more to the city’s administrative needs than to public safety, like ticketing parking violations and writing peddler summonses. If you’re a cop, you acknowledge that these quality-of-life conditions can’t go unaddressed, but you also know that enforcement is not the only way to deal with them.

Successful public safety is a shared responsibility between the public and the police, and the two sides have to work together. But with regard to quality-of-life disorder, a low-crime community can largely self-police. If, for example, Mrs. Smith in 7B feels safe telling Tommy Down-the-Hall to knock it off when he misbehaves, officers can prioritize admonitions, if they ever get involved. But if Tommy Down-the-Hall is too out of control, and/or if Mrs. Smith is too scared, the police must take action for Mrs. Smith, with strong warnings or with handcuffs. But the goal is to enforce only until things get better, and then shift into more discretionary policing that can be done with Mrs. Smith. The final stage comes when Mrs. Smith once again feels empowered to do it for herself. Problems arise when that transition does not occur. Imagine that police officers have helped bring crime down so that Tommy is not behaving so badly, and Mrs. Smith feels safe. If the police are still in the “for” and not in the “with” mode when they confront Tommy, Mrs. Smith may resent their actions and feel that they’re over-policing Tommy.

Quality-of-life policing is not “zero tolerance,” and never has been. A quick hit on a police siren can get a double-parked car to move; a warning can get a peddler to clear the sidewalk. These actions can save cops a day in court, too, keeping them in the field. Cops dealing with disorderly behavior say “knock it off” or “move along” far more than “you’re getting a ticket” or “you’re under arrest”—that’s the essence of officer discretion. The NYPD leadership has now embraced—or reembraced—that impulse. The strong security environment means that the NYPD can decrease certain types of enforcement, while stressing others, and get cops to help the community reinforce the “informal control mechanisms” that George Kelling and James Q. Wilson described when they advanced the Broken Windows criminological philosophy. Crime-fighting and better police-community relations can go hand in hand.

This new philosophy—precision policing—has two broad themes. The first, focused crime-and-disorder enforcement, hinges on a revitalized version of the CompStat system. During his first term as New York police commissioner, from 1994 to 1996, Bratton oversaw the creation and implementation of this innovative accountability system, which hinges on timely, accurate intelligence, rapid deployment of resources, effective tactics, and relentless follow-up. CompStat uses computers to track and map crime and then brings police leaders together to ensure that they are using resources to address it properly—and that crime is relentlessly prevented going forward. Together with Broken Windows policing—paying law-enforcement attention to minor infractions because ignoring them encourages worse offenses by sending the signal that the social order is breaking down—CompStat became a main driver of the crime drop that turned New York around.

But beginning in 2002, spurred by the budget impact of 9/11, Mayor Michael Bloomberg quietly allowed the NYPD to shrink by attrition. Commissioner Ray Kelly faced rosters that ultimately declined by nearly a fifth, even as he was addressing the new terrorism threat. To compensate, he created a new deployment plan called Operation: IMPACT. It sent officers fresh from the police academy to some of the city’s highest-crime precincts. They were separated from the standard precinct structure, removed from the normal burdens—and lessons—of patrol, and encouraged to “show activity” in the form of enforcement.

Around the same time, in our view, CompStat began to be misapplied in ways that also encouraged over-enforcement. Its crime-prevention outcome—its ends—was being confused with its enforcement inputs—its means. As designed by Bratton and Jack Maple, those inputs had included arrests and summonses, both predicated on probable cause. They also occasionally included stop, question, and frisk, which is predicated on a lower, more subjective, standard called “reasonable suspicion.” Used properly, reasonable-suspicion stops are integral to lawful, effective policing. Police must have the ability to “check out” people whose behavior leads the officer to suspect that they have committed or are about to commit misdemeanors or felonies. By 2011, however, the overemphasis on enforcement had led to nearly 700,000 stops, many done by inexperienced IMPACT officers. Residents, particularly in high-crime, low-income minority communities, felt paradoxically over-policed and under-protected, even as the city’s toughest neighborhoods were safer than they had ever been.

During his second stint as New York commissioner, Bratton rejected the prevailing belief that, with regard to enforcement activity, “more is better.” The NYPD reduced the number of stops—already declining at the end of Kelly’s tenure—by more than an order of magnitude. Bratton and his team reinvigorated CompStat, applying intensive analysis to individual cases and crime patterns alike. Every Thursday, staff from several precincts make their way to headquarters at One Police Plaza to explain how they handle conditions in their commands. By bringing top executives into regular contact with precinct commanders, detective squad supervisors, and other unit heads, the NYPD marries its strategy to its tactics. Data mining and case analysis ensure that evidence gets collected, that available technologies get deployed, that new ideas are generated, and that everyone works together. Typically, the meetings zero in on specific problems and the small cohort of actors, including shooters and pattern robbers, who perpetuate a vastly disproportionate amount of the city’s violent crime.

CompStat has provided a model for similar systems outside the department, such as the RxStat Operations Group, which includes some 35 New York health and law-enforcement agencies involved in combating the opioid epidemic. That group meets quarterly to assess overdoses in the New York region and apply CompStat-like accountability measures—asking questions such as “Which agencies touched this person?” and “What resources, policies, and procedures do we need to make a difference?”—to prevent new cases.

The second broad theme of precision policing: whereas focused crime-and-disorder enforcement targets the few who make communities unsafe, neighborhood policing works with the large number of residents who make communities strong. Commissioner O’Neill has called neighborhood policing the “greatest change to NYPD patrol in more than 50 years, and the largest systematic outreach to New York’s communities in department history.” It borrows significantly from two sources: the Boston Fenway Neighborhood Policing initiative, established by Bratton during the 1970s and guided by consultant Robert Wasserman; and the long-established Senior Lead Officer, or SLO, program used by the Los Angeles Police Department, which Bratton led from 2001 to 2009.

To build trust, the NYPD has emphasized neighborhood contacts. (SPENCER TUCKER/COURTESY OF NYPD)
To build trust, the NYPD has emphasized neighborhood contacts. (SPENCER TUCKER/COURTESY OF NYPD)

A 2009 Harvard Kennedy School assessment described the SLO: “Removed from the obligations to respond to routine calls-for-service, these officers become specialists in their neighborhoods, not only attending the usual panoply of community events, but building strategic relationships with community leaders, activists, and respected neighborhood residents.” O’Neill established a New York version: the Neighborhood Coordination Officer, or NCO, to leverage and build on the fact that in the neighborhoods, people like their cops. The NCO is a crime-fighting caretaker who isn’t tied to radio response but can instead invest in local partnerships and problem-solving. Neighborhood policing and focused crime-and-disorder enforcement form the operational backbone of precision policing.

The broad heading of precision policing can also be used to encompass myriad other initiatives that Bratton launched. Among them was an organizational reengineering effort, which Murad helped design and supervise. The process used polling, focus groups, and team-based assessments to perform a kind of CAT scan of the department, to determine what worked and what didn’t. It involved department officers and civilians of all ranks, who made countless recommendations, such as redesigning field training, working with social-services partners to reach at-risk youth, and improving disciplinary procedures.

To build community trust further, the NYPD opened an Office of Collaborative Policing, giving it three tasks: to explore nonenforcement options, including for first-time nonviolent offenders; to expand public access to police services, including the Crime Victim Assistance Program; and to design new strategies to complement focused crime-and-order enforcement. The department introduced an exhaustive schedule of community meetings and outreach by the commissioner and his staff. And it leveraged social media to communicate with the public. Today, every precinct and housing command has a Twitter account. There are more than 50 precinct Facebook accounts and a central NYPD Facebook page with 775,000 followers, a redesigned official website, and a variety of ways for the NYPD to tell its story.

Improved transparency and tracking was another goal. Recent policing controversies revealed the inadequacy of the FBI’s national use-of-force data. Tracking and investigating every firearms discharge, as well as training or disciplining based on the data, are vital to reducing violent incidents. At the NYPD, Murad helped create the nation’s most comprehensive public accounting of firearms discharges. In the LAPD, Bratton had instituted a cutting-edge force-investigation unit. In 2015, he inaugurated a similar division in the NYPD, and, the following year, we announced an expanded public accounting of all uses of force.

We set out, too, to boost officer morale—always a complex issue, influenced by concerns micro (“Do I like my assignment and my partner?”) and macro (“Is this a meaningful job? Am I treated and compensated well enough?”). We concentrated on disciplinary fairness, career satisfaction, and officer safety. The city’s corporation counsel stopped acquiescing to frivolous lawsuits that were cheaper to settle than to fight but that demoralized officers who had acted lawfully. We cleaned precinct houses and other structures; upgraded our 9,000-vehicle fleet; introduced improved safety equipment (stronger bullet-resistant vests, helmets, and shields); and deployed extra Tasers for supervisors and senior officers, among others.

Because policing is a profession, it requires ongoing professional education. More in-service training is available now than at any time in the department’s history. It includes instruction on de-escalation, ethics, the nobility of policing, and new physical-control tactics. We worked with mental-health professionals to develop crisis-intervention team training, or CIT, which teaches officers how to approach, connect with, and gain voluntary compliance from substance abusers and emotionally distressed persons, including many homeless people. We don’t turn cops into social workers, but we give them better tools to help people and keep them safe.

A department that used typewriters and Polaroids only a few years ago also upgraded its technology—from smartphones with custom-designed applications that allow cops to access terabytes of data in the field, to body cameras, to tablets in police vehicles.

Policing in the Age of Terror

As NYPD crime-fighting evolved in the mid-2010s, so, too, did terrorism, with the rise of a new Islamist terror threat—the Islamic State, or ISIS. Using social media, ISIS created a seductive narrative that promised nobodies that they could be somebodies. Whereas al-Qaida strove primarily to inflict large, directed attacks (where the actors had been trained, equipped, and deployed by handlers in the terrorist organization), ISIS perfected the “inspired” attack, in which an actor or actors—working alone or in tight, often familial, groups—have no direct contact with anyone in the terrorist organization. Recent “lone-wolf” attacks in the city include the September 2016 Chelsea bombing, which injured 31; the November 2017 West Side Highway vehicle assault, which killed eight and hurt many more; and the December 2017 suicide-bombing attempt in a Times Square Port Authority tunnel.

After 9/11, to his immense credit, then-commissioner Ray Kelly created a remarkably effective, innovative counterterrorism and intelligence capacity, which became a model for the nation. As we sought to address the newer, more diffuse, threat of ISIS, we would have been immensely more challenged if not for the foundation that Kelly laid, which allowed the NYPD to build on its existing capacity. In this, Bratton relied heavily on John Miller, Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism, who had been with him in 1994 and again in Los Angeles. Deputy Commissioner Miller reinforced earlier innovations, particularly Kelly’s liaison program, which stationed intelligence officers overseas in posts where they could develop knowledge about terrorist tactics. We also examined our operational response. Historically, the Emergency Services Unit, or ESU, had operationally addressed terrorism. ESU officers are the NYPD’s most highly trained, functioning as SWAT plus urban search-and-rescue plus paramedics plus everything else. Elite training is, by nature, limited to small groups, so we decided that ESU’s 450 officers needed a permanent, dedicated backup.

Bratton launched two new units: the Critical Response Command (CRC) and the Strategic Response Group (SRG). The CRC consisted of 520 uniformed officers, specializing in site protection, counterterrorism, and countersurveillance and equipped with M4-type rifles and other tactical tools. The SRG comprised 660 uniformed officers, specializing in crowd control and disaster-preparedness. They also trained with long guns and for active-shooter response, but their main role was backstopping patrol for crime control and searches and managing disorder like the kind that the city experienced during the 2014 protests. Accordingly, the SRG’s emergency-service capacity was secondary—New York doesn’t police demonstrations with long guns or other military hardware. In fact, the SRG use bicycles, letting them move in tandem with protesters, who, in the era of cellular communication, are capable of fluid strategic and tactical movement.

Precision policing is working to keep crime and disorder under control—indeed, New York is safer than ever. Across the U.S., major crime—murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto—is down 38.4 percent since 1991. But from 2014 to 2016, violent crime spiked by 8 percent. The jump was driven mostly by large increases in several major cities. Chicago, for example, experienced a 58 percent rise in homicides in 2016. New York has defied the trend: violent crime dropped 13.2 percent in the city over the last five years. We believe that the department’s reforms helped make that possible.

The challenges facing American policing present an enormous opportunity. The profession has done untold good, and its men and women are rightly proud. It must build on what it has done well and learn from its mistakes. And its leaders must ask, about everything, “Is this precise? Is it focused and intentional? Is it designed to prevent crime and disorder? Will it make people safer, and is it fair?”

Precision policing is a framework to ensure that the police collaborate with the community in meaningful ways—building police legitimacy because the methods are integrated into the heart of patrol work, not viewed as an ancillary function. Precision policing ensures that police use connectivity more than enforcement and that when enforcement is necessary, it is accurately focused. Ideally, as well, precision policing makes every police-citizen interaction an act of collaboration.

There is no singular approach, however. Precision policing is an organizing principle that can work anywhere, by embracing local culture, history, environment, geography, size, demographics, and politics. Its two primary operational components—focused crime-and-disorder enforcement and neighborhood policing—can be expanded or contracted as necessary. For example, in a low-crime city, neighborhood policing may benefit from more attention than focused crime-and-disorder enforcement. In a city experiencing high crime, that calculus may be reversed.

There are cautions. First, tempering quality-of-life enforcement cannot mean abandoning it. We look with concern at recent trends in New York against enforcing offenses like subway-fare evasion and smoking marijuana in public, and note crime upticks in categories that should be taken as warning signs. Second, we observe that because minorities are disproportionately the victims and perpetrators of violent crime in America’s major urban centers, a possibility arises that focused enforcement will eventually be subject to objections about disparate impact. As neighborhood policing strengthens communities, though, we hope that those proportions will change, even as the overall numbers of crimes get driven down. Third, we acknowledge the risk that allowing officers greater discretion may lead to corruption or abuse of authority. Training, supervisory oversight, and accountability can make a difference here. The more that officers get inculcated with the police mission, the more their discretion will be used in its service.

Working together, the public and the police have the opportunity to make our communities safe and fair—everywhere, for everyone. And if we get it right together—the fair part, especially, because we have already done the safe part very well—we can have a new era of public safety.

Top Photo: The NYPD’s Joint Operations Center exemplifies the sophisticated use of data and modern technology in fighting crime. (VICTOR MILSOSLVSKY/COURTESY OF NYPD)


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