They buried John Timoney out of St. Patrick’s Cathedral the other day, a fitting departure portal for an Irishman who came to New York from Dublin at 12 and stayed to help transform policing not only in the city, but also across America. “Timoney was one of a kind,” eulogized outgoing NYPD commissioner William Bratton, “and he was also one of the last of that kind.” And who would know better than Bratton, who also is one of that kind? When he steps down on September 1, few such will remain—and an era, indeed, will have come to an end.
Bratton and Timoney were part of a fractious crew. In truth, the group got along like cats with their tails tied together. But they were united in their conviction that big cities could indeed be policed. This was not at all certain 25 years ago.
Visionary cops like Bratton, Timoney, the late Jack Maple, and Ray Kelly—allied with iconoclastic political leaders like Rudy Giuliani, former City Council speaker Peter Vallone Sr., and Michael Bloomberg, and energized by the theories of public-safety intellectuals James Q. Wilson and George Kelling—combined iron will with strategic insight and tactical acuity to transform New York City from America’s murder capital to the safest big city in the nation. It was a controversial process, because it was data-driven and therefore novel; because it was ruthlessly prosecuted; and because it was predicated on the radical notion of accountability. If individuals are held liable for even minor violations of the law, they will be less tempted to commit more serious offenses. Others would be deterred by example.
That was the theory, anyway; the practice was more complicated, as police work always is. But what the new way had going for it was that it worked: Crime began to drop—first gradually, and then like a rock down a well. The reclamation of New York City was under way.
Fast forward to the de Blasio administration. Serious crime is still down, but cracks in the public-safety façade are appearing. Polls show New Yorkers increasingly to be fearful for the future, and with good reason. City Hall has become more tolerant of uncivil behavior and petty crime than at any time since David Dinkins was mayor. Obviously, this reflects a sea change in policing sensibilities, so the questions of the moment are whether Bratton’s pending departure was entirely his own idea. And whether it augurs an end to the anti-crime practices that have been so successful for more than two decades.
Bratton’s handpicked successor, NYPD chief of department James O’Neill, is by all accounts a good cop. He came up through the ranks and is well-seasoned, which by definition also means he’s an accomplished practitioner of the bureaucratic arts. There’s also little in O’Neill’s resume to suggest that he’s a wave-maker on a par with Bratton, Timoney, and Kelly.
Perhaps more significantly, he’ll come into office at a time when society’s tolerance for constables, never profound, has been softened by two decades of anti-crime success. It seems that the emergency has passed, and this allows New York City’s always-hard-left-leaning political class to be overtly hostile to pro-active policing—and to get away with it.
De Blasio himself won office running on an anti-NYPD plank. The City Council is openly antagonistic to best police practices. Ideology-driven judges and other outsiders have tied the department into knots. No police commissioner without the personal stature and intellectual heft of Bill Bratton is likely to prosper under present circumstances. Add to the mix the present turmoil generally besetting urban law enforcement—the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, represents a powerful disincentive to effective policing—and the natural disinclination of beat-level cops to address quality-of-life offenses, and you have a city on a collision course with chaotic streets and violent crime.
This isn’t meant to be disrespectful of soon-to-be-Commissioner O’Neill. Again, he’s a good cop who earned Bratton’s backing, and that counts for a lot. But he’s also an outspoken advocate of so-called community policing, a concept that traces its roots at least back to the Lindsay administration, and to say that it didn’t work then is a dramatic understatement. What it will look like this time around is anybody’s guess, but the stated point is to immerse cops in the neighborhoods they patrol, toss in a big dollop of social work, and hope that what ensues is just as effective as the data-driven policing of the Giuliani-Bloomberg era, but less confrontational.
Who knows? Maybe it will work. But community policing, as practiced in the past, deemphasizes personal accountability—again, a linchpin of the Bratton-Timoney-Kelly way—and it also blurs the distinction between criminal and crime victim, the former being viewed less as villains and more as casualties of circumstance. (Or, as West Side Story lyricist Stephen Sondheim so slyly put it nearly 60 years ago, they’re “depraved ‘cause [they’re] deprived.”)
Whether New York will tolerate a return to the old ways remains an open question. The skittishness over aggressive panhandling, vagrant encampments, and crime spikes in the parks suggests otherwise. Plus, many thousands of influential people are investing many billions of dollars in New York’s future, and those folks have the heft to be heard at City Hall. Who knows if the de Blasio administration is even capable of listening? It is as tone-deaf as any government in recent memory. All that’s certain is that the passing of John Timoney and the departure of Bill Bratton present an opportunity to foes of clear-headed, results-driven policing. What a pity it will be should they take it—and succeed.
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