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Taking Back the Streets

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from the magazine

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
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

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

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

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.


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

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

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”

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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