One of Police Commissioner William Bratton's earliest memories of New York is visiting the city with his family as a nine-year-old boy. When the family's old Ford sedan overheated, New York's Finest saved the day. "I remember that there were police officers in white gloves who helped us out," Bratton recalls. But after the NYPD gave up its formal traffic-control functions to the Department of Transportation's civilian "brownies" decades ago, the idea of New York cops directing traffic and helping passing motorists became an increasingly distant memory.
Now Bratton and Mayor Giuliani are putting cops back on the traffic beat. Their plan had a trial run during two busy events this fall—the Pope's visit and the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Thanks to the NYPD's strategy, there were remarkably few traffic snags even on the busiest days. The strategy, called "Reclaiming the Roads of New York," got a full-scale rollout over the winter holidays, when the department sent 1,500 Police Academy cadets onto the streets to direct cars. By March the department hopes to have regular uniformed officers manning major intersections. The traffic-control campaign has some elements of a military operation. Helicopters and stationary cameras report back about clogged intersections; "fast response" teams on scooters and in vans fan out across the city to unblock traffic obstructions.
But at the heart of the strategy is a concept as old as policing itself: a uniformed constable standing on a street corner. And just as in the old days, Bratton plans to outfit traffic cops with whistles, white gloves, and other trappings of authority. "Having more contacts between police and citizens communicates to citizens a much more pervasive sense of control," says George L. Kelling, a Northeastern University criminologist (and frequent City Journal contributor) who consults for the NYPD. By putting more cops in high-visibility positions on the streets, the traffic-control strategy fits in well with the NYPD's efforts to restore public order and prevent crime.