Safety Option Paper:
Communities and Policing
By Julia Vitullo-Martin
Crime is the sleeping giant of city political life. It
can awaken, and demolish a sitting mayor Or it can slumber
on--with no heinous crime to remind the public of just
how apprehensive they can become when crime seizes the
Crime has declined 63 percent over the past eight years.
Homicide is down 70 percent. These are dramatic drops
that New Yorkers do not want reversed.
Yet there is substantial disagreement about what caused
the drop in crime, what, if anything, will keep crime
down in the future, and whether the strategies used worked.
Ever since the early 1970s when a study in Kansas City
purported to show that policing did not--and could not--cause
crime to go down, many commentators have argued that little
could be done to affect crime directly. And while almost
no one--and certainly very few New Yorkers--buys that
argument anymore, substantial disagreement exists about
Two Schools of Thought
Policy analysts tend to fall into two broad schools of
1. Crime derives from predatory human beings who should
be arrested, tried, and punished quickly and decisively
both because severe punishment is proper and because it
deters other potential criminals. Imprison the criminals
and crime will exit as well.
2. Crime is an outcome of deep-seated social injustices,
and is best handled by rooting out inequities such as
poverty, poor education, joblessness, and discrimination.
Criminals are disproportionately poorly educated and under-employed.
Correct that, and you will reduce crime as well.
Those in the first school credit New York's crime drop
to its aggressive policing, particularly CompStat and
the eight-year crackdown on quality-of-life offenses.
They also tend to approve of New York State's severe,
mandated drug sentencing laws, known as the Rockefeller
drug laws, which have swept thousands of individual users
and low-level dealers into prison.
Others attribute the crime drop to a host of factors,
most of which are beyond mayoral control--the economy,
demographics, incarceration, the end of the crack epidemic,
even higher education. Further, many major cities--Washington,
D.C., Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles--experienced
a New-York-style decline in crime during the 1990s mainly
without New York style strategies, minimizing the achievement
here. But almost everyone agrees that policing in New
York has changed during the Giuliani years.
Computerizing the War on Crime
The man who revolutionized policing in New York is William
Bratton, Mayor Giuliani's first police commissioner, who
spent two successful years corralling crime before being
fired by Mayor Giuliani in 1996. What Bratton did was
create a technically advanced computer system that allowed
the department to track crime precisely. CompStat, which
stands for computer-generated comparative statistics,
pin-pointed crimes geographically and, just as important,
made the data accessible to headquarters as well as to
the precincts. This meant the commissioner and commanders
could identify high-crime areas and direct crime-fighting
strategies to those areas.
CompStat represented a management revolution--calling
the entire police department, from the commissioner and
commanders down, to precise account for their ability
to fight crime.
Fighting for Quality of Life
But CompStat was only part of the revolution. The other
part was Mayor Giuliani's intense focus on quality-of-life
crimes. Mayor Giuliani believes in the "broken window
theory" developed by Harvard academics James Q. Wilson
and George Kelling, who in the 1980s argued persuasively
that neighborhoods that neglected minor things like broken
windows and graffiti set up a conducive environment for
more serious crime. Both Mayor Giuliani and Commissioner
Bratton were convinced that if you halted the minor crimes,
you would keep the major crimes at bay.
Commissioner Bratton's experience as head of the transit
police served him well as commissioner of the entire police
department. He encouraged the department to crack down
on turnstile jumping and panhandling, based on the belief
that jumpers and panhandlers were also committing serious
crimes. Indeed, when the newly computerized police department
started running checks on turnstile jumpers, they found
they had often arrested on a minor charge someone wanted
on major charges.
Minimizing the War on Crime
Not everyone agrees that the Bratton-Giuliani strategy
won the war on crime or that the strategies used were
the most appropriate. First, argue some criminologists,
such as Andrew Karmen at John Jay College, New York City's
policing by itself is not what brought crime down. Second,
many argue that the fight against crime extracted too
high a price from minority communities.
In his book, New York Murder Mystery, Karmen analyzes
what caused the murder rate to fall, and concludes that
it was not necessarily CompStat, in part because the murder
rate began falling before CompStat. Also, in cities with
very different policing strategies like San Diego, the
murder rate fell even faster than in New York City. Rather,
a number of trends--productive immigration, changing demographics,
low-cost higher education, and an increased death rate--came
together effectively with aggressive policing.
Violent crime tends to be a young male activity. The
number of poor black and Latino young males, says Karmen,
fell significantly during the 1990s--and the crucial cohort
of 20-to-24-year-olds fell by 19 percent. (Some dispute
this drop.) At the same time, death through drug overdoses,
AIDS among intravenous drug users, and homicides plus
the deportation of some criminal aliens eliminated about
43,000 lawbreakers. According to this analysis, there
were simply fewer criminals on the streets of New York.
This distressing picture is lightened somewhat by another
Karmen argument: New Yorkers, including low-income blacks
and Latinos, are more likely to have attended and finished
college than minority residents of other cities. He argues
that the city's investment in public universities has
paid off in reduced crime.
His proposals for the future are simple. First, find
out what is really behind the decline in crime and respond
accordingly. He urges that a neutral blue ribbon commission
be appointed. Second, continue to invest in higher education,
including community colleges and training programs.
Is Karmen right that policing was not the major factor
driving crime reduction? If so, then the point that the
price was too high may look stronger.
Counter-Attacking the War on
The quality-of-life campaign was inextricably woven into
the aggressive policing tactics that were employed in
New York City during the 1990s. Under Commissioner Bratton,
the police did not wait for a serious crime to happen.
The strategy was to get guns off the street, crack down
on minor offenses like public drinking or fare beating,
and police "proactively."
Many commentators objected to both the quality-of-life
campaign, which they termed trivial, and the war on drugs,
which they regarded as unnecessarily harsh and targeted
at minorities. Misdemeanor arrests went from 130,000 in
1993 to 215,000 in 1998, according to the New York State
Division of Criminal Justice. In 1993, the police held
for arraignment 43 percent of those arrested on minor
charges. In 1998, the police held 85 percent, according
to the Department of Corrections.
Further, because the narcotics police were mostly undercover,
they were harder to hold to account--by the department
as well as by the community.
Stopping and Frisking by Race
Also fundamental to this campaign was the stop-and-frisk
strategy - if the police thought someone had a gun, or
drugs, or was involved in some crime, including a quality-of-life
offense, they stopped and often searched the person. This
brought to the public consciousness the problem of discretionary
stops by police of people either acting suspiciously or
committing minor offenses. There is no question but that
a safe city requires smart, competent, decent police officers
to patrol the streets and exercise sound judgment in stopping
individuals. Yet the problem of discretionary stops has
festered in New York for a long time, as has the problem
of full arrests for minor offenses.
Because most of those stopped were young black or Latino
males, many believe that this strategy used race as a
criterion. This provoked an investigation by the federal
government into allegations of racial profiling.
In May the Supreme Court weighed in with a 5-4 decision
validating full arrest--including handcuffs and jail--for
a petty offense, in this case, a suburban soccer mom in
Texas not wearing a seat belt. Writing for the majority,
Justice David Souter noted the humiliating character of
the arrest over a "very minor criminal offense," but said
he was comfortable relying on the "good sense" of local
officials to keep such humiliating arrests from becoming
excessive--a "dearth of horrible demanding redress."
A dissent, written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, pointed
out the officer's intent to "threaten, frighten and humiliate"
the mother, and the completely unnecessary character of
the arrest and jailing. The common law, argued O'Connor,
would have barred the arrest because the traffic violation
was not a breach of the peace, making the arrest unreasonable.
Not long after this decision, the New York Civil Liberties
Union made public the New York City police department's
decision to jail overnight protestors arrested in demonstrations
of 20 people or more. In the past, demonstrators were
given desk appearance tickets and sent home.
The relationship of police officer to citizen is one
of the most complex and potentially troubling in government⤳made
potentially explosive by the New York Police Department's
replacement of appearance tickets with jail.
The killing of Amadou Diallo also spurred greater federal
scrutiny of the police, which in turn prompted the revised
procedures instituted by Commissioner Kerik. Last fall
the police department began using new stop-and-frisk forms
that required detailed explanations for stopping or searching
anyone on the street. These forms have generally been
A few weeks after Diallo's death, a federal investigation
began of the Street Crimes Unit's aggressive tactics.
The unit's supporters said that it had swept thousands
of guns off the street and reduced violent crime in Northern
Manhattan and the Bronx. But U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White's
office, under civil rights legislation that had been passed
in 1994 after the videotaped beating of Rodney King by
Los Angeles police officers, began investigating whether
New York officers had systematically deprived blacks and
Hispanics of their rights by stopping them based on their
The city voluntarily turned over its databases holding
stop-and-frisk data, plus arrest and complaint information,
from 1994 through the first three months of 1999. But
it has not turned over more recent data, preventing investigators
from assessing the many changes in procedures introduced
by the police department since the Diallo shooting. However,
the department is posting crime figures for each of the
city's 76 police precincts on both the department's and
the city's official websites.
This is as much a political question as a legal one,
however. Do New Yorkers think this data should be made
available? How much information should citizens be given
on the police and their activities?
Civilian Complaint Review Board
In a move reminiscent of Nixon's going to China, Mayor
Giuliani changed the system by which police officers accused
of misconduct are considered for disciplinary charges.
Accused officers are no longer investigated by the police
department, but investigated and, if appropriate, charged
by the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB), the independent
agency that now evaluates civilian complaints of abuse.
(By "abuse" the board means such things as excessive force,
discourtesy, offensive language or abuse of authority.
The board does not usually handle the most serious criminal
matters. Those are handled by the District Attorney's.)
Noting that the mayor had been one of the harshest critics
of civilian oversight of the police, the New York Times
called this a "major turnaround." (In his 1992 mayoral
campaign, The mayor had opposed the board's creation.)
Almost no one had been happy with the previous system
by which the review board investigated cases, but then
referred them to the police department for departmental
trial. Critics of the police argued that far too many
legitimate cases simply languished after referral. Under
the new system, the board will handle the investigation
and trial, but the police commissioner will retain discretion
on punishment, which can range from a loss of vacation
days to firing.
Just who should take action concerning police officers
accused of misconduct?
The dangers are clear. If the disciplinary proceedings
are too harsh, good officers--and subsequently the community--will
suffer. If they are too lenient, guilty officers will
be free to brutalize citizens again.
Proponents of a strengthened and reconstituted CCRB hope
it can ease the problem that lies beneath nearly every
major criminal justice story today--and that is the allegation
of racial profiling.
And nearly every incident reminds New Yorkers that a
huge racial disparity exists on most issues of crime and
justice. Much of that disparity is due to the reality
that day in, day out, black Americans are more vulnerable
than white Americans to being stopped by the police, fairly
Mayor Giuliani and the police department contend that
stopping and questioning suspects is not done by race,
but is proportionate to the race of the suspects identified
by victims and witnesses. What is very difficult to unravel
is whether the police, under the guise of suspiciousness,
either intentionally or unintentionally stop black and
Latino men more often than is warranted
Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy points out in his
book, Race, Crime and the Law, that the police use of
race as a proxy for suspiciousness, whether intentionally
or not, creates enormous day-to-day distrust and alienation
among black Americans. Black people being stopped disproportionately
by the guardians of law and order comes back to haunt
the community when those who have been stopped (and those
who know them) become lawyers, judges, and jurors, and
bring with them the anger they feel over unwarranted harassment
and humiliation by the police. Justice is not served when
these experiences influence their judgments in criminal
prosecutions. Halting this practice, Kennedy argues, will
not solve all racial problems, but will go far toward
draining the deep sense of injustice African Americans
A strengthened CCRB is one way to start addressing this
problem. Commissioner Bernard Kerik's community study
by the Vera Institute of Justice, discussed below, is
Respecting the Police
Police rudeness and occasional brutality towards civilians
has many causes, but at least one, according to Commissioner
Kerik, is attributable to sometimes brutal treatment of
uniformed police by superiors. Kerik argues that the number
one issue for uniformed police officers is not money,
nor their contract, but how they're treated by their superiors--which
is all too often badly.
Kerik instituted a series of management shake-ups in
which he transferred many supervisors--sergeants and above--and
encouraged the retirement of others.
Almost as serious as supervision to the officer on the
beat, argues Kerik is the deplorably poor physical condition
of so many police facilities--particularly precinct houses
and their locker rooms and showers, which Kerik said were
often "disgusting." He obtained 20 tractor-trailers of
federal surplus property--chairs, desks, sofas, lamps,
rugs, and electronic equipment--to improve facilities
and to show police that headquarters cares.
Commissisoner Kerik recently increased the police department's
focus on community relations, saying that community relations
should be addressed as systematically as crime reduction.
In doing so he set up a system of measurements and created
a mandate for precinct commanders to increase interaction
with the public.
To determine what the police are really doing and how
they are perceived in communities, he commissioned a survey
by the Vera Institute to elicit views of the police from
people who "have had an encounter" with the police. An
encounter does not include arrests, but only those who
are stopped but not arrested, particularly those who are
stopped and frisked.
The Vera survey will also include victims of crime, and
people aided by the police, in addition to those who "encounter"
police officers in more adversarial circumstances. The
results of the survey may lead to a more public discussion
of differing perceptions of the police officer's role
in the community, and lay the foundation for what Commissioner
Kerik calls an "attitude adjustment" among some officers.
This is almost certainly a first--a police department
commissioning a survey of citizens who have had negative
encounters with the police.
A further concern is whether any commissioner, no matter
how determined and how competent, can really affect the
culture of the police department. Thomas Reppetto, head
of the Citizens Crime Commission, maintains that the police
department's organizational culture is more determinative
of police behavior than either the commissioner or the
mayor. "The organization is forever," he says, "and mayors
and commissioners come and go." Powerful institutional
forces are arrayed against reform. While much the same
can be said about any large bureaucracy, many would maintain
that the police department is particularly difficult to
Lastly, the police department itself has become enormous.
The police force now stands at a robust 40,000--the highest
number of police officers in New York history. Considering
the dramatic reduction in crime, and the operating deficits
facing New York City in the near future, one should question
whether New York City still needs a police force this
large. Most observers simply assume it does--and most
candidates routinely announce they will keep the force
at 40,000. The department, however, has enough margin
to deploy uniformed officers regularly to street fairs,
parades, and park events. The department has also continued
the personnel-heavy sweeps checking motorists for minor
infractions, such as seat-belt violations
Former Commissioner Bratton, however, argues that as
currently managed the police department does not have
enough work for this many officers. He has long held that
too many police results in waste at best and corruption
at worst. New Yorkers want a department free of both.
Julia Vitullo-Martin, the former director of the Citizens
Jury Project at the Vera Institute of Justice, is writing
a book on the American jury.