Gotham Gazette

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The Path to Better Policing and Safer Communities in Brooklyn and Beyond

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Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, center, is one of the authors (photo: @BrooklynDA)

Brooklyn is at a turning point for public safety and criminal justice reform. Through hard work, creativity, and trial and error, both law enforcement and citizen-powered organizations like East Brooklyn Congregations have achieved a sustained, historic drop in crime—but this year has seen troubling shifts. The recent spike in shootings and homicides – coinciding with the COVID-19 pandemic and the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis – has thrown people off balance. It’s led to questions – some in good faith and others in service of long-standing political agendas – about whether there is an unavoidable tradeoff between safety and fairness. We believe there is not. Our communities deserve both safety and fairness. 

Now is not the time to retreat, but rather to refocus on what works, and where it can improve. We measure what we value. Our communities value a justice system that continues to reduce crime while also reducing incarceration, racial disparities, and police misconduct. But achieving those reductions will require measuring all the things we care about, so we can target our resources and efforts most effectively and hold both law enforcement and our own communities accountable.

We know from experience that when we accurately track where crime is happening, through a system like the NYPD’s CompStat, we can use police resources more efficiently to drive down crime. And when we carefully gather and analyze intelligence on the small number of individuals who commit the majority of serious violent crimes, as the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Crime Strategies Unit does, we can reduce such violence even further. By conducting focused, long-term investigations of gangs and crews that drive most of the shootings, and breaking up out-of-state gun trafficking rings that funnel guns onto our streets, the DA’s Office and the Police Department helped drive murders down by a third and shootings down almost 40% in the last five years.

Good, focused police work has been critical – and our communities can’t afford for police to pull back simply because activists are rightly demanding accountability for law enforcement misconduct and changes in the way communities are policed. If we care about police misconduct and encouraging positive police behavior, we should measure just as carefully incidents of excessive force, as well as positive interactions between the police and communities and make the data public.

The same CompStat principles that reduced crime so dramatically should be applied to misconduct by police officers. If we truly care about reducing racial disparities in the justice process, we should measure disparities at every step -- from arrest, to charging, to bail requests, to convictions, to sentencing, and post-conviction outcomes like granting parole. Then we can craft policies that advance racial equity. If we care about diversion and meeting people’s needs for counseling, mental health services, education and job training, we should measure how often we divert people and which programs are most effective.

We know that we can reduce the numbers of people arrested and prosecuted for low-level offenses and still drive down serious crime; we don't need a return to old stop-and-frisk practices, which communities certainly do not want. Dramatic reductions in arrests and prosecutions for crimes like marijuana possession, for which 95% of those arrested in 2014 were Black or Hispanic, will hopefully strengthen community trust in the justice system. And programs already created by the DA’s Office to offer substance use treatment, job training, and other services instead of jail, have driven down incarceration while addressing underlying causes of harmful behavior. That has made the community safer while honoring the human dignity of the individuals affected.

Beyond these specific programs, we know from social science research that the factors most strongly associated with positive, law-abiding behavior are social connectedness and having one’s basic needs met – health care, education, stable housing. EBC and other community organizations build power to demand these basic services from both government and the private sector every day.  That work – engaging a wide cross-section of the community and benefiting many over time – reduces feelings of isolation and marginalization and powerlessness. People feel like full citizens whose voices are heard and whose visions are realized. That makes us all safer.

Where do we most need support for people returning to the community from incarceration? Where do we most need more substance use programs, or mental health clinics, or youth programs? We don’t know, unless we measure.

As community leaders and law enforcement, we believe in accountability. We also believe that safety and fairness are not in conflict, but mutually reinforcing. We’ve learned a lot about how to make our communities safer while driving down incarceration and expanding non-law enforcement responses to social ills. We can make even more progress on these goals, and hold both law enforcement and civilians accountable, if we measure what we value and apply the lessons we learn to do better.

Eric Gonzalez is the Brooklyn District Attorney; on Twitter @BrooklynDA. Rev. David K. Brawley is the Senior Pastor of St. Paul Community Baptist Church and member of the Governance Board and Strategy Team of East Brooklyn Congregations (EBC).

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