Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Comissioner Bernard Kerik and the three priorities

It has been a good six months for Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik. The police department released data showing that major crimes (murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and auto theft) for the week ending Feb. 25 were at a nine-year low in New York City -- 2,731 this year versus 7,438 in 1993. This represents the fewest major crimes for a one-week period since the police department began its weekly reports in 1993.

On Feb. 21-- the six-month anniversary of his having taken over the department -- Kerik gave a talk sponsored by the Manhattan Institute at the Harvard Club. He systematically walked the audience through the three priorities that had been set up by Mayor Giuliani: continuing the emphasis on crime reduction, boosting police morale, and improving community relations.


Crime has gone down 63 percent over Giuliani's eight years. Homicide is down 70 percent. These are dramatic drops. On appointing Kerik, Giuliani's challenge to his new commissioner was: How low can you get it? How much further can you make crime decline?

Kerik noted that last January "all the naysayers said it was over." But he disagreed. "People who understand principles of accountability and Compstat," he said, referring to the police department's much-praised computerized crime-tracking system, "wouldn't give up so quickly." This year to date, crime is down about 9 percent over last year, he added.


Kerik says he believes in listening "to the people at the bottom, because information goes through so many filters before it gets to you." The number one issue for uniformed police officers is not money, he argues, nor their contract, but how they are treated by their superiors, which is badly. "Cops don't like the way they're talked to, how they're treated by bosses. And if you embarrass or insult a cop in front of peers or prisoners, what is the cop going to do? Take it out on a prisoner or the public, that's what. Supervision has to be changed."

As Michael Meyers pointed out in his column in the New York Post, "Accountability is the name of Kerik's plan, and it starts with the supervisors -- sergeants and up. That's why there have been transfers, retirements, and shake-ups." The important transfers have been duly noted by the press. Late on Friday, Feb. 23, a slow news day, the police department announced that Kerik was transferring the commander of the Narcotics Division to the second post in the Housing Bureau, and replacing him with Assistant Chief William Taylor. After calling Taylor a "highly respected veteran detective commander," the New York Times commented that Kerik, who himself had served for fours years as a narcotics detective, has focused attention and energy on anti-drug efforts. In his first month, said the Times, Kerik undertook a detailed review of narcotics arrests while questioning whether undercover narcotics officers could not be used more effectively than in making low-level arrests.

Yet almost as serious as supervision to the cop on the beat, argued Kerik in his speech, 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." As a first step, he returned to a strategy that he had used successfully while at the department of corrections: he went after federal surplus property. He sent 20 tractor trailers to the federal warehouse in Virginia to bring back chairs, desks, sofas, lamps, rugs, and electronic equipment. The point was to improve facilities, and in doing that, to show cops that someone cares.

Patrol cops were also chagrinned about the scarcity of vehicles. When Kerik asked his department how many spare cars were available, he was told none. After a ruthless search of the inventory list he found 380 cars that had been set aside for priorities like special events. "Turns out we have an inordinate number of special events," said Kerik wryly. He took 200 of these found cars and sent them to the precincts. He started getting little notes from cops: thank you for the cars. The found cars had the nice side benefit of raising response time, which had stalled because some precincts lacked the necessary cars.

Kerik's emphasis on the beat cop is seen as an important step forward by Cooper Union Professor Fred Siegel. "This is a guy who came up through the ranks," says Siegel. "He can relate to ordinary cops because he was one. This is really who he is. Put that together with his personality--he likes catching bad guys--and you've got the right guy for the job."

The problem is that no commissioner, no matter how determined and how competent, really rules the police department. As Thomas Reppetto, head of the Citizens Crime Commission and author of a book on the history of the police department, points out, the 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. That doesn't mean that a commissioner can't do things to change and improve the department. Commissioner William Bratton, for example, showed that the department could be much more effective fighting crime. But it does mean that powerful institutional forces must be overcome."

The police department is a semi-military organization, says Reppetto. It is set up on an industrial model, with tight control over the worker and little discretion at lower levels. While many American corporations over the last decade have "flattened out the pyramid and given greater discretion to individual employees," notes Reppetto, the police department has barely tempered its hierarchy.


Kerik's take is that "cops have gotten a bad rap over a couple of controversial incidents," and that community relations should be addressed just as systematically as crime reduction. "We need to create measurements on how we interact," he said, "and create a mandate for precinct commanders to interact with the public." Noting that he has a very low tolerance for failure, he said his warning to all commanders is that if you're not good at your job you'll be removed.

Saying he needs to know what the cops are really doing in the communities, he highlighted a survey he commissioned from the Vera Institute of Justice. Noting that he hired the Institute (where I am a consultant) for its independence and expertise, he said the survey will elicit views from people who "have had an encounter with the police." There would be relatively little point in surveying those actually arrested, said Kerik, since we pretty much know how they would feel. But, he asked, what about those who are stopped but not arrested? particularly those who are stopped and frisked? We know that's a negative interaction, so we want to ask them what they think."

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 aggressive circumstances. The results of the survey may help some police officers make what Kerik calls an "attitude adjustment."

Surely this is a first--a police department commissioning a survey of citizens who have had negative encounters with the police. Kerik sees it as a natural next step. "We're a service organization," he says. "We have to think about consumer satisfaction, and we have to capture real information."

Fred Siegel calls the logic of the survey "a brilliant step forward. The police department is saying: just because someone is released after being stopped doesn't mean our obligation to them is ended. We're concerned about what happened and what they have to say."


Kerik left the Harvard Club to go immediately to A press conference announcing the arrest of the 15-year old boy who is being charged as an adult in the killing of Ismael Marzan in Central Park.

The following day, Mayor Giuliani appointed Kerik to a new five-year term, though there is little but symbolic meaning in the move: police commissioners serve at the pleasure of the mayor, and of the five known candidates for mayor, only City Council Speaker Peter Vallone has said that Kerik is on his short list.

Commissioner Kerik has eight months to show New Yorkers what he can do.

Julia Vitullo-Martin, a long-time editor and writer on urban affairs, is the former director of the Citizens Jury Project at the Vera Institute of Justice. She is now writing a book entitled The Conscience of the American Jury.

Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
New York Voters Approve $4.2 Billion Environmental Bond Act
Gotham Gazette: 
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
New York City Voters Approve Racial Justice Ballot Measures
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Max Politics Podcast: A Winning Formula for Democrats in Tough New York Races
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast