The Practice of Policing; Evolution in the Police Profession

Former Commissioner Bratton speaking at a CityLaw Breakfast.

Former NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton

Adapted from remarks given by former NYPD Commissioner Bratton at a CityLaw Breakfast on October 7, 2016.

I would like to talk to you about the practice of policing over the last fifty years, not only in this city, but this country. New York City can rightfully claim to be the safest large city in America and, I would argue, probably one of the safest large cities in the world. And it’s something that didn’t just happen. It took a lot of collaboration, a lot of partnership: private sector, public sector, government leadership, community leadership, police leadership. It was a collaborative effort and we continue to collaborate going forward.

My personal hero in the profession of policing is Sir Robert Peel, who, in 1829, was charged with the mission of creating for London the first metropolitan police department of any significance in any major city, the British Metropolitan Police. The term “Bobby” was a term of affection for Bobby Peel’s police officers, and they were called “Peelers” or “Bobbies.” Peelers, because they used to carry around a little clatter that they would—many of you remember as kids you had that little thing you twirled around and made that funny clattering noise—well the police officers of those days, to notify each other of troubles, used those and they used whistles. Peel’s most significant contribution, apart from creating that still extraordinary police department, were nine principles of policing. And they have been my bible, going back to the 1970s, when I was first exposed as a young sergeant attending a meeting at which the then police commissioner of the Metropolitan Police was visiting the Boston Police Department. I was invited to a reception at which he was speaking, and he talked about Sir Robert Peel’s nine principles. And it is on those nine principles that I’m going to base my comments.

Number one: the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder. I emphasize the prevention. I emphasize the connection between crime and disorder because that early exposure to those philosophies formed the basis of my life in policing.

I came into policing in 1970, October 7, one day after my twenty-third birthday just back from the Vietnam War. Boston was the epicenter in many respects of all the turmoil that came out of the ‘60s—the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar movement, the liberalization of our society, the demand for change—and no profession was more profoundly impacted by the ‘60s than the American police profession. As I went into the Boston Police Academy on October 7, 1970, I can still very vividly remember Captain Hogan, the lead instructor of the academy, in one of our first classes discussing the then recent 1968 decision, Terry v. Ohio, the Supreme Court opinion which formed the basis of what has consumed so much of the attention of this city for the last number of years – stop, question and frisk, more commonly known as stop and frisk. The Supreme Court in Terry v. Ohio established the guidelines for “reasonable suspicion” stops by police. I still remember Captain Hogan holding up his hand: “Remember the hand boys, remember the hand.” And the reason he talked about the hand is he discussed “stop, question and frisk” he talked about five elements of it that a police officer would need to know to be able to start putting this new constitutional guideline into effect.

It was also a time of great change – the Escobedo decision, the Miranda decision, the exclusionary rule decision.  Police abuses that had accumulated in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s were being addressed by the highest court in the land, profoundly changing police training, practices, policies and guidelines. Almost fifty years after those Court decisions of the 1960s abuses of police, and the misapplication and misunderstanding of law, remain at the heart of some of the debates that we’re engaged in at this time.

Coming into policing in the 1970s, I started off walking a beat, no radio. To get contacted, to get calls or to get assistance, I’d have to go to a callbox, open it with my key and on a 1920s style phone with an earpiece and a mouthpiece, lean my head in the door and hope somebody didn’t slam the door on me while I was leaning into that callbox. That’s how we communicated back to the police station, police precinct.

During my first year in the Boston Police Department, the department, like many American police departments, began one of the profound changes that reshaped American policing: the mobilization of policing. Within a year, almost all Boston police officers were assigned two officers to a car. We went from walking a beat to going into police cars where there was going to be more mobility and faster responses to calls coming in through the new 911 systems. This was going to be modern professional policing because society was demanding that police professionalize in the 1970s. Society, government, communities all were demanding that police improve their response to crime: response, not prevention. As we came out of the ‘60s there was a great belief by society and government leadership that crime was something that police could only respond to, that there were causes of crime that the police could have no direct impact on, and that belief compelled policing to focus on response, not prevention for most of the next twenty years.

So we began to violate the basic tenant of Sir Robert Peel that the mission for which we exist was the prevention of crime. And as we began to focus on response—measuring response time to 911 calls, measuring the number of arrests we make, how many crimes did we clear, improving forensics, improving training, all with a focus on responding to crime—we moved away from accepting any responsibility for the prevention of crime. A total rejection of the Sir Robert Peel philosophy.

That was the world that I was introduced into. I believed these policies were wrong and over the next twenty years they proved to be so wrong that, in 1990, American policing returned to the basic tenants of Sir Robert Peel, focusing once again on the prevention of crime.

Let me take you through the ‘70s and ‘80s, to get you to 1990, a profound year in American policing. The year 1990 ended up being the worst crime year in the history of our country and in the history of this city—the build-up of a misapplied focus of police to responding to crime rather than the focus on the prevention of it.

I had been a police officer for four and a half years when in 1975 I was promoted to sergeant, youngest sergeant promoted in the history of the Boston Police Department. My promotion was the result of change in the promotional system by a profound change agent, police commissioner Bob di Grazia, a role model for me. Di Grazia began to professionalize the Boston Police Department, and I was a direct beneficiary of that. The books we read were the Kerner Report coming out of the civil rights issues of the 1960s, the ABA report on race relations in America and books on management and supervision of police. We read the Constitution for our promotional exam.

In 1977 I was asked to go into the District Four Precinct of Boston that policed the South End, the Back Bay and the Fenway areas of Boston. Back then, those areas were Boston’s highest crime neighborhoods. I was asked to be the police sergeant assigned to a new neighborhood initiative called the “Boston-Fenway Program” created by Claire Cotton and supported by twenty-two institutions in that area, including Northeastern University, Wentworth, Boston State College and the Museum of Fine Arts, entities that were in dire straits because they could not attract students or visitors. The Boston Symphony could not attract patrons because of the growing crime problem in that distressed neighborhood. They were looking for new ways to try and address the crime, the disorder, the decay, the malaise.

Boston of the 1970s had its own set of issues around desegregation. One of the most segregated of the Northern cities, Boston became a place of incredible turbulence as the federal courts mandated desegregation. But for me it was a phenomenal learning experience about the issues of race that even today, fifty years later, are still at the heart of so much of the turmoil that we’re experiencing as we try to right the wrongs that began four hundred years ago. I had a birthing experience in policing, if you will, a turning point in my life of extraordinary proportions that shaped me profoundly for the rest of my policing career.

I was a bit of a whiz kid back in those days, computers were just coming into being—big old green sheets that used to be about three feet across with reams of information. Even back then, I understood the importance of data in identifying where were the issues that we needed to deal with. As I went into that District Four, my challenge was to create community policing, as we came to call it in 1990, but back then we called it neighborhood policing. Term sound familiar? You’re going to hear a lot about neighborhood policing in New York City in 2016. Chief Commissioner James O’Neill is now embodying the basic principles that began back in the 1970s in District Four in Boston.

I would set up community meetings, first time they had ever been held in the city of Boston. And I put up posters in the barber shops and in the churches: come to a community meeting to meet your police. And I would take the sector car officers who were assigned to that area, bring them to that meeting, and I would have all my statistics, and we got great turnout because people were scared.

I was all set to talk about crime—murders, rapes, robberies, so commonplace, front pages of many of the newspapers of the time—but most of the people in those audiences didn’t want to talk about that. They wanted to talk about other things, and those other things they wanted to talk about were what we know now as “quality of life” or the term “broken windows,” as referenced in The Atlantic 1982 article by George Kelling and James Wilson. Five years before the “broken windows” article came out, I was living it, I was hearing it. It was a profound discovery because most cops focused on serious crime; minor crime was something in the ‘70s we moved away from enforcing. We weren’t dealing with it; and indeed, most American police departments well into the ‘90s didn’t deal with it.

That was a violation of the basic tenant and understanding of Sir Robert Peel in 1829: the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder. The two are linked. I strongly believe that. I passionately believe it. And beginning in the 1970s, I began, through my rise in American policing, to ensure that everywhere I went, that we focused not only on the serious crime, but that we focused on the so-called quality of life crime or the broken windows as it has been more commonly called in recent years.

What we failed to understand in the ‘70s, was that these so-called victimless crimes—the prostitution, the gang on the corner, the drinking in public, public urination, that the abandoned cars, the graffiti—that there was a victim and the victim was the neighborhood and all the people who lived in that neighborhood. They would see quality deteriorate. Coming down their doorstep in the morning and having to step over the condom left by the prostitute the night before, being kept up all night by the gang on the corner, or seeing their front doorstep sprayed with graffiti, or as they walked to work to get on the bus or the subway, seeing somebody basically brazenly publicly urinating on their streets. And they ask, what are the police doing about it?

And the reality was, increasingly, we were doing less and less about it. Because during the ‘70s and ‘80s, American police forces shrank rapidly in strength and were responding to the prioritization of dealing with serious crime, not understanding that the minor crime left undeterred would eventually embolden those to create more significant crime in many instances. And then in 1990, a watershed year, I came to head the New York City transit police.

New York City was the manifestation of that decline in quality of life. The New York City of today is a very, very different place, physically and in many other ways—particularly the subways. With a population of seven and a half million at that time, ridership was declining. Subway system was a mess. There were fifty or sixty serious crimes reported a day. Today, it is averaging five or six reported crimes a day, with almost double the ridership.

What was seen every day was a phenomenal deterioration of quality of life below ground because the transit police (then a separate police department from the NYPD) were not focusing on quality of life. To make a single arrest for a fare evader back in 1990, a police officer could spend almost twenty-four hours processing that single arrest; off the system, sitting for hours in the court system. The department was not focused on dealing with the minor crime of fare evasion, urination, homeless—almost 5,000 homeless living in the subways, including about five hundred living in the tunnels. The most desperate of the desperate, deep in the bowels of the tunnel; the most drug addicted, the most emotionally disturbed. Every year, we would lose about one hundred twenty to one hundred thirty people who died in the subway system, independent of the murders.

So 1990 was a watershed year in American policing in that we began to turn the corner in appreciating that the policing of the ‘70s and ‘80s, focusing on response, focusing on primarily developing response to serious crime, was failing. Historic high crime levels, this city, 1990: 2,243 murders, over 100,000 burglaries, 110,000 stolen cars, 100,000 robberies, tens upon tens upon thousands of rapes. In 1990 we embraced the kind of policing called community policing and I was one of the leaders of that effort.

As community policing, we turned policing to the basic tenants of Sir Robert Peel. The three elements of it that I emphasize are the three P’s.

First: “partnership.” Police and community political leadership, trying, to as great of a degree as possible, to find common ground. Collaboration. So the force multiplier of all of us working together will help us deal with the second P: “problems.” The identification of problems and how to prioritize. We are a city of neighborhoods and the policing initiative that Commissioner O’Neill is now moving forward with is recognizing those neighborhoods. Reconfiguring precincts, to as great a degree as possible, configure the largest neighborhoods in those precincts. Instead of having seventeen or eighteen sectors, having four or five. Why? So that we can try to prioritize within that area what are the problems that the community wants addressed. No two neighborhoods are alike. You can walk five blocks up the street here and you’re going to be in a totally different world than the one we’re standing in right now. And the issues are different. Some neighborhoods want quality of life enforcement. Some neighborhoods want crime dealt with because that’s their experience.

Policing could not just be a monolithic entity, trying to do the same thing everywhere. In 1990, policing embraced community policing, partnership, focus on collaborative problem identification and solving and what was the third P? “Prevention.” Policing and its embrace of community policing in the ‘90s returned it to 1829. Everything old is new again.

The lessons I began to understand in the ‘70s, I brought with me to New York in 1990. And what happened in the subways of New York in 1990, 1991 was that crime went down for the first time in 25 years, and it went down so much that people actually noticed. Fare evasion had been averaging about 250,000 events a day in a riding population of a little over three million– One day they seemed like they were there, next day they’re gone. Well, it took a little longer than that, but what we had to do was find ways to enforce fare evasion, because while it was a minor crime, buck fifteen, theft of service back then—but multiply that by 250,000 a day: an 80-million-dollar loss to a system that desperately needed that money.

It was also a challenge to police because the officers didn’t want to enforce farebeating. It was minor crime. They wanted to focus on the big things. With 4,000 cops, I had about fifty crimes a day to focus on, but what were people most afraid of was what they were seeing every day—the aggressive begging, the homeless population, cardboard cities all over the place, decaying stations, subway token robberies. So we began to correct that.

In 1992, I went back to Boston, subsequently became Commissioner of that city in 1993, but then in 1993 Rudy Giuliani became mayor succeeding Mayor David N. Dinkins. One of Mayor Dinkins’ incredible legacies for this city was that he hired 6,000 more cops: Safe Streets, Safe Cities. And those 6,000 cops were the necessary infusion of medicine to deal with a very ill patient.

Policing is like the practice of medicine. We both have the basic mission to the best of our ability to do no harm as we practice. You practice law. I practice policing. Doctors practice medicine. Why? Because we’re always learning. We’re always trying to make it better, but we understand that we’re a long way from arriving at the perfect solution. In the world of policing, like medicine, or the world of law that many of you practice, we can have profound effects on our patients’ lives if we don’t do it appropriately. So in policing, like a physician, each patient, each city, each neighborhood, and each precinct is different. And each one requires, for their particular illnesses, particular medicines in the right amount.

In 1994, what we were focusing on was drugs, youth crime, guns; plagues that had grown significantly in the ‘70s and ‘80s. They were all linked. We also focused on police corruption, a significant problem in the early ‘90s around the issue of drugs and dealing with it. We were also dealing with the issue of car thefts; 110,000 of them. They are now down I think this year to about 7,000 or 8,000, a huge drop, the overall drop in crime in this city is almost 80 percent overall. But back at that era it had been growing. The eight strategies that we put into place were like the, if you will, the rungs on a wheel, a wagon wheel. They were intended to all support each other and the idea that the police were taking responsibility for the prevention of crime while still improving our response to crime. To ensure that we were in fact doing it correctly, we developed CompStat, a data system that used data to focus our attention on emerging problems and patterns when they were two or three before they became twenty or thirty.

You go to a doctor, you’re not feeling well, you want the doctor to do a quick analysis and rapidly respond with effective tactics, the right amount of medicine. When you get better, the doctor wants you to come back for a checkup every once in a while. Well that’s what we created in policing in the 1990s and led the way here in New York City with CompStat. Gather crime information every day. Rapidly respond to those emerging patterns, trends and hotspots. Use effective tactics: plainclothes, uniforms, and taskforces. Use precision. And then relentlessly follow up to make sure that it’s not starting to emerge even though you have the satisfaction that you think you solved it. So all that was churning in the 1990s, and as we continue through that period of time, increased resources, new precision focus, CompStat, technology, forensics, DNA came into being which helped significantly in the solving of cases, that the city, the country, continued to get safer. By the time we moved into the 21st century, overall violent crime, overall minor crimes, if you will, property crimes were down significantly: thirty and forty percent across the country. In our great city, down over fifty percent. Why crime went down so dramatically, in our city, I believe was 1) the police, 2) the partnerships we had, and 3) the focus that we put on that problem through a succession of mayors, police commissioners and communities that wanted something done about crime and disorder.

The world changed dramatically with 9/11. The role of police needed to expand to now deal with terrorism, and no more so than here than in New York City. But the traditional crime and disorder still needed to be addressed. At the same time the size of the police force was shrinking dramatically. The Bloomberg Administration, in response to very significant financial stress, began to reduce city government, and very quietly, began to reduce the size of the New York City police force. Six thousand fewer police officers. That’s an average of about eighty fewer police officers in every precinct in the city. Crime overall continued to go down. So there was a sense that the city continued to get safer. The loss of those police officers was not felt by the public. And one of the reasons the loss of police officers was not felt was that Commissioner Kelly, understanding that he still had significant crime problems in many precincts in the city, developed what was basically the same system that General Petraeus used in Iraq: “the Surge.”

Twice a year, academy classes would graduate, 1,200, 1,500 officers, and those most newly trained but least experienced officers would be sent out into those ten or fifteen most troubled precincts. And officers, platoons of them, twelve, fifteen officers with one sergeant trying to supervise, were put on largely walking beats in those neighborhoods. The idea was that their presence would deter crime, but they were, like the department itself, being continually pushed for activity—measurable activity, believing that that activity in and of itself would help to keep the crime rate going down, and keep the population of the city feeling comfortable that crime was under control. In the process there was a phenomenal acceleration of “stop, question, frisk,” the Terry v. Ohio, “reasonable suspicion” stops. The department had begun documenting and tracking “stop, question and frisk” stops back in the late ‘90s. Tracking in and of itself created an unintended consequence, the belief that the stops were in fact keeping crime down.  “Stop, question and frisk” stops began to become a measured entity in CompStat. And by being measured in CompStat, precinct commanders, sergeants, began pushing officers for more and more activity in that category. Over time, we saw phenomenal growth in the number of stops, even as crime continued to go down,

Going back to my medical analogy. “Doctor, the patient, the patient’s getting better. We put the right amount of chemo. We put the right amount of radiation, of surgery. He’s getting better.” The doctor decides, well, that seemed to work, let me try more. Give more chemo. More radiation. As we know, chemo and radiation, if not controlled, are going to kill you. If used with precision and in the right amount, they will in many instances cure you of your cancer. But if inappropriately applied in terms of too much, overdose, you’re going to make the patient sicker. So what did we begin to see happening in that period of time up to 2010, 2011? The patient, particularly those people living in those ten or fifteen precincts, the most distressed neighborhoods in the city, largely minority, started protesting, “Doctor, I’m getting better but you keep giving me all this medicine, all these stops.” But it fell on deaf ears, until around 2012, and then the city began quietly pulling back on demanding the stops. When the Floyd decision came down ruling that the NYPD’s stops were discriminatory and unconstitutional, the City was already reducing the number of stops.

In 2013 Mayor de Blasio appointed me as his commissioner. I’m the new doctor, looking at the same patient. My diagnosis was the patient needed a lot less medicine; particularly, stop, question and frisk. So we went from hundreds of thousands to about 24,000 documented stops in 2016. And you know what? Crime continues to go down, as it did in 2014, as it did in 2015, as it did in 2016.

The profession of policing, like the practice of medicine, the practice of law, is continually evolving. And in that evolution, we’re going to make some mistakes. Some awful mistakes. You learn from those mistakes. And you try to then reposition yourself. I would hope that both this city and this country have learned from the idea of watching very closely in measuring as intimately as you can the patient, so that we are true to the admonition to “do no harm.” Some of the practices and procedures in policing and the criminal justice system are justified. And they need to be addressed, and can be addressed. But the way to address them is in fact to try to find that common ground, that collaboration.

My expectation is for this city and indeed for this country, over the next several years, will find that common ground. Will it be easy? Probably not. Will it be cantankerous in many respects? Probably will. We are constantly churning. But I believe that we are churning in the right direction; that’s what democracy is all about. About healthy debate, about the ability to disagree, to have dialogue, but then to try to find common ground. And I think the common ground we have found is that we need to do a better job of clarifying what we’re talking about. The misinformation, the ossification, the deliberate untruthfulness to make political points or to make gains by advocates, it just makes it much more difficult.

I end my police career as I began it—an optimist. And over those now forty-six years, there were times of pessimism, but fortunately, the optimism always overruled that. Thank you for this opportunity to be here this morning and share these thoughts with you.

— William J. Bratton is the former NYPD Commissioner. This article was adapted from his remarks at a CityLaw Breakfast on October 7, 2016.

One thought on “The Practice of Policing; Evolution in the Police Profession

  1. hello and happy new yr. i heard u on the net talking to nbc. every policeman in the country is so afraid of hurting someone or doing the wrong thing they are super sensitive to their actions. the d c police had no riot shields adn i think no nite sticks. what could they do w/ a rough crowd? the capital poliice have to be fired upon they will do anything. they have wifes and kids and pensions. i ‘ll bet the nat gd wasn’t issued ammo for their weapons . if i know that the rioters knew that. i hope u can give law enfmt there advise on how to better prepared. good luck jdp

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