Saturday, August 6, 2016

Why Any Police Commissioner Is Doomed To Fail

Commissioner Bill Bratton's sudden departure from the NYPD could not have come at a worse time for the people of New York. Sought by Mayor de Blasio as the most tempered, experienced, and fair minded executive in policing, Bratton seemed a perfect fit for the controversial job. Following on the heels of Raymond Kelly, and twenty years of republican rule in New York City, both the distressed citizens and the demoralized cops in the Big Apple embraced the change. But the New York of today is a vastly different place from when crime and disorder dominated the political landscape. Some critics single handedly blame Bratton for lighting the fuse which led to the dissatisfaction people feel toward the police today. After all, William Bratton popularized the scientific management of policing. By strengthening law enforcement tools like crime mapping and targeted enforcement, Bratton's initiatives modernized how the police interrupt criminal behavior around the world.

As crime rates plummeted under Ray Kelly, the NYPD felt pressure to continue. After September 11th, the main concern of New Yorkers was safety, and Kelly rose to the occasion. Acting in good faith, Kelly greatly expanded the scope of anti-terror intelligence gathering and street level enforcement. Kelly’s advocacy began to compromise relations with federal law enforcement. Sidestepping jurisdiction, the NYPD placed investigators in the Middle East, across America, and around the globe. He increased anti-terror spending in the city, and, to his credit, he thwarted quite a few terror attempts. But Ray Kelly also detained his personnel from the usual ebb and flow of attrition. By refusing to share personnel records with other law enforcement agencies for many years, Kelly blocked his cops' ability to find easier, safer, and better paying employment elsewhere.

Under Kelly, NYPD executives made a determined effort to take CompStat in a worse direction. With newly created "impact zones" and targeted stop-and-frisk initiatives, cops were evaluated and largely rewarded by their enforcement numbers. After a decade of Kelly’s influence, all the thoughtful initiatives put in place by Bill Bratton had morphed into something entirely different. Public outrage started to mount. Sick and tired of being targeted for petty offenses, the citizens of New York began to speak out against acts such as being in a park after sunset, riding a bicycle on the sidewalk, or merely occupying more than one seat on the subway.

But the numbers-driven strategy was working. Crime continued to drop despite a populous growing with dissatisfaction, and simmering with the belief that extra enforcement was disproportionately targeted towards minorities. Zero Tolerance enforcement came to a boil when a Staten Island man died struggling with cops, after being stopped for selling loose cigarettes.

Then came federal monitoring. embarrassing to any local police agency, federal oversight was mandated to monitor Kelly’s deeply entrenched strategies within the NYPD. They continue to this day.

Upon Bratton's second coming, a collective sigh occurred with both the cops and civilians of the city. Bratton however, would be faced with his greatest career challenge. Now in his seventies, Bratton had to work double duty to assuage the concerns of both a demoralized police force and a populous with competing demands, while remaining under pressure to keep crime low.  

An intuitive leader, and a cop's cop, Bratton strengthened focus where Kelly was weak. He came to the cops, often face-to-face, and asked what was needed. His transition team embraced technology and created in-depth surveys and listened to feedback from personnel. He began to renovate facilities neglected for decades, and catapulted precincts to Y2K technology and beyond. He even brokered a deal to give every cop a cell phone for investigative follow-up

The fed’s recommendations, with the mayor's support, included many days of in-service training. The training was discussed like adults with a feedback component built into the curriculum- something the Kelly administration never embraced. But change grinds ever so slowly in city government. Like his predecessor, Bill Bratton handles the toughest media in the nation marvelously. His candor, composure and experience blends so well that one often sees the bulbs going off with Chief O'Neill and Mayor de Blasio behind him.

Constant pressure from the public, demands from the unions, and the police commissioner's own sense of personal ethics make the job an undesirable but a necessary evil in America. Sadly, Bratton's most profound change, though still not idealized in the short term, was a withdrawal from intense performance-driven measures for cops on patrol. This metric is key toward reconstructing the trust that the people of New York City deserve, and a key factor that incoming commissioner James O'Neill may not be prepared to grapple with. One fear is that O'Neill learned the ropes under a former regime, and may not be able to adapt well. His tenure, though, may not be long either, as determined by the will of the people and the next mayor of New York.


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