THE BLOG
12/19/2013 11:22 am ET Updated Feb 18, 2014

Stop-Question-and-Frisk With Respect

Many credit Bill Bratton with changing the NYPD and with successfully driving down levels of crime and disorder in New York City in the first half of the 1990s. Among other substantive changes he instituted, Commissioner Bratton introduced a practice based on George Kelling and James Q. Wilson's "broken windows theory." This practice encouraged officers to stop, question and sometimes frisk low-level offenders (e.g., fare-jumpers, graffiti artists, open alcohol container violators and New York's iconic squeegeemen).

Murders went from 1,600 per year two decades ago, to 400 in 2012. Bratton's use of broken windows policing -- and technology that focused on high-crime areas -- contributed to this turnaround.

After serving in LA, London and the private sector, Bratton is back as Mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio's appointed successor to Ray Kelly. He returns to a city that is more than a little skittish about the broken windows policing methods that to many have come to resemble racial profiling.

Police must deal with the seemingly conflicting demands of both their police department and of the community that they police. Both want police to do something about crime and disorder while improving community relationships. Misunderstandings arise, however, as the focus of and reasons for police intervention do not always align with citizen perceptions or desires. As was the recent case in New York City, police officers over-zealously used the stop-question-and-frisk tactic. While their efforts may have set the tone in a neighborhood that such crime and disorder is not prohibited, they also proved to alienate some community members.

Bratton and other broken windows disciples believe that this kind of policing should be limited to and focused on those people whose behaviors are harmful to the health of neighborhoods. Data collection and mapping technologies help police do this by identifying known repeat offenders and hotspots of crime and disorder. Simultaneously seeking community input on those problems helps police to justify their actions to the community. Above all, this type of policing should be carried out with respect for the individual and his or her constitutional rights.

For example, for the past five years, Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn has successfully reduced crime and improved neighborhood relations by putting more cops on the street. These cops increased the numbers of vehicle and pedestrian stops for lower-level offenses, with the intent of observing further evidence of more serious wrong-doing like illegally carrying a firearm, stealing cars or simply being wanted on an arrest warrant. The effectiveness of the police intervention, carried out in a procedurally just and legitimate manner, complemented the police department's neighborhood-centered community building activities.

Indeed, my studies and those of others show that broken windows policing done right is an essential tool for effective policing in Boston, Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Newark, New York and its subway system.

Here's how it should work on the street: Based on citizen concerns and on data on crime and disorder hotspots, officers conduct foot patrols in a specific neighborhood. While on patrol, an officer stops a person on the street for violating an open alcohol container law. The officer explains his reason for the stop and that he is patrolling this area as a result of community concerns about a specific problem. He respectfully questions the individual. The officer notes no further reason, based on his knowledge and experience and on the individual's responses and behaviors, to frisk the individual or to arrest him for a more serious felony. He asks the individual to pour out the alcohol and to dispose of the container. He again reminds the individual of the local open-container law. He tells the individual that he is only attempting to respond to the community's particular crime and disorder concerns.

For many cities, following this policy means that officers are more likely to stop African-American and Hispanic males. This is because of the racial make-up of the neighborhoods where most of the more serious crimes (and crime victims) cluster. Police disproportionately target their resources here too. For these reasons, police are more likely to see minority males publicly engaging in behaviors that the law and their communities deem as warranting police attention. Nonetheless, respect and courtesy should be extended to all and at all times during the police-citizen interaction.

Bratton re-assumes the NYPD reins in a different era, in which street crime is near an all-time low. New Yorkers know and appreciate this fact, as evidenced by a recent Quinnipiac poll showing public safety trumps concerns about aggressive and unfair stops by police. This sentiment will likely persist.

But Bratton's main goal should be to improve community relations. Given Bratton's track record, I believe New Yorkers can look forward to a continuation of historically low crime, but as important, an improvement in police relations with communities within the five boroughs.

He will do this by giving officers their proper discretion and by holding them accountable for not only the number of citizen stops made, but also for the fairness of their actions and for the outcomes of their efforts.