THE BLOG

There Are Lies, Damn Lies and Then There's 'Community Policing'

03/09/2015 05:04 pm ET | Updated May 09, 2015
Martin Child via Getty Images

Back in 1994 an increasingly popular policing model was all the rage amongst law enforcement authorities. From the New York Times, January 1994:

Community policing is the most promising trend in urban law enforcement. It aims to involve police departments in crime prevention, not just crime reaction, by assigning more officers to street patrol, exposing them to neighborhood concerns and training them to identify troubled individuals and bring in social service agencies to provide help.

Twenty-one years later the 'community policing' bug has re-bitten a city eager to move past protests and murmurings of a new civil rights movement. New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito last month proudly proclaimed a renewed focus on increasing the NYPD headcount by 1,000 cops for the purposes of 'community policing'. In a statement after our rally that vehemently opposed the move, Viverito responded:

Many of us continue to believe very strongly that this Police Department needs more police officers. And if we put in place effective community policing the way it is supposed to be, you need more officers on the ground interacting with communities.

During a hearing in front of the council's Public Safety Committee recently, other council members weighed in as representatives from the mayor's office and the NYPD testified on the seemingly new 'community policing' push. Councilmember Jimmy Vacca, Deputy Leader of the council, pressed NYPD spokespeople on the details of how they might more efficiently remove homeless people from his commute. His contempt for homeless people on the train flowed freely and openly as he asked what positions (upright versus laying down) a homeless New Yorker had to be in order to eject or arrest them.

Next came Staten Island Republican councilmember Steven Matteo, who casually walked in late -- and left immediately following his remarks. He swooped in, apparently, to simply echo the rationale of Viverito. After proclaiming, amid the shrugs and facepalms of those of us in the audience, his love for Broken Windows policing and explaining that his Staten Island community had a great relationship with cops, he plugged the 1,000-cop/community policing push:

I believe this is a resource issue that we can help solve by putting in what this council's been asking for in 1,000 cops... The fundamental issue here is making sure that public safety is paramount and get more resources to get more cops.

Other members of the council, like Public Safety chair Vanessa Gibson and committee member Jumaane Williams, marveled with interest in the new, refurbished 'community policing' efforts that NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Collaborative Policing Susan Herman was promoting in her testimony.

Gibson asked Herman if 'community policing' was any different than Broken Windows. Herman responded that both were more philosophy than policy, and essentially indistinguishable from one another since the community drives Broken Windows through its complaints. She, in lockstep with her boss, Commissioner Bill Bratton, was slyly tying the massive low-level arrest and summonsing patterns of the NYPD to things like 311 calls. This, of course, is ridiculous to anyone who realizes the 311 system was created almost a decade after Broken Windows policing was implemented in the first Bratton era. St. Joseph College's Ted Hamm also essentially debunked any real links between 311 complaints and today's policing practices when he actually examined 311 call data.

Meanwhile Williams, checking his smartphone, read off a definition of 'community policing' to the audience. Apparently Williams had to refer to the website for the Lincoln, Nebraska police department in order to define this vague model of policing that was being sold to a city with the nation's largest police force. He, like others on the council, obviously didn't have a firm grasp of what 'community policing' was. Queens councilmember Donovan Richards, when he wasn't taking selfies in the middle of the hearing with Brad Lander and Robert Cornegy, announced himself as a full supporter of this new 'community policing' -- oblivious to the fact it's been around for decades. NYPD Assistant Chief Terence Monahan, representing the police department, correctly explained to the council that this neighborhood-friendly policing model wasn't new and had "never left" the NYPD.

Right. We've had 'community policing' the same time we've had the killings of Anthony Baez, Anthony Rosario, Hilton Vega, Nicholas Heyward Jr., Malcolm Ferguson, Sean Bell, Kimani Grey, Shantel Davis, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, and many more.

This, of course, was beside the point. Both Monahan and Herman described a recycled version of 'community policing' in the form of a department initiative that would give patrol cops some spare time (30 percent of their tour) to spend getting to know the community via meet-and-greets with business owners and even visits to schools (ironic given NYPD's overbearing presence in schools mostly serving Black and Latino kids). This program would be piloted to four precincts out of the department's 98 commands (including PSA's and Transit commands), two in the Rockaways.

This was the big change meant to rebuild the bridge between cops and community that Herman was there to present: a rebranding of an old, vague term that would be rolled out in a fraction of the department.

Herman, sitting next to Liz Glazer from the mayor's office was happy to trot out the department's rebranding effort. Her job and office, the office of Collaborative Policing, was created literally out of thin air by Bratton when he regained the wheel of the NYPD last year for just these purposes. Bratton likely even named the office after his 2012 book, Collaborate or Perish!, which he co-wrote with Zach Tumin -- who was also brought in last year as Deputy Commissioner of Strategic Initiatives (he does Twitter). Zumin is now under fire for tweeting that mentally ill people were "off their meds" and "walking into police bullets" in response to the horrible LAPD shooting of a homeless man last week.

After Herman, Glazer and Monahan's testimony, a panel of experts from John Jay College of Criminal Justice began the "public" testimony section of the hearing. This is usually the part when NGO's and people from academia line up to contribute to the public record while regular people are left last, waiting for hours. But the John Jay panel was intriguing for a couple of reasons. First, Herman, Bratton's Deputy Commish, is married to John Jay College president Jeremy Travis, who himself used to work for Bratton in the '90s. She and the NYPD were quite familiar with this panel of experts. More importantly, their testimony provided a very light criticism of this new 'community policing' push. For these experts, 'community policing' was good -- but it just didn't go far enough.

Stop here.

This is the point where it becomes incredibly important to truly distinguish between reform and rebranding -- which works against reformers. And at this point I'm going to call out 'community policing' for what it is: complete bullshit and spin.

In his 2001 book, Illusion of Order, Professor Bernard Harcourt systematically discredited Broken Windows theory. In it he also remarked that in essence 'community policing' was too vague a concept to seriously discuss. He noted that surveys of police chiefs across the country had shown that upwards of 90 percent of them had responded that they were implementing 'community policing' in their departments. These responses, made over 15 years ago, flew in the face of local (NYPD) and even national efforts at repurposing the term as somehow a step forward in the aftermath of massive protests.

This week the US Department of Justice released an interim report (i.e. they rushed it) coincidentally around the time that it announced it wouldn't pursue a civil rights case against Darren Wilson, the Ferguson cop whose killing of teenager Mike Brown set off nationwide protests. The report, produced in conjunction with President Barack Obama's "Task Force on 21st Century Policing", mentioned 'community policing' 76 times as it laid out recommendations for national reform.

The task force is chaired by Philadelphia top cop Charles Ramsey and former DOJ prosecutor Laurie Robinson. The group's executive director is Ron Davis, head of DOJ's COPS office -- and a former cop as well. Also included on the Task Force is one Connie Rice, cousin of former Bush Secretary of State Condi Rice and the former ACLU lawyer who penned an influential op-ed in the Times that praised Bratton and greased the wheels of his return to New York last year.

In other words, the task force is headed by cops and includes at least one sellout.

Obama's group is promoting, as are local politicians, this canard of 'community policing' in an attempt to turn the anger in the streets into a passive leap of faith right back into the arms of law enforcement. In fact, they'd like for communities to be even closer to police. Cops that will be more courteous and respectful (once sarcastically described as "Officer Friendly" by Bratton) have been promised for decades. The reason given for 1,000 more guns and badges in New York City now (at a cost of about $90-$120 million -- annually) is that these friendly cops will be forging closer ties to our clergy and business owners so they can be more efficient crime-fighters.

This push is a nearly naked attempt at two things: to create a more larger pool of informants and complaints that'll serve to legitimize the NYPD's bread and butter, Broken Windows; and a public relations makeover for a department unwilling to change, co-signed by politicians of all stripes unwilling to force them to. This is why a Staten Island Republican and a homeless-hating Democrat fall in line with 'progressive' Speaker Viverito's 1,000 cop agenda.

This is also why Herman, in her testimony, couldn't truly separate 'community policing' and Broken Windows. She's being honest, in fact. The so-called academic experts that testified that 'community policing' was "antithetical" to Broken Windows, are not. It's not that 'community policing' isn't good enough, that there isn't enough of it, or that it's not being done in the right way; it's that 'community policing' is and always was just a cover for Broken Windows.

Bratton, in his 1998 memoir, Turnaround, describes his time at the Boston Police Department in the 1970s and his involvement with "one of the first community-policing initiatives in the nation." He talked about a small program he and others spearheaded called the "Boston-Fenway Program". It would "develop a partnership among private institutions and the police and neighborhoods and the area's deteriorating situation." Focused on one area of the city, district 4, the program's "Neighborhood policing plan" included establishing a relationship with people who'd complain, according to Bratton, about "the constant irritants, the stuff in their faces everyday: prostitution, graffiti, filth in the street, noisy parties."

Years later when he would read George Kelling and James Q. Wilson's "Broken Windows" magazine article, it all fit together and the philosophies would merge. 'Community policing' melded right in with Broken Windows' obsession with disorder and low-level crime.

Those of us who want to uproot the racist roots of Broken Windows here in New York and abroad should explicitly reject 'community policing'. Like Jim Crow, everything that is old is new. A movement that looks to actually separate community and policing for our own safety also understands that this can practically be done by replacing the role of cops with non-cop solutions to problems as well as programs of social uplift. As East New York organizer Asere Bello explained at a rally for Akai Gurley recently, "the answer to community problems is community building."

Cops will never reform themselves. The attempts to bring them closer to us by quite literally packaging us in this same, tired concept of 'community policing' is a spin that no one seeking justice should fall for.