08/21/2014 05:37 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2014

The NYPD: A Work in Progress

Andrew J Mohrer via Getty Images

The New York City Police Department is a work in progress. It has moved along a winding path of reform for decades. It never seems to get to where it needs to be because the demands keep changing. Reform is a never-ending process that constantly requires mayors and police commissioners to reassess their goals and practices. Because the police stand on the front lines of social change, the public rarely remembers how far the department has come. Political activists who demand change don't look back, just straight ahead.

In 1986, I was asked to serve as Executive Director of a panel appointed by Mayor Edward Koch to review the management and personnel policies of the department. Former Deputy Mayor John Zuccotti, now better known for the park that carries his name, served as Chair. Mayor Koch established the panel after an emotionally disturbed elderly black woman was killed with two blasts from a policeman's shotgun when she attacked officers with a kitchen knife.

The assignment was familiar territory to me. My earliest writings had focused on police reform. Immediately before my appointment, Commissioner Benjamin Ward had asked me to conduct a review of the Police Academy curriculum to determine what could be done to sensitize personnel to the changing demographics of the city. At his insistence I went through an entire cycle of training with a new class of recruits.

I had grown up in a predominately Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn, where better-behaved boys went on to become cops and others went to jail. The distance between the two was never that far. They could be friends or brothers, the sons of dock workers and office maids in Mayor Robert Wagner's New York. Wearing a badge they were well-prepared to navigate the city streets, sometimes by looking the other way when no harm was done by mischievous behavior, sometimes with a "love tap" from a nightstick; and nobody complained.

These tactics no longer worked when the city became more diverse and white cops began to rough up black and Puerto Rican teens. Racial tensions grew, minorities demanded protection, and angry young men began to riot. In 1965, John Lindsay, a young candidate for mayor, marked his first campaign speech by demanding the establishment of a Civilian Complaint Review Board. That summer 5,000 cops circled City Hall to protest the idea and ridicule Lindsay. After Lindsay's election the review board proposal was rejected by 63% of the voters in a popular referendum.

When I got to the academy twenty years later, I was surprised to discover that so many recruits (about 40%) were from the suburbs and had no familiarity with the city. Some were downright anxious. I learned how frightening an ordinary car stop could be when officers had to approach a vehicle not knowing who was inside or what they intended. I discovered that cops routinely worry about making it home safely to their families at night.

I was also surprised by the high quality of instruction, even then, with lessons designed to help recruits understand the many sub-cultures of New York: African American, West Indian, Hispanic, Asian, Hasidic, and gay. I would later hear that seasoned officers often viewed the academy as being out of touch with the job. The culture of the department was formed in the precincts, where rookies learned to cope with situations under the guidance of experienced veterans, sometimes in ways contrary to what was taught at the academy.

The Zuccotti Committee made recommendations designed to improve supervision and recruit better-educated officers more representative of the city population. Mayor Koch, who already had appointed the city's first black police commissioner, responded favorably. When David Dinkins became mayor in 1989, he began to experiment with community policing to build closer ties between officers and neighborhood residents.

Ever since the Knapp Commission uncovered widespread corruption in 1972, the overall patrol strategy was to put distance between the people and the police and let officers patrol in cars rather than on foot so they would not get too chummy with locals. There was a time when some cops would give up a cushy desk job to pound a beat because the money was better on the street. The Zuccotti Committee had determined that such systemic corruption no longer existed, and Mayor Dinkins was willing to take a risk in the midst of a crack epidemic that put lots of drug money onto the city sidewalks. Dinkins, with City Council support, also instituted a Civilian Complaint Review Board. But crime persisted at record highs, and Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor on the promise that he would clean it up.

Mayor Giuliani's Police Commissioner William Bratton earned a national reputation with his "Broken Windows" strategy designed to control minor street offenses like pan-handling as a way to discourage major crimes. By tracking data on precinct activity, he gave local commanders an incentive to keep arrest numbers up, and crime came tumbling down.

The bombing of the World Trade Center in 2001 changed the nature of policing forever with a new focus on anti-terrorism. Intrusive surveillance into Arab communities brought protests by Islamic leaders. Crime continued to drop, and in 2005 the Police Academy had its first minority white (45.2%) graduating class. Racial tensions grew, however, when Mayor Bloomberg's Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly implemented a "stop and frisk" policy that targeted a disproportionate number of black and Latino men. A federal judge ruled that the disparities violated basic civil rights.

Delivering on a campaign vow, Mayor Bill de Blasio amended "stop and frisk" and simultaneously alleviated concerns that he might be soft on crime by rehiring William Bratton as Police Commissioner. Now, with a continuing drop in crime, Bratton's signature "Broken Windows" approach is being questioned as an unnecessary provocation between officers and citizens.

Once again it is time to reassess the inherited wisdom of another time. There is no easy answer. It might involve reconsidering the criminalization of harmless infractions. It might require a more streetwise approach to enforcement, where a stiff warning or a summons could make more sense than an arrest. Smart cops probably already know this. Policy makers need to recognize that police reform is a never-ending journey down an ever-winding road.

Joseph P. Viteritti is the Thomas Hunter Professor of Public Policy and Chair of the Urban Affairs and Planning Department at Hunter College, CUNY. His most recent book is Summer in the City: John Lindsay, New York, and the American Dream.