The writer is New York City police commissioner.
There is a divide in America, and in New York City. It is racial, but it is also about poverty and failed social systems and unequal access to the American Dream.
On one hand are the protesters, who see a criminal justice system that incarcerates vast numbers of minorities, especially young black men, and subjects even larger numbers to obtrusive enforcement. Many see police officers as willing agents of that system, and some see them as racist, brutal and even murderous.
On the other hand are the cops, who see the victims of criminal violence up close and have spent far more time in minority neighborhoods than many of their critics. Needless to say, they don’t see themselves as racist. More than half of the officers in the New York City Police Department’s patrol force are minorities themselves. They also don’t see themselves as agents of any system. Instead, they are guarantors of the public safety that underpins our democracy, people who help others.
How do we reconcile these perspectives?
On the police side, we must recognize that our methods require refinement. We can be abrupt — sometimes rude — with the people we encounter, and that leaves a lasting impression, particularly in our most vulnerable communities. People in these communities suffer most from the crime that persists in the city, but they are also the least satisfied with the police. That’s a serious challenge. In these neighborhoods, people feel overpoliced and underprotected. In New York, this paradoxical feeling comes in large part from the use of “stop, question and frisk.” We’re addressing that. The use of this lawful tool has plummeted 75 percent from 2013, and 93 percent from its high in 2011. And even as this has happened, the results have improved, with the arrest rate resulting from such stops nearly doubling from 8 percent in 2013 to 15 percent last year.
On the other side, our critics need to recognize the current context. They are not living in a police state. The U.S. incarceration rate may be too high, but imprisonment has fallen by 25 percent in New York state prisons and by more than 40 percent in New York City jails from their respective peaks. The NYPD continues to explore alternatives to arrest for minor offenses, and we hope to reduce the number of people “in the system” even further. And the prevalence of brutality is a fiction. My officers use force in only 2 out of every 100 arrests. In 2014, they intentionally used their firearms in only 42 instances, out of 20 million contacts with civilians, 4.5 million radio runs and nearly 400,000 arrests.
But fixing stop, question and frisk is not the only answer, nor is lowering the rhetorical volume.
To rebuild trust, a little graciousness can go a long way. When officers grant people their humanity, most return the favor. We’ve initiated a robust field training program that will allow our rookie cops to develop their skills under the guidance of veteran officers and local community partners.
Rebuilding trust also means working at the local level. Local policing is policing with a friendly, human face, one that encourages people to feel as subjectively safe as two decades of successful crime control have objectively made them.
None of this means we are backing down from the fundamental police responsibility to prevent crime and disorder. Because here is the unspoken secret of the police-community divide: The minority communities don’t want us to back down. The serious crime, the calls for service and the bulk of quality-of-life complaints are concentrated in the very neighborhoods that are perceived as being at odds with the police. Despite that negative perception, they call us, time and again. And time and again, we answer the calls.
Can we bridge this divide? Yes. We’re already collaborating with community groups and other agencies. We’re developing new organizational structures to ensure that officers are invested in the neighborhoods they police. We’re deploying new technologies such as smartphones and apps so officers and civilians can connect more easily than ever. But we can also create new measurements for evaluating our work, measurements that include citizen satisfaction. We can hold cops and commands accountable for how safe their communities feel, not just how safe they are. We can cross the divide and make the community our partner again — here in New York and across the nation.
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