The death of Eric Garner was a tragedy. But it shouldn’t obscure a basic truth — the NYPD is one of the most restrained police departments in the country, and can serve as a model for other departments.
In 2013, the department responded to nearly 4.8 million calls. Its officers had millions of additional contacts, including referrals from 311. While most police interactions are service-related, officers made 25,000 arrests involving weapons, and issued hundreds of thousands of summonses for infractions and traffic violations.
All of those situations are freighted with the potential for unpleasant, even violent endings. Yet in 2013, the department’s 35,000 officers were involved in just 40 shooting incidents with adversaries who were almost invariably armed or engaged in genuinely threatening behavior. They fired 248 shots, the lowest number in 42 years (the number was 2,510 in 1972). The NYPD rate of shootings is less than 5 per million. In Chicago, by comparison, it’s 13.2 per million population. (In fairness, Chicago has many areas where gun-related crime is entrenched.)
At the heart of New York’s firearms restraint are good policies and training that emphasizes the importance of using every alternative to firearms. Cops themselves take pride in working in a department where resorting to firearms is an absolute last option. Department guidelines, recruitment and in-service training emphasize a reverence for human life. Each week, cops are confronted with situations where they could shoot and don’t.
Last Tuesday, in Brooklyn, NYPD cops showed remarkable courage and restraint after facing down a knife wielding man who had just stabbed a student. Only when they had no other choice — after literally begging the man to drop the bloodied weapon — did the officer fire.
The NYPD workforce mirrors the city it polices. Twenty-three percent of the uniformed force is black. Hispanics account for 28 percent, and Asians consist of 13 percent. In fact, a majority of the NYPD’s patrol force is non-white. Today’s street officers also operate in an environment where it is likely that a camera somewhere will record his deeds and sometimes words.
The Bill de Blasio administration has inherited a super safe city and has so far been able to report historically low crime statistics. At the same time, this administration has wisely curtailed the footprint of the police, choosing to reserve street stops for those involved in legitimately suspicious conduct.
The city’s police commissioner, who is well respected by cops, comes to New York from Los Angeles, a city that went through a wrenching period where the agency was accused of having an abusive culture which culminated in the appointment of a federal overseer for the LAPD. While this was no doubt a painful experience for William J. Bratton, it serves him well as New York’s top cop tries to keep the city safe while at the same time delivering equal justice on the city’s streets.
Where the NYPD has been tarnished, it has been in large part because of political and police leadership failures. The seeds of the Garner tragedy were sown when the officers were ordered to make a custodial arrest of someone committing a trivial tax crime. The Sean Bell case which rocked the department in 2006 involved city officials choosing a police-driven strategy to shutter a social club when civil enforcement would have been far less risky. NYPD brass failed when it heedlessly over-expanded an elite unit, Street Crime, and allowed systems of supervision and accountability to corrode: Amadou Diallo an unarmed immigrant mistakenly shot by police may have paid the price. After tragic events in New York and Missouri, a tremendous amount of commentary and attention has centered on the accountability of front line officers which is understandable. But making policing better, and preventing tensions and tragedies requires political and police leaders to make difficult, not always popular decisions. Wish I could say that my confidence is high about that.