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Police Reform’s Next Step

Alex S. Vitale Feb 26

The appointment of William Bratton to be the once and future NYPD police commissioner brought groans from many police reform advocates. Bratton’s previous tenure under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani brought with it numerous complaints of heavyhanded policing toward homeless people, political demonstrators, sex workers and anyone deemed “disorderly” by the NYPD or Giuliani.

The political context for policing in New York, however, has changed significantly since then, even if Bratton’s underlying philosophy of policing hasn’t. The early 1990s were a time of very high crime rates in New York City, especially in communities of color, where shootings were sometimes nightly occurrences, open air drug markets thrived and many public spaces were largely unusable. At that time it was communities of color as much as anyone else who demanded more aggressive policing.

Shifting Political Winds

The political winds in New York have shifted since then. On January 30, the city’s political and civil liberties leaders joined together to announce a settlement in the Floyd v. City of New York stop-and-frisk litigation. After several years of legal and political organizing, the NYPD has agreed to stop engaging in widespread unlawful street stops and establish an independent monitor, with a mandate to reach out to affected communities to ensure the city is complying.

After Stop-and-Frisk, 8 More Ways to Reform the NYPD

  • Back away from quotas for police officers, a hallmark of the Ray Kelly era.
  • Stop the harassment of sex workers and street vendors.
  • End the surveillance of Muslims and political activists in cases where there is no evidence of criminal intent.
  • Legalize marijuana. Young people of color make up the vast majority of arrestees for pot possession.
  • Utilize community-based anti-violence initiatives that involve peer-to-peer counseling of youth.
  • Create safe spaces for kids to get off the street such as after-school programs and midnight basketball during the summer.
  • Change the way police handle people with mental illness. Pair police with mental health professionals who are prepared to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis using therapeutic rather than control-oriented methods.
  • Give the newly formed inspector general position more power. The IG is appointed by another mayoral appointee and can probe police abuses, but the inspector’s recommendations are not binding.

While on its face a legal victory, in actuality it took the election of a new mayor to end what would have likely been many years of appeals by the city. Several years of grassroots organizing and coalition building were necessary to create the political space that allowed de Blasio to rise to the top of the mayoral pack on a pro-reform agenda. It was these efforts that dramatically shifted public opinion concerning stop-and-frisk and the perceptions of racial injustice in NYPD practices.

With crime down substantially (concerns about police data manipulation not withstanding), the accumulation of over a decade of bad blood between the NYPD and those on the receiving end of their aggressive and invasive policing practices, and potential pressure from a federal monitor and the new inspector general, some reforms are afoot. Even before Bratton took over the number of reported stop-and-frisks fell dramatically, as have low level marijuana arrests.

Through his tenures in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, Bratton has shown himself to be an adaptable political animal and a smart and innovative manager. He is fully aware of this change in political context and has made a proactive effort to speak with critics of the department in a way that was unheard of during either the Giuliani or Bloomberg administrations. Despite accusations of heavy-handed policing in Los Angeles, Bratton managed to retain the support of minority community leaders and a strong majority of the general public across race lines.

Maintain the Pressure

Does this mean, however, that police reform advocates should pat themselves on the back and leave the details to Bratton and the city lawyers? Hardly. Since the reforms that have been achieved so far have been the result of political mobilization, it is only the continuation of these mobilizations that will keep the pressure on to insure that existing victories remain in place and to push for a slew of additional much- needed changes. There is always a risk that a new more liberal political establishment will deflect and demobilize grassroots reform initiatives, but that doesn’t seem likely in the short run.

Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), the coalition behind the Community Safety Act, which included the creation of an inspector general for the NYPD as well as the legal and political force behind the Floyd case, is continuing to raise awareness about a broad range of police accountability issues. Their main post-Bloomberg focus seems to be on insuring that there is not a return to wide-spread stop- and-frisk practices and calling for a strong inspector general with a broad mandate for change. They will also undoubtedly be involved in the community engagement aspects of the federal monitoring created by the Floyd settlement agreement.

The Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP) at the Urban Justice Center is showing no signs of slowing down either. This group has always had a broad analysis of police wrongdoing that included the harassment and criminalization of sex workers, LGBT communities, street vendors, political activists and communities of color.

While less enthusiastic about the inspector general, they share CPR’s ongoing concerns about monitoring the level of stop-and-frisk and other forms of aggressive and invasive policing. Since the appointment of Bratton, the group has continued its street outreach, in the form of tabling and petition drives and the holding of public events that bring together diverse constituencies concerned about police misconduct. On March 20 they will be holding a panel at the Ethical Culture Society in Manhattan and releasing a new report produced by Fordham Law School that lays out a range of short- and long-term reforms needed in the NYPD, including backing away from quotas, ending the surveillance of Muslims and political activists, stopping the harassment of sex workers and street vendors and the legalization of marijuana.

Reducing the Police’s Role

Some of the most important reforms in policing may actually be about taking steps to reduce the role of police in producing public safety. This past fall State Senator Liz Kruger introduced a bill to fully legalize marijuana for personal use in New York. The Drug Policy Alliance and other groups are supporting this bill in part as a way of reducing the power of the police to criminalize young people of color, who made up the vast majority of the 50,000 people a year arrested for marijuana under former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly.

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, from Flatbush, Brooklyn, has long championed support for community-based anti-violence initiatives that involve peer-to-peer counseling of youth, street mediation initiatives and the creation of safe places for young people to get off the streets. Along with the new chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, Vanessa Gibson, of the Bronx, there is a possibility for the first time in many years of meaningful legislative oversight of the NYPD as long as community pressure remains in place.

Muslim and South Asian community organizations also remain highly mobilized to bring about fundamental changes to the way terrorism policing is conducted in New York. Matt Appazo and Adam Goldman’s investigative book Enemies Within showed clearly the extent of unwarranted surveillance of Muslims and its total ineffectiveness. The NYCLU and others filed the lawsuit Raza v. City of New York last year in an effort to end a variety of what they believe are illegal surveillance practices. Neither de Blasio nor Bratton have indicated they will make any meaningful changes to this kind of policing and no settlement in that case seems forthcoming.

When Activists Are Targeted

Appazo and Goldman’s work also showed that political activists are being subjected to unwarranted surveillance in the post 9-11 environment. Previously such groups had been protected from unreasonable spying by the Handschu consent decree, which required real evidence of criminal wrong doing to initiate surveillance and infiltration of political groups. The outgoing NYPD counterterrorism chief, David Cohen, succeeded in having these controls watered down by equating contentious political activism with terrorism. Over the last several months a number of the groups named in leaked NYPD documents, such as Times Up! and Friends of Brad Will, along with others, have been developing plans to demand that political spying be once again restricted given the NYPD’s proclivity to widespread political information-gathering, infiltration and even undercover disruption of nonviolent political groups.

There is also widespread support among reform advocates for changing the way police handle people with mental illness. Despite decades of litigation and community protest, the NYPD continues to adhere to a variety of counter-productive procedures, which frequently end in violence and criminalization for the mentally ill. Advocates such as Communities for Crisis Intervention Teams in NYC (CCITNYC) are calling for the creation of different kinds of responses that pair police with mental health professionals who are prepared to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis using therapeutic rather than control-oriented methods.

No Illusions

Reformers should not have any illusions about the extent to which radical reforms will be forthcoming. Both de Blasio and Bratton have signaled a continued allegiance to the “broken windows” theory, which is at heart a deeply neoconservative approach to public safety in which the police are used to create a renewed moral order of public civility through ever more invasive and pervasive interventions into our personal affairs.

While the NYPD may reduce its reliance on “stop, question, and frisk” as such, it is likely to be replaced by more targeted forms of order-maintenance tactics, possibly with greater buy-in from the communities being policed. So-called targeted or focused deterrence initiatives, for example, have become popular in many cities such as Boston, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Chicago.

During his time in Los Angeles, Bratton was a strong supporter of stop-and-frisk-style tactics as well as crackdowns on the homeless on Skid Row and other areas ripe for gentrification. The road to more fundamental reforms will remain a long one, but the level of ongoing political activity pressuring the police, from grassroots “copwatch” programs in the Bronx, Manhattan and Brooklyn to major civil rights litigation in federal court holds out hope for change.

Alex Vitale is a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of City of Disorder: How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics (NYU Press, 2009). You can follow him on Twitter at @avitale.