In New York City, chants of “I can’t breathe” have given way to neatly run press conferences featuring Mayor Bill de Blasio’s boasts about how the NYPD’s “neighborhood policing” program, described as a collaborative crime-fighting strategy, brings the police and community together.
Eric Garner’s killer still on the job and hasn’t faced justice? A horrifying story of rape involving cops from Brooklyn? The biggest police bribery and corruption scandal in over 20 years? For the self-described progressive mayor overseeing the country’s largest police force, inconvenient stories of police abuse take a back seat to a program that is part public relations, part intelligence-building.
Neighborhood policing, in fact, solidifies police power — and it has been done before.
The newest iteration of the “community policing” trope, a popular political talking point often trotted out when police are embroiled in scandal, neighborhood policing calls for “improved communication and collaboration between cops and community.” If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s strikingly similar to the NYPD’s community policing promises from 1994 and even further back, to a failed “neighborhood-oriented” community policing plan launched by former Police Commissioner Lee Brown.
Historically, community policing models in New York have served at least two purposes, both of which benefit cops: rebranding police officers as friendlier and, more importantly, dedicating more resources to them. The 2015 expansion of the NYPD police headcount by 1,297 extra cops — despite record low crime and protests against police brutality — was fueled by a synchronized call for community policing from the City Council, the mayor’s office and the department itself.
So what, if anything, is different about neighborhood policing? Philosophically and rhetorically, not much. Today’s narrative echoes what has been advocated for in the past: officers walkin’ the beat; promises of improved trust and community relations; and, of course, more cops.
In fact, to make things easier, let’s understand neighborhood policing as community policing and community policing as neighborhood policing. As Ace Ventura once said, “Finkle is Einhorn, Einhorn is Finkle.”
There are, however, slightly new names and terms to note. “Build the Block” neighborhood meetings seem new but parallel precinct council meetings the department has overseen for years. These meetings, described as “strategy sessions between local police officers and the people they serve,” are centered around “neighborhood coordination officers” (NCO’s), which are similar to community affairs officers of the past. But with these new names and new programs, will neighborhood policing depart from Broken Windows policing, the low-level, quality-of-life enforcement popularized in the 1990’s?
In short, no. One of neighborhood policing’s goals is to collect community complaints that inevitably lead to Broken Windows-style enforcement. The interchangeability of neighborhood or community policing and Broken Windows is a concept police leaders have actually made clear. In fact, former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, the godfather of Broken Windows, remarked in his memoir that as a Boston cop in the 1970’s, he helped implement a “neighborhood policing plan” that included police responding to community complaints about “the constant irritants, the stuff in their faces everyday: prostitution, graffiti, filth in the street, noisy parties.”
Bratton stepped down from the NYPD in September 2016, but his protégé and replacement, James O’Neill, is leading the “neighborhood policing” charge today. And while boasts from O’Neill and Mayor de Blasio about neighborhood policing are to be expected, it was surprising to hear NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey praise the NYPD’s efforts last week. Sharkey, whose new book, Uneasy Peace: The Great Crime Decline, the Renewal of City Life, and the Next War on Violence, has drawn acclaim, was a guest on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on February 1 to discuss crime declines across America. Sharkey specifically lauded New York City’s neighborhood policing program, which he described as a “new form of policing,” as “fascinating”and as a “complete shift” in tactics.
For New Yorkers who’ve been following the latest stream of scandals (like cops threatening students, a cover-up of a police bribery scheme, the killing of an emotionally disturbed senior citizen), Sharkey’s analysis was strange, to say the least. Those controversies aside, thousands of low-level arrests, for things like fare-beating or possession of small amounts of marijuana, continue as the Broken Windows bread and butter of the NYPD. Further undermining both Sharkey’s and the city’s claims of a new policing paradigm, public defenders who represent targets of NYPD enforcement have weighed in on neighborhood policing: “ We don’t see it, so it’s hard to know whether there are any benefits to it,” said Justine Olderman, executive director of The Bronx Defenders in a recent interview.
So neighborhood policing would seem to be a continuation of Broken Windows under a new name. Finkle is Einhorn, again. However, one key aspect of neighborhood policing deserves closer scrutiny: the local NYPD-run meetings which Sharkey cited as “meaningful” efforts “to solve problems” in the community. Build the Block meetings have reportedly been “sparsely attended,” canceled, or served as spaces for residents to complain about low-level offenses, such as double-parked cars. Meanwhile, other unpublicized meetings, which most members of the public cannot attend, provide a point of intelligence gathering for more aggressive future NYPD enforcement actions.
A city worker who spoke on condition of anonymity told me that “N-Stat” or neighborhood-stat meetings, which appear to be based on the CompStat police management meetings made famous by Bratton’s NYPD, are invitation-only and held every few months at police headquarters. N-stat meetings bring together NYPD top brass, NCO officers, city officials and community stakeholders, like public housing tenant association presidents, city-funded nonprofits and even anti-violence organizations. The community members who attend, the worker said, “aren’t there to criticize the system” and routinely pepper the police with various complaints about “crime” in their neighborhoods. In turn, police promise to send more cops in to address it. Oftentimes, the worker said, police encourage community members to provide information on who they believe to be gang members.
Promoted through press conferences and privately funded videos, neighborhood policing sounds an awful lot like community policing efforts of the past and should be vehemently opposed by today’s activist community. The danger of allowing the neighborhood policing line to go unchallenged isn’t that it might fail to achieve its vague goals of improved relations between the police and community at large. It’s that it could succeed in rebranding and masking destructive policing practices, from low-level enforcement to multi-agency anti-gang operations, while deploying more cops and selling the public the illusion of a new form of policing.