It hasn’t been the best of times for New York’s finest. In the past five months, three NYPD officers have died in the line of duty. Their deaths are part of a broader national trend. According to FBI statistics, the number of police officers who were killed as the result of criminal acts nearly doubled in 2014 over the prior year.
An estimated 34,500 officers are tasked with protecting New York City’s nearly 8.5 million residents. Many New Yorkers will agree that the vast majority of those who don the officer’s uniform seek to perform their jobs effectively and fairly. But lately our men and women in blue — and police forces around the country —have come under verbal fire as well.
Many recent cases of unarmed black men dying while in police custody have fueled community tensions with law enforcement across the country. In New York City, the Eric Garner case in particular — and the protests it provoked — have even sparked outright hostility toward the city’s police by many in the community. To address these issues, City Hall and the NYPD are rethinking the city’s policing strategies, ordering up new training seminars and social programs to improve relations with the communities they serve and supplying more cameras to officers to record arrests as they happen.
“The policing of any community, of any city, is not solely incumbent on the police,” said New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton on Friday, addressing mourners at the funeral of NYPD Officer Brian Moore, who died after he was shot in the face by a man in Queens. “We all have a fundamental right to live free from fear, free from crime, and free from disorder — but while we share that right, we also share the duty to secure it. We share the responsibility of adherence to the law. We share the responsibility of keeping each other safe.”
Bratton has called for hiring more police. The City Council agrees and has pushed to hire 1,000 new officers. Mayor Bill de Blasio did not include this proposal in his budget for this year, however.
Following the death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner, de Blasio ordered a retraining of most NYPD officers. The program, a three-day course called Blue Courage, includes two days of classroom instruction and one day of tactical and physical training. Although the NYPD declined to comment for this story, one officer who did undergo the training spoke under condition of anonymity.
“I think [the training] is effective in keeping a police officer refreshed on what it is that he needs to do on a daily basis to make sure that an officer gets his job done in a professional and safe way,” he said, adding that the Garner incident demonstrates that how different scenarios in which officers interact with the public can be.
“Every interaction with every individual is its own situation,” he said, but, “at the end of the day, an officer doesn’t want to hurt anybody.”
The effort to rethink how police officers are trained is not limited to New York City. After the death of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teen who died in February 2012 following a confrontation with neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman, the federal Department of Justice formed the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice, an initiative that seeks to help law enforcement agencies smooth out relations with the public.
Tracie Keesee, a 25-year veteran of the Denver police and project director for the initiative, said the the program focused on three areas: reconciliation between communities and law enforcement, procedural justice and implicit bias. Keesee said that in particular, combating implicit bias is important, because everyone, police and civilian alike, takes mental shortcuts in critical situations, which can have disparate outcomes.
“Yes, officers have that [bias], too. We deal with that with training, with attitude behavior matching, [and by asking] are there triggers that occur,” Keesee said.
One hundred police departments volunteered to be part of the initiative, but ultimately, only six cities were selected to implement the pilot program: Stockton, California; Gary, Indiana; Fort Worth, Texas; Birmingham, Alabama; Pittsburgh; and Minneapolis.
“All six cities were very progressive,” Keesee said. “They were forward-thinking enough to ask for help.”
Keesee said that although the systemic problems that lead to community confrontation with the police have persisted for years, the public conversation has only now begun to seriously address these issues. “People have reached their boiling point. The conversation is sustained because of social media. The conversation is sustained because of the 24-hour news cycle,” she said in a phone interview. “You still have too many people seeing this as a ‘them’ problem, not an ‘us’ problem.”
The NYPD has operated a community outreach program for years. Its effectiveness, given the current climate, is hard to pin down, but at least a framework to build better relations between police and citizens does exist. The NYPD’s Community Affairs Bureau helps the force partner with community leaders, civic organizations, block associations and other individuals and groups.
The NYPD also offers multiple programs, including the Ride Along Program, which allows New Yorkers to see what it’s like to be on a police patrol route, and the Citizens Police Academy, in which participants attend an accelerated version of the training program police recruits receive. There is also a Summer Youth Police Academy for youths aged 10 to 16. Local precincts hold monthly community affairs meetings that anyone can attend, and the NYPD even throws fun events, such as pizza parties, as community ice breakers.
“We invite people to have food, to have police meetings,” our police source said. “There are thousands of these community interactions. They have been going on for 150 years but aren’t reported. The community interactions that mean the most are the ones where you’re taking people who are unfamiliar with the police, who are used to having negative interactions out in the street, and you actually start training them on what it’s like to be a police officer.”
It’s one thing for police to reach out to the community to discover their concerns. But it’s another matter entirely trying to build up a force that actually reflects the concerns of that community.
One criticism leveled at many police departments, including the NYPD, is that they do not reflect the diversity of the communities they represent. The NYPD is increasingly racially diverse. The department’s ranks are split almost evenly between whites and non-whites. In June 2014, department figures showed that the NYPD was 51 percent white, 16 percent black, 26 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian. The 2014 class of NYPD graduates was 51 percent non-white.
But diversity alone is not a cure-all, Keesee said, especially given the societal disparities in education, economics and housing many people of color face.
“Baltimore is one of the most diverse police departments in the country. There is African American leadership. Diversity is not the magic pill,” she said.
Many police officers reside outside of their respective cities’ limits, which critics say can lead to a police force that is out-of-touch with the communities it serves. A majority of NYPD officers — 62 percent — do live in the city, but when figures are broken down by race, only 45 percent of white officers live in the city, versus 77 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association has defended the right of the police to live outside of the city, citing cost-of-living concerns. Current NYPD guidelines mandate that officers must live in the city or Westchester, Rockland, Orange, Putnam, Nassau or Suffolk counties, due to a 1962 relaxation of the residency requirement that once did call for an all-city resident police force.
Neighborhood watch groups and alternative justice systems and courts also play vital roles in assisting law enforcement, our police source said.
“When you put people in a position of responsibility to their community, they are forced to work with the police to make their community a better place,” he said. “They will begin to see through the eyes of a police officer the resistance out there to doing the job of good.”
Such systems can help law enforcement do its job better, say many experts.
“What you have going on with alternative systems is a response to the failures of the traditional system,” project director Keesee said. “They can be a wakeup call that we’re doing something wrong.”
Document courtesy of the International Association of Chiefs of Police