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The Revolution in American Policing
The science of kicking ass
There is a revolution underway in American policing. An increasing number of police departments are mixing aggressive "zero tolerance" enforcement, aimed at minor disorders, with bureaucratic decentralization, computerized mapping of crime statistics, and a business-like focus on the "bottom line" of reduced crime rates. Nationwide crime rates are declining, with a cluster of "zero tolerance" cities, modeling themselves after New York City, leading the way. But this new style of policing is also linked with increasing reports of police brutality; the recent torture and sodomy of Abner Louima in a Brooklyn station house being only a lurid tip of the iceberg.
According to many experts the rise in brutality is not merely coincidental, rather the policing revolution has structured into it an increased use of brutality. Many police officers seem to unwittingly support that assessment.
"Zero tolerance is an attitude," says Lt. Gary McLhinney a Baltimore city cop, president of Baltimores Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge, and one of that citys loudest zero tolerance apostles. "It means that if you cant respect the standards of decent behavior, if you prey on our communities, well come down on you night and day."
The Guru of the "Go Get Em" School
Police used to be more passive. Officers rode around waiting to answer 911 calls," explains William Bratton, the former New York City Police Commissioner who "re-engineered" the department into the Chicago Bulls of law enforcement. Now a jet-setting security consultant, Bratton is still the godfather of innovative policing, his latest project is reforming the department in Birmingham, Alabama. "What we do is merely free police to be proactive and fight crime again," says Bratton.
Much of the Bratton strategy is based on the "broken windows" theory of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Their thesis is simple: take care of small "quality of life" problems such as public drinking, and a sense of orderly regulation is created that helps prevent brutal crimes like rape and murder. The NYPD under Bratton was the first to develop the Wilson-Kelling thesis into a coherent, multi-faceted strategy for slashing crime rates. New Orleans, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Baltimore are following suit, their leaders having made the pilgrimage to New York or hired Bratton protégés as consultants. Los Angeles, under its new Chief Parks, is also looking at New York-style reforms. Likewise San Franciso has used elements of the philosophy since the days of Mayor Frank Jordan, but here zero tolerance has been almost exclusively aimed at the homeless, nor has the SFPD adopted the combination of computerized crime mapping and bureaucratic decentralization known as "Comstat."
In Baltimore, the New York-inspired changes are less than a year old, but police violence is soaring. At first Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier called zero tolerance a "buzzword...one iota away from discriminatory policing." But political pressure, FOP rancor, and renegade campaigns by several "zero tolerance" district commanders have forced Baltimores brass to copy more and more of the New York methodology. By mid-August of this year Baltimore Police had already shot more than 70 civilians.
In New York, the picture is both stunning and terrifying. During the last three years misdemeanor arrests have gone up by 73 percent, and murder has nosedived by almost 50 percent. Complaints of police brutality have jumped by 62 percent since Rudolf Giuliani took office in 1992, while in the same period the city has paid out more than $100 million in damages arising from police violence. When confronted with charges that the NYPD was making war on the city, Guilianis response was: "Thats too damn bad."
Bratton, likewise, waves away the problem with: "It makes sense that there will be increased confrontation between officers and civilians. Were dealing with anti-social behavior patterns that had been ignored for twenty-five years."
Only a year and a half into its New York-inspired zero tolerance regime and New Orleans is seeing similar results: plunging crime and overly aggressive cops. "In the last three or four months since they implemented the zero tolerance component, I received more complaints than in the last two years combined," says Mary Howell, New Orleanss leading police misconduct attorney. Howell explains that since 1994, when 50 police officers were arrested on a number of charges from rape and drug dealing to murder, the departments new Chief Richard Pennington has been unable to fully implement his version of New York-style reforms. By the spring of 1997 that changed, and by early summer zero tolerance hit the streets with a vengeance. Community activists say the Second and the Sixth Districtspoor, largely African American communitieshave become virtual war zones.
"I think zero tolerance is asking for a riot, and in mid-July we almost had one," says Howell. "Two notorious officers were strangling a 14-year-old girl after chasing someone into her apartment. A young man from the group Black Men United for ChangePeace Keepers, peacefully intervened, asked what was going on. The police attacked and arrested him. Pretty soon 300 people had surrounded the scene to prevent the police from killing this guy."
The litany of zero tolerance abuse goes on, a ten-year-old boy held face down in the dirt, a gun to his head, massive police sweeps, Black men being stopped and searched en masse under the auspices of a new "drug loitering" statute.
Reports from Indianapolis sound like echoes from the Big Easy. "At first we were too short staffed to do quality of life enforcement," says Janna Griffith of the Indianapolis Police Department Public Affairs Office. "But this summer we started street sweeps and what we call saturation patrols against nuisance crimes and street level dealing."
"These campaigns of harassment are relatively new but were getting lots of calls about them," says Sheila Kennedy of the Indiana Civil Liberties Union. She says the official police statistics on reported abuse by officers are "unrealistic" but her office is definitely noticing a change. "People in the African American community are reporting a pattern of discriminatory traffic stops. And in the gay community people feel that the cops are doing some bashing of their own."
As in New Orleans, Indianapoliss version of zero tolerance takes place against the backdrop of wild police misconduct. In August 1996 a group of off duty officers got drunk at a baseball game in the mayors sky box. After the game, they proceeded to sexually harass passing women and brutally beat a black motorist. "I think a lot of police feel they have carte blanche powers," says Kennedy.
Brave New Cop Sciences
There is more to the new policing than unleashing cops, resurrecting old vagrancy laws, and harassing youth of color. Streamlined, decentralized bureaucracies and new mechanisms of performance-related accountability have, in many cases, meant more responsive and competent policing.
The linchpin of these innovations is the Comstat process, short for computer statistics. The procedure is surprisingly similar, be it in New Orleans, Indianapolis, Baltimore or New York. Once a week precinct or district captains go before the entire brass of their department and have to explain their performance.
"You have the Commissioner, the Chief, the Deputy Chiefs, sitting at one end of a large stage," explains Lt. Muncy, the manager of the Baltimore Police Departments Comstat meetings. "Opposite them is a 12-foot high illuminated map, filled with icons. In the front two rows of the auditorium are all the majors and colonels in charge of all special units and the rest of the brass. On stage, in front of everybody are one or two district commanders, explainingor trying to explainthe situation in their area."
In New York the first Comstat meetings were so rough that half of the citys 76 precinct captains quit or were transferred from their jobs in the first two years. "When I took over we had a very entrenched command structure. So the meetings tended to be a bit heated and confrontational," says Bratton.
"If we see a rash of robberies, we ask the captain, what hes doing. Does he have a plan? Is he setting up any stings, has he contacted other precincts to see if the stolen merchandise is in their area? If theres no explanation, and no change in rate and pattern of offenses, the officer probably wont last."
This sort of pressure to be proactive and preventive breaks down barriers between precincts, and gets pushed down the chain of command. Captains lean on lieutenants, who lean on sergeants and beat cops; as all precinct captains must reduce crime or move on. "Comstat allows for a transparency that even a walk around management style cant achieve," says Bratton. "You can see whos good and who isnt. You can reach down in the ranks and promote the really smart and aggressive leaders or see where the system may be clogged."
In Minneapolis the police, though openly following the New York model, say they are emphasizing proactive prevention over quality of life busts.
"For example we just had a gang shooting," says Chief Robert Olson, a friend of Brattons and a former commissioner in Yonkers, New York. "So instead of waiting for it to escalate, and then tracking down the culprits, we sent 12 probation officers out with the cops. They tracked down the known gang members, went to their houses, didnt arrest, just talked to em. Said: hey we know whats going. No retaliations." So far Minneapolis has seen six killings this year compared with 30 in 1996.
Unfortunately, such preventative measures can quickly turn into a widening of the criminal justice net. In Anaheim probation officers, coordinating their efforts with the District Attorney, ride with police, not to preempt gang-banging, but to catch and bust youth who violate the rules of their virtual house-arrest probation. "If active gang members come out on probation and they sneeze, theyre going back to jail," says Bryan Brown of the Anaheim DAs office.
While much of Comstat is hard to argue withmany see it as progressive policingthe "broken windows" logic and zero tolerance rhetoric of Comstat gives pseudo-scientific legitimacy to petty and racist police harassment.
"Every arrest for a quality of life offense, is a potential breakthrough on some other larger case," says an NOPD spokesperson. "Every ticket, every bust provides intelligence on a potential criminal." This ideathat every bust countsis said to have enormously boosted morale among the rank and file of the NYPD, NOPD, and other zero tolerance departments. According to the best case scenariothe one purveyed by cop-shop spin doctorsserial killers jump turnstiles, so bust enough fair-beaters and youll find a Ted Bundy.
"Thats Bull! Not every bust is a potential breakthrough. A lot of busts in this town are just about making ticket quotas and power tripping," says Steve Duncombe a resident and activist in New Yorks Lower East Side. Some criminologists agree.
"Zero Tolerance further criminalizes poor people and communities of color. Enough tickets and warrants lead to a sort of criminal labeling of non-deviant groups, as deviant," says Professor Peter Sharf of New Orleans University. Many cops dont see that as a problem.
"People say ZT doesnt work because in New York or Baltimore, 80 percent of the quality of life tickets are never paid and an enormous amount of the misdemeanor court dates are no-shows," says Lt. MacLhinney of Baltimores FOP. "But hey, that doesnt matter. What counts is weve got them in the system! Were building a data base."
What Really Drives Crime Rates?
Charges of brutality and discriminatory policing are not what drive criminal justice policyfear of crime does. Among criminologists, police, and legal experts there is a contentious debate about the policing revolution and its real effect on crime rates.
"Its all due to the police," says Bratton. "For years criminologist said the police were merely reactive, that we couldnt effect crime rates. Its not true."
There is a smorgasbord of complimentary non-police explanations for lower crime rates: fewer "crimo-genic" young men in the population; colder winters keeping people indoors; a booming economy; the stabilization of once violent drug markets; and a switch from crack to heroin. But these explanations, even in combination, havent quite snatched the credit from the tough new policing, in part because the plunge in crime rates in New York is so much greater than any, or all, of these factors would have predicted. As Comstat and ZT take hold in New Orleans the same seems to be emerging there; violent crime in all categories, except homicide, was down by almost 20 percent in the first quarter of 1997 when compared to the first quarter of 1995.
Culture of Peace Pushes Down Crime
New research by anthropologist Richard Curtis provides another explanation. "Its the little brother syndrome. A lot of kids out there have turned away from violence. Theres been a real cultural shift," says Curtis from his office at John Jay College. Curtis and his research team have been conducting a larger scale ethnographic study in neighborhoods throughout New York. They say the current generation of youth are rejecting the "thug life" in reaction to the storm of killing, addiction, and AIDS deaths of the late 1980s and early 1990s.
"What were finding," explains Curtis, "is that kids are staying in school, smoking blunts but avoiding alcohol and hard drugs and even getting more politically active. I wouldnt give so much credit to the cops."
In the west and midwest theres yet another piece to this puzzlegang "trucing." From Watts to Omaha, to Chicago, an archipelago of tenuous, post-LA riot truces are still holding between numerous sets of Crips, Bloods, Vicelords, and Disciples.
"Theres peace between the projects and not as much money to be made in the game," says DeWayne Holmesa founder of the LA Crips-Blood gang truce and now an advisor to State Senator Tom Haydenduring a recent cruise through the former war zones of Watts. "A lot of dudes are chilling out, stayn at home, or looking for jobs."
The Black Men United for ChangePeace Keepers in New Orleans, and a similar unarmed community-based peacekeeping group called TURF in San Francisco, may be examples of how the cultural shift towards peace can be institutionalized. But it is the seemingly magic elixir of Zero Tolerance and Comstat that is receiving attention and Justice Department funding. As far as most elected officials are concerned, the New York City model is political rocket fuel. Z
Christian Parenti teaches sociology at the New College of California in San Francisco.