February 28, 1999

Dispelling New York's Latest Fear


T here was a crisis of fear in New York City in the early 1990's, and for good reason. Annual totals of 2,000 homicides, 6,000 shootings and 100,000 robberies are enough to frighten anyone. Residents had little confidence in the ability of the police to control and reduce violence, especially in minority neighborhoods.

But from 1994 on, the Police Department changed the reality and the perception. The department replaced what had been an uncoordinated, scattershot enforcement effort with focused strategic plans. In the 1990's, felony crimes have been cut in half, homicides reduced by nearly 70 percent, and order has been largely restored. The crisis of fear about crime is over.

But now we know that New York is facing a different crisis of fear. Though minority communities have benefited enormously from reduced crime, they now see themselves as under attack by the police. The tragic shooting of Amadou Diallo has become a rallying point for general resentment about aggressive police stops and searches.

People are worried that they themselves -- and particularly their teen-age sons -- are at risk, but from cops. They are not feeling the benefit of safer streets.

Although we can't know for certain until all the facts are in, the Diallo shooting appears to have been an error committed by fallible human beings. It is beyond imagining that these officers gunned down an innocent man intentionally. The New York Police Department shows more restraint in the use of force than do Federal enforcement agencies and most other big-city police departments.

But all that is irrelevant to the current crisis of fear. People are often afraid of crime out of proportion to its reality, so it should not be surprising that they fear police abuse out of proportion to its reality.

The challenge for the city government and the Police Department is not to prove frightened people wrong. It is to make visible and effective changes that ease their fears and restore their confidence in the police. The department can combine several strategies to find a way out of this crisis of fear.

The first strategy is openness. A police organization that willfully shuts itself off from scrutiny and public exposure can lose public trust. The role of police power in a democracy should be the expression of social consensus.

But how can a consensus be reached if the Police Department, responding to orders from above, routinely withholds information from the state comptroller and the public advocate as well as from the press and public?

When I was New York City's Police Commissioner from 1994 to the spring of 1996, I tried to run an open department. But Mayor Rudolph Giuliani closed down this effort. He forbade "ride alongs," in which the public or press accompany patrolling police officers. He also dismantled the department's public information staff because its officials were too free with information, and he questioned the loyalty of anyone who didn't speak from a prepared script.

Things have gotten even worse. The concrete barriers around City Hall and Police Plaza that were erected last year send the wrong message. If you don't want your Police Department to appear as an occupying army, you shouldn't run the city from a fort.

The second strategy is outreach and recruitment in minority communities, so that the police will look more like the city they serve. It was one of my continuing frustrations as Police Commissioner that I could never get the money to start a youth career program that would have significantly increased the college-educated minority representation in the department.

I was drawn to policing at a very early age, and I believe that many minority youths could be, too, if the effort were made to interest them during their high school and post-high school years. The program would have begun with our existing summer youth academy for 12-to-14-year-olds and continued on through a proposed public safety high school and all the way to the City College system.

This would have fostered friendlier relationships between young people and the police. It would also have provided focus, direction and mentoring to teen-agers, while simultaneously giving the Police Department a stronger field of potential candidates to choose from.

Unfortunately, the idea was not allowed to go forward. Even an expansion of existing cadet programs, which were 70 percent minority, was stopped, despite the recommendations of the department and of experts at John Jay College.

The third strategy is imaginative police training. I believe that expanding the department at this time would be a mistake. Instead, resources should be used more wisely to raise the pay of the officers we have, to attract the best qualified new candidates and to create a "learning organization" that continuously and tirelessly trains them throughout their careers for the challenges and complexities they face on the streets.

The Police Academy must be given the resources to establish itself as a center of leading-edge ideas and reality-based training. It should put into practice many of the recommendations made by the panel on police-community relations appointed by the Mayor in 1997.

There is no more difficult challenge in a free society than the legitimate exercise of force.

There are thousands of police officers in the department who meet that challenge every day with extraordinary discretion, judgment and intelligence. It's up to the department and the city to support them with open lines of communication to the public, a genuine commitment to minority recruitment and the best and most sophisticated training.

New York City should not waste this opportunity -- and, yes, the current crisis should be viewed as an opportunity -- to face up to and resolve the issue of relations between the police and minority residents.

With crime down so dramatically, we have a chance to forge a lasting alliance in the communities that need the police the most.

Not only would such an alliance heal racial divisions in our city, it would also give New Yorkers more of what they want: continued success in reducing crime and a police force that is better woven into the fabric of city life.

William J. Bratton was New York City Police Commissioner from 1994 to 1996.