Police presence in a neighborhood is not a simple thing. If police should make public space safe from the threat of violence, for people of color, the protective presence of police also implies the risk of violence at their hands. For more than 60 years, the solution to this conundrum — how to protect communities from crime and from police abuse — has been consistent. Community policing programs, where officers walking the beat are a familiar, problem-solving presence, have followed the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray, just as they followed rebellions against police abuses in the ‘60s. Olivia Schwob traces their history, and contradictions, below. It seems intuitive that familiarity would breed respect, trust, and greater safety for residents and police officers alike. But there is not such a great difference between policing as a public service, which may work with municipal upgrades to improve life in neglected neighborhoods, and policing as an occupation of territory, which may remove residents from their streets to jails and prisons or terrorize them at home (think stop and frisk). Alternatives are not so clear cut, but mechanisms for communities to keep themselves safe, and tools that effectively police the police, can also have an important role in clearing fear from the streets.
In the subway, young New Yorkers of color smile down on passengers, calling them to police their own communities: “It’s You We Want.” On radio spots and YouTube videos, other Black and Latino New Yorkers channel their frustration with the NYPD into suggestions for reform: For one young woman, a “line of communication” would make her and her family feel “more comfortable” with the presence of police. For another, having the same police officers patrol the same neighborhood over time would make her feel a sense of “connection.” One man emphasizes the importance of residents having a “voice.” Another video gives the cop’s perspective: Regular contact would help officers see residents “as human beings.”
Unspoken but understood is the status quo. These residents are not now comfortable; they do not have a voice. As part of a $6 million dollar campaign, the ad spots are promoting “neighborhood policing,” a complex of programs spearheaded by Mayor Bill de Blasio and his police commissioners in the last three years. In the videos, police-wary New Yorkers themselves present the reformers’ logic: Familiarity breeds fairness. According to the neighborhood policing philosophy, when patrol cops are embedded in the streets, they learn the difference between real threats and minor urban scuffle, and use their relationships with neighborhood leaders to calm conflict and anticipate offenses. As their competency to respond proportionately and effectively grows over time, crime should go down, and trust should go up.
Recent national attempts to bridge the gap between the police and the public, which has widened with every successive death at the hands of police, have followed a similar logic. In the wake of the 2014 Ferguson uprising, President Obama convened a task force for “21st century policing” to address what he described as mutual mistrust between police and people of color. The next year, de Blasio promised his NYPD would become “modern, advanced, sophisticated,” leaving behind the antagonism of previous regimes. For both the Mayor’s NYPD renovation and the President’s task force, the innovation was the same: community policing.
The hack is simple. To transform police from authoritarian law enforcement into collaborative problem-solvers, return them to the beat. Under neighborhood policing, as many police officers as possible patrol the same “sector,” a subdivision of one of New York’s 77 precincts, every day. Patrol cops leave behind specialized, desk-bound work in favor of “relationship building.” (They remain connected to the department’s extensive databases and surveillance network via smartphones and tablets.) But the reforms seek to address a more figurative gap as well. The radio and video ads announce monthly “Build the Block” meetings that bring “the community” together with law enforcement representatives to discuss neighborhood issues; the subway posters denote ongoing efforts to recruit a police force demographically reflective of the city. Neighborhood Coordination Officers are “liaisons” between the police and the sector, running meetings and handing out business cards with personal email addresses and phone numbers. In other promotional videos, Black and Latino officers fist-bump deli owners, and white cops challenge teens to chin-up contests or confess their own fears and insecurities. The cops — they’re just like us.
Yet violence persists in the era of community policing. Cellphone videos and word-of-mouth capture all-too-common excessive force — a teenage girl pinned to the pavement for “truancy”; a pregnant bystander to an arrest grabbed and slammed to the floor — while the most extreme confrontations, like the death of Eric Garner, make the news. A growing chorus blames these events on “broken windows” policing. De Blasio, during the 2013 mayoral campaign, vowed to end it; neighborhood policing would be its antidote. But today, alongside persistent physical violence, arrest quotas and racially-biased investigative stops still catch many people of color in the web of the criminal justice system, regardless of wrongdoing. If community policing promises to leave the past behind and forge new trust, it has yet to deliver. Still, the reform remains gospel. Why?
There’s actually nothing “21st century” about community policing; something like it has nearly always followed harm to Black men at the hands of police, from unnamed victims in 1960s news reports to Rodney King to Freddie Gray. One basic premise unites many reform movements over the last 50 years: No matter how thick the tension or how egregious the abuse, police presence is fundamental to the peaceful order of city. From that premise, the only hope for a fairer future is if the public and the police can share space in harmony.
This doctrine of presence balances on nostalgia for an earlier moment in American history. The city was supposedly a warren of lawlessness until beat cops, derived from local night watch systems, took to the streets with billy clubs, chasing robbers and returning runaway children. In rosy memories, officers covered the same few blocks on foot daily, with a watchful eye and even hand to intervene in mundane conflicts. In reality, relationships between the police and the public during this golden age were far from ideal. In New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the earliest formalized patrol posts were patronage positions, and officers resorted to bribes and graft to pay off their Tammany Hall patrons, extorting residents with the threat of jail. Even those police officers who did not actively exploit the public might cool their heels in cushy jobs, drinking their shifts away or visiting with prostitutes while on duty. Still others were wantonly cruel to civilians. Given limited technology, walking the beat meant a total lack of oversight. Connected to the stationhouse only by a call box, patrol officers were often out of contact with their commanders for the majority of their shifts.
In the 1930s, the NYPD entered an era of anti-corruption “professionalization,” centralizing command under a military-style hierarchy. Believing that familiarity sowed corruption, NYPD commanders shifted sergeants away from their usual precinct posts. Simultaneously, new technologies and units deemphasized foot patrol. Specialized divisions took on everything from inspecting city buses to combatting vice, and radios installed in new motor cars pulled patrol cops off the walking beat and back under central oversight and dispatch. Now officers would be present only when and where necessary, with scientific precision. Meanwhile, rather than partners in safety, city residents were increasingly passive recipients of law and order. According to the leaders of the newly professional police department, civilians helped best by calling in and standing back.
In short, early reformers moved decisively away from the street, away from the beat, and away from familiar relations between police officers and the public. But today, police presence is so engrained in common sense about crime and safety that even attempts to “radically transform” a police department will not challenge it. Reformers continually suppose that specific urban environments give rise to crime, that police departments are responsible for preventing crime in those environments, and that individual officers do the work of driving crime down through daily, physical, familiar presence in those environments. Where did this formula come from, and what does it promise?
Six nights of rage and general destruction ripped through Harlem in July 1964, leaving one person dead, 118 injured, and 465 in jail, alongside countless shattered windows and looted storefronts. Three days earlier, a white police officer had shot and killed Black 15-year-old James Powell. When police arrested civil rights activists protesting the city’s inaction outside a Harlem precinct, the neighborhood erupted. Some politicians called it a “race riot”; Congressman Adam Powell disagreed. “The black man is mad, mad with the continued police brutality of white policemen. He’s been mad as far as I can remember,” Powell said.A year before Watts burned, New York City was the site of the first episode in a story of Black urban rebellion that unfolded nationally throughout the 1960s.
Charged with uncovering the root of “civil unrest” at the end of the decade, the Kerner Commission found an “explosive mixture” of deprivation and desperation — shoddy housing and sanitation, segregation, discrimination, unemployment — ignited by police misconduct in the nation’s segregated urban ghettos. But there was a catch. The Kerner Commission also found that unfair treatment at the hands of officers was only Black neighborhood residents’ second greatest complaint against police departments, nationally; the first was the inadequacy of their police protection. Indeed, a confidential survey conducted by the NAACP in 1966 determined Harlem residents were more concerned with street crime and housing quality than police brutality. Yet at a protest in the wake of the James Powell’s shooting, one sign read, “We demand protection from our protectors.” How could police take on such a contradiction?
The answer, then as now, lay in the neighborhood, which the Kerner Commission saw as an essential site of urban investment. Putting cops on the streets of poor Black neighborhoods was akin to demolishing bad housing or sending in garbage trucks, policing simply one of many neglected public services. But neighborhoods could also be essential sites of crime prevention, a new mandate for police. When social scientists in the ‘60s popularly theorized that impoverished environments created a “pathological” tendency towards criminal behavior, criminologists thought police embedded in those environments might be able to suppress that tendency (while social investment tried to eliminate it entirely). Finally, the neighborhood was a source of legitimacy. As a connection formed between residents and the police, officers would draw on local leaders’ knowledge and authority to identify potential criminals before-the-fact, becoming more welcome and better able to prevent — also through presence — resentment’s destructive flare-ups.
The short-lived federal Model Cities program typified the new theory of presence-as-panacea. In cities like Flint, Seattle, and New York, as residents plotted ghetto neighborhoods’ physical and social revival through city planning departments, Community Service Officer programs in police departments drew men between the ages of 17 and 21 into police work. CSOs were to provide escort for the elderly, deter petty street crimes, and connect to neighborhood youth, preventing delinquency. They’d also be neighborhoods’ and police departments’ first steps toward one another after the traumas of unrest. Small corps of civilians, armed only with walkie-talkies, became a visible presence of the law in their own neighborhoods.
Back to the Beat
Policing’s return to the neighborhood was only one facet of Mayor (and Kerner Commission vice-chairman) John Lindsay’s larger effort to democratize and decentralize New York City government in the late 1960s. Again, the first antidote to police-public alienation was to reassert police presence: A combination of built and technological interventions would root officers in the city’s neighborhoods. Lindsay established satellite police stations in select neighborhoods to give residents more direct, streamlined access to the police, and to free up more police officers for patrol; at the department level, a new Community Affairs Division took on “public relations” for the first time. Meanwhile, new data systems and the 911 emergency dispatch number connected relatively autonomous precincts in a larger system; the administration built 28 new and shuttered several old stationhouses, envisioning “warm and human places.”
Physical and institutional structures were a backdrop to a more fundamental renovation: Lindsay would expand and transform the role of patrol, first by putting more than 5,000 additional policemen on the streets. But if patrol was to be a central project of a modern police department, effective at preventing crime, the new rank and file needed to cultivate a special quality of presence. “The policeman is the most important social worker we have,” Lindsay’s second police commissioner, Patrick Murphy, said. Murphy and Lindsay told police officers to involve themselves in daily, pre-criminal problems as they worked. Patrol officers who truly understood their beats at a mundane level could prevent crime and avoid official confrontations between residents and the legal system. Precinct-level Community Councils brought residents and police officers together to consult on neighborhood issues from sewage to traffic to crime.
Finally, racial and residential representation on the police force would trigger mutual understanding: “the Police Department is not an army of occupation in a hostile zone,” Lindsay insisted. At a CSO cadet graduation, he deemed residents “uniquely suited to play this role,” but a Brooklyn Model Cities coordinator was blunter: “The most important purpose of this program is to get black kids into the department through the back door.” Under Lindsay, the NYPD revisited rejected applications from would-be Black police officers and recruited students at Black colleges around the country. When veteran officer Benjamin Ward (later, the first Black NYPD Commissioner) was promoted to a division command in 1973, the New York Amsterdam News wrote his appointment represented “our chance to change some of the things we have been shouting about for years,” and called on its Black readership to join the force as well.
Patrolling Fear City
In the summer of 1975, visitors to New York City might have received a strange welcome: pamphlets emblazoned with a hooded, grinning skull offered nine “survival” tips for their time in “Fear City” — stay off the streets after 6pm; remain in Manhattan; avoid public transit. Even stranger, the people distributing these pamphlets were themselves police officers, protesting layoffs. As Lindsay’s successors slashed municipal budgets during the city’s fiscal crisis, much of decentralization’s infrastructure collapsed. The police department lost nearly a third of its force. Though the pamphlet was political theater, it reflected a reality: blocks upon blocks of physical decay in neighborhoods abandoned by city services.
Yet presence-based policing would soon reassert itself as the apparently logical response to worsening urban conditions. With violent drug markets taking hold of depressed, segregated urban neighborhoods nationwide, Black residents appealed to Black mayors and police executives for protection as well as broad investment in their neighborhoods. But fear of addiction and violence did not override concerns about brutality, which continued unabated. The contradiction facing David Dinkins, New York’s first Black mayor, was a striking echo of the challenge posed 20 years earlier: to calm the city’s racial inflammation and to make his supporters’ neighborhoods safer with the same stroke.
To lead the police, Dinkins chose Lee P. Brown, who had made his name and coined the term “community policing” in Houston, Texas. Brown was inspired by the work of George Kelling, a criminologist best known today as the “architect of broken windows.” Kelling had analyzed the results of a New Jersey state program investing in patrol officers alongside urban environmental uplifts: Though the program failed to reduce the crime rate, it did reduce residents’ fear of spending time in the public realm. That alone justified a national reinvestment in foot patrol, Kelling thought. Brown believed that police-civilian conflict as well as environmental decay threatened New York’s public spaces, and that patrol officers, newly familiar to neighborhood residents, might alleviate the “anomie” that damaged neighborhood cohesion.
In the early ‘90s, available and approachable police would once more walk limited beats, chatting with business owners, checking on residents, and improving the face of the neighborhood by their uniformed presence. The Community Patrol Officers Program (CPOP) earned credit for clearing Flatbush Avenue of litter, rejuvenating community gardens in Bushwick, and guarding family-owned businesses in Flushing. Meanwhile, Dinkins and Brown began recruiting a more representative patrol force to walk the neighborhood streets, hiring thousands of new officers and turning thousands more from deskwork out onto the street.
But crime persisted, or fell too slowly, and fear won out. Mayoral challenger Rudolph Giuliani promised a crackdown to deliver the safety he claimed community policing had not. Declaring the “primacy of patrol,” Giuliani and his commissioner, William Bratton, expanded the beefed-up foot force even further to enforce “quality of life” by any means necessary.loitering — seems to distinguish Giuliani’s broken windows from Dinkins’s community policing, in fact the hardliner borrowed infrastructure from the peacemaker’s patrol revival. In this lineage, the mutability of community policing’s reforms begins to become clear. Giuliani and Bratton simply doubled down on an approach their predecessors began.Though a laser-like focus on minor crimes — arresting or issuing criminal summons for infractions like
In the eyes of ‘60s reformers and Model City planners, the power of the police to address the environmental needs of specific neighborhoods was a force for the good of their poor Black residents. Under Dinkins, alongside litter and vacant lots, CPOP cops “cleaned up” illegal vendors, public urination, and the homeless. “Squeegee men,” who washed the windows of stopped cars and demanded payment, were a centerpiece of Giuliani’s rhetoric, but Dinkins was the first to take them on with the help of George Kelling. Another investigation of Kelling’s, during Dinkins’ term, plumbed the criminal records of turnstile jumpers, suggesting a new avenue for “prevention” which Giuliani would later take up.
Meanwhile, Bratton’s signature technology, CompStat, enabled local commanders to design strategy and pick targets focusing on crime “hotspots.” In the hands of broken windows’ executors, the power to focus law enforcement geographically became a tool of abuse. By the end of the next decade, arrest numbers for infractions like marijuana possession and a federal investigation of the now-unconstitutional “stop and frisk” showed how the hammer of law enforcement fell overwhelmingly and indiscriminately on residents of poor, segregated neighborhoods suffused with police. Rather than increasing accountability to the neighborhood, decentralized hierarchy made local commands corrupt in new ways: CompStat demanded results from precinct commanders in the form of week-to-week crime rate reductions, so patrol cops targeted specific residents in their precincts to meet illegal arrest quotas. Rather than bringing the frightened out of the shadows and into the public realm, the police force’s expansion tore New Yorkers of color out of their communities, swelling the city’s jail population to its historical peak.
Take Back the Streets
Giuliani’s broken windows professed the same goal as Johnson’s Model Cities, Lindsay’s storefront police stations, Brown’s community patrol officers, and de Blasio’s latest reforms: to “take back the streets” and public spaces of the city on behalf of “the community,” so that they might participate more fully in public life. In the last five years, evidence from throughout the US suggests that saturating poor, segregated neighborhoods with police achieves just the opposite. Residents of such neighborhoods are less likely to use official channels to maintain safety in their communities: In one study, witnessing antagonistic or violent interactions with police officers made Milwaukee residents less likely to call the police when they themselves were victims of or witness to a crime. In another, New Yorkers in “over-policed” neighborhoods were even less likely to call 311 and request municipal services for their districts, because the need to avoid potentially hostile representatives of the state superseded all other concerns.
Though most associated with Giuliani’s crackdowns, reformers since the ‘60s have pursued an ineffable sense of collective ownership over the public realm, which should follow from improved neighborhood environments and “quality of life.” But in New York City, broken windows policing has fractured public space. Residents of Port Morris, in the Bronx, interviewed more than a thousand of their neighbors about how often they were stopped, searched, harassed, and told to move by police, and how the events affected their perceptions of neighborhood safety and police fairness. These interactions themselves produced “disorder,” damaged the “neighborhood fabric,” and made residents afraid to spend time in the public realm. an initiative of CUNY’s Public Science Project and Make the Road New York, interviewed dozens of young people about their encounters with police in Bushwick, Brooklyn in 2015. There, “intense policing and heavy surveillance” produced a feeling of “dispossession” among neighborhood residents, including those who escaped harassment but feared for their family members and friends. One respondent, Markeys Gonzalez, said daily racist, homophobic, and physically violent harassment by police officers made him feel that he “shouldn’t even come outside anymore.”
“We can’t rely on the police to make us safer, and in a lot of cases they make us less safe,” says Yul-san Liem, co-Director of the South Bronx-based Justice Committee, and member of the steering committee of Communities United for Police Reform (CPR), a broad coalition of community-based organizations and advocacy groups. Some over-policed neighborhoods are taking community safety into their own hands. Justice Committee Cop Watch teams patrolling the streets of the South Bronx, Jackson Heights, and Corona found themselves unprepared for urgent scenarios beyond police-civilian encounters, so the organization began teaching members how to respond to medical emergencies and deescalate interpersonal violence on their own. Recently, other immigrant-focused organizations have taken similar tacks, such as DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), which established “hate-free zones” in Central Brooklyn neighborhoods in 2016 to protect immigrants from xenophobic violence and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids. And longstanding radical New York organizations like the Audre Lorde Project as well as more informal groups use volunteer patrols, escorts, and “safe havens” to model street-level safety for the vulnerable, independent of the cop’s badge and gun.
Neighborhood safety can be distinct from law enforcement, taking the form of social investment or mutual support. But in all likelihood, for the time being, police presence will remain the primary vehicle of municipal efforts to promote “safe” communities. The contradictions of the ‘60s still hold: When police retreated from Baltimore neighborhoods after Freddie Gray’s death and resulting protests, murder rates soared and some residents demanded the cops’ return. In a 2016 survey of New York City residents’ concerns, crime and safety ranked second to infrastructure by less than half of a percentage point. Given the existence of the police, focusing on public relations frames “the wrong conversation,” says Liem, a “distraction.” (It also, she notes, inflates the Police Department’s media budget at the expense of other investments.)
The right conversation, according to CPR, would center on civilian oversight and control. If, in the eyes of community policing advocates, the presence of police in the neighborhood both signals an intention to take crime seriously and serves to prevent it, official accountability measures, like policies requiring police to inform civilians of their rights to refuse a search or more meaningfully punishing those accused of violence against civilians, might work similarly in the eyes of skeptics. They would signal an intention to take seriously police abuses of power, and make real steps towards addressing those abuses. But since at least as long as it has embraced patrol-centered, public relations-oriented police reforms, the NYPD has uniformly resisted the other kind of community policing.
Since the 1964 Harlem uprising, NYPD and police union activism has regularly stymied calls for civilian control of the Complaint Review Board. In 2013, CPR overcame the NYPD’s lobbying and then-Mayor Bloomberg’s veto to pass the Community Safety Act, a legislative package to combat racial profiling in stop-and-frisk and create an independent investigator to monitor the NYPD; police claimed it would cause a spike in crime. More recently, CPR advanced the Right to Know Act, which would have built transparency at the street level, requiring police officers to identify themselves and inform civilians of their right to refuse a search. The act was initially stonewalled by police, then enacted in such a weaker form — requiring officers to undergo training about how to conduct searches, rather than requiring them to explain civilians’ rights — that it lost its original supporters. Recent calls to repeal a New York state law protecting the names of officers accused of violence against civilians have met similar blockades.
Reports of meagerly attended Build the Block meetings and officers reluctant to change their habits suggest a PR campaign falls short of real change. What have changed are the numbers: In the name of neighborhood policing, and in response to pressure from the NYPD and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mayor de Blasio increased the police force by 1,300 officers in his first term alone. If broken windows declared war on poor New Yorkers of color, neighborhood policing runs the risk of being, as activist and journalist Josmar Trujillo puts it, a “Trojan horse.” More cops on the street can mean more opportunities to be harassed, searched, arrested, or worse, and less funding for other investments that could make neighborhoods more secure. Respondents to the Morris Justice Project survey demand not only an end to police malfeasance, but “community spaces,” “education,” and secure homes in their neighborhood as well. It will take more than a friendlier face to repair years of abuse and neglect.
Jesse H. Walker, “’Not a Race Riot,’ Says Adam Powell,” New York Amsterdam News, July 25, 1964.
Michael Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. (80)
Hella Pick, “Anger against ‘the killer cops,’” The Guardian, July 18, 1964.
Author Unknown. “Plan of Action: Introduction,” NYPD 1994 Annual Report. New York: New York Police Department Publications, 1994.
Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman, Arresting Citizenship: The Democratic Consequences of American Crime Control. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014; Matthew Desmond, Andrew Papachristos, David S. Kirk: “Police Violence and Citizen Crime Reporting in the Black Community,” American Sociological Review, 2016. 35(4):733–48