Every year, some 1,000 civilians are killed by police in the United States, and with each passing year, the outrage grows. Radical voices call for “defunding” the police, while the Biden administration calls for greater federal oversight. Yet the true corrective can be found not in these solutions but in remembering the lessons of recent history – in particular, the remarkable transformation of policing that occurred in New York City.
In the early 1970s, New York City resembled most urban centers, with high crime rates and violent interactions between police and civilians. New York City police fatally shot about 60 people per year in the early 1970s, with the worst year being 1971, when 91 civilians were killed by officers of the NYPD. Improved training, explicit use-of-force policies, and tactical changes led to far greater police restraint, however, and by the 1980s, fatal police shootings had fallen to an average of about 25 per year. But the tide of violent crime was rising relentlessly.
Then came the policing revolution of the 1990s. Proactive policing, inspired by the “broken windows” theory and enhanced by CompStat, a computer-assisted approach that focused law enforcement resources on the highest crime areas, realized immediate results. The NYPD brass also put muscle behind the algorithms by giving precinct commanders greater discretion and demanding accountability from them. The result was that crime plummeted: New York became the safest large city in America.
Yet what this more proactive approach did not cause was more violent interactions between police and the public. On the contrary, a better-managed police force turned out to be a better-behaved police force. In the years from 2010 to 2020, there was an average of only about nine civilian deaths per year in police shootings in the city. If New York’s results were extrapolated to the national numbers (which haven’t moved in four years), police-related fatalities nationwide would drop from 1,000 annually to 350.
Obviously, few police organizations, if any, can match the wealth of resources and training that New York possesses – which brings us to the final factor of leadership.
For all the NYPD’s size and experience, the New York story on crime did not change for the better until a radical change occurred in leadership and philosophy – a change that was communicated clearly to the police force as well as to the public. It was a change that outsiders could see even more clearly than New Yorkers themselves, which is why they flocked to the city in record numbers.
The Biden administration is earnest in its efforts to create more effective and humane policing, but its top-down approach – especially its use of consent decrees – is likely to be process-driven, with limited results. Consent decrees require huge amounts of additional mandatory paperwork for police departments, large and small. This crowds out time for the intense local supervision that is necessary to alter the behavior of police officers on the street. The lawyers of the Justice Department Civil Rights Division and the experts whom they hire to oversee consent decrees often lack the day-to-day experience essential to understanding what is happening on the local level. While preventing the violation of citizens’ civil rights is essential, the central role of police is to reduce crime. The crime-fighting ideas that emerged in the NYPD in the 1990s —CompStat, empowerment of precinct commanders, the intense focus on shootings and crime patterns -- all got submerged in the consent decree process.
The key factor is leadership that is embedded in the local community and that understands its own history and challenges. How to cultivate it? I propose a national law enforcement academy that would allow local police departments to send their most promising leadership candidates to New York to be embedded in the NYPD for six months to a year, not unlike U.S. Defense Department programs for foreign military officers. Only by immersing themselves in the day-to-day execution of proactive policing can law enforcement officials lead their own communities to a better place.
Police reform is necessary. The model for how it could work stands right in front of us.