The Revolution in American Policing
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 Baltimore’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP) Lodge,
and one of that city’s loudest zero tolerance apostles. "It means that if you
can’t respect the standards of decent behavior, if you prey on our communities,
we’ll 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 Baltimore’s 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, Guiliani’s response was: "That’s
too damn bad."
Bratton, likewise, waves away the problem with: "It makes sense
that there will be increased confrontation between officers and civilians. We’re
dealing with anti-social behavior patterns that had been ignored for twenty-five
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 Orleans’s 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 department’s 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 Districts—poor, largely African American
communities—have 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 Change—Peace 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
we’re 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, Indianapolis’s 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 mayor’s 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 Department’s 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, explaining—or trying to
explain—the situation in their area."
In New York the first Comstat meetings were so rough that half of
the city’s 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
he’s 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 there’s no
explanation, and no change in rate and pattern of offenses, the officer probably
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 can’t achieve," says Bratton. "You can see who’s good
and who isn’t. 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 Bratton’s 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, didn’t arrest, just talked to ’em. Said: ‘hey we know
what’s 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, they’re going
back to jail," says Bryan Brown of the Anaheim DA’s office.
While much of Comstat is hard to argue with—many see it as
progressive policing—the "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
idea—that every bust counts—is 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 scenario—the one purveyed by cop-shop spin doctors—serial killers jump
turnstiles, so bust enough fair-beaters and you’ll find a Ted Bundy.
"That’s 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 York’s Lower East Side. Some
"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 don’t see that as a problem.
"People say ZT doesn’t 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 Baltimore’s
FOP. "But hey, that doesn’t matter. What counts is we’ve got them in the
system! We’re building a data base."
What Really Drives Crime Rates?
Charges of brutality and discriminatory policing are not what drive
criminal justice policy—fear of crime does. Among criminologists, police, and legal
experts there is a contentious debate about the policing revolution and its real effect on
"It’s all due to the police," says Bratton. "For
years criminologist said the police were merely reactive, that we couldn’t 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,
haven’t 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. "It’s the ‘little brother syndrome.’ A lot of kids out
there have turned away from violence. There’s 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 we’re 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 wouldn’t give so much credit to the cops."
In the west and midwest there’s yet another piece to this
puzzle—gang "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.
"There’s peace between the projects and not as much money
to be made in the game," says DeWayne Holmes—a founder of the LA Crips-Blood
gang truce and now an advisor to State Senator Tom Hayden—during a recent cruise
through the former war zones of Watts. "A lot of dudes are chilling out, stay’n
at home, or looking for jobs."
The Black Men United for Change—Peace 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.