In January 2014, when William Bratton began his second stint as Commissioner of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), he faced a challenge unlike any he had confronted in his 44-year law enforcement career. Although the city’s crime rate was lower than it had been in decades, a survey conducted in spring 2014 revealed that 41 percent of blacks and 31 percent of Hispanics “held a somewhat negative or very negative view of the police.” A separate analysis revealed that 70 percent of NYPD officers doubted that the department would back their decisions. The city and agency were suffering from a crisis of confidence.
Since then, the department has employed a multi-pronged strategy—highlighted by an increase in community policing, expanded trainings, and a wider embrace of modern technology—to continue keeping New Yorkers safe while restoring trust. These reforms have had a noticeable impact. In 2015, reported crime decreased by approximately two percent. Meanwhile, arrests fell by 13 percent, a reflection of the department’s emphasis on arrest “quality over quantity.” Nonetheless, the killing of four officers on duty and lingering public concerns about safety showed that rifts endured. As Bratton said, 2015 was “a year of great contradictions.”
Thus, NYPD has had to face—and will continue to confront—a difficult question: in one of the most complex operating environments in the world, how can it simultaneously preserve safety, restore public trust, and bolster department morale?
In 1990, New York City was in trouble: murder was at an all-time high, larceny was rampant, and widespread drug abuse contributed to violence and decay. That September, Time published a cover story lamenting, “the rotting of the Big Apple.” The task of improving safety fell to Bratton, who in 1994 left his post as the Commissioner of the Boston Police Department to lead NYPD. A proponent of the “broken windows” theory of policing, Bratton believed that NYPD needed to do more to prevent crime. He also felt that the agency had to start gathering and analyzing crime data on a real-time basis.
These priorities contributed to the creation in 1994 of CompStat, “a data-driven performance management system” that would help NYPD combat crime. The system revolved around four principles: “timely and accurate information or intelligence”; “rapid deployment of resources”; “effective tactics”; and “relentless follow-up.” More concretely, it involved expanding and computerizing NYPD’s crime data and having multiple meetings per week in which senior department officials analyzed crime trends and asked lower-level officials about their approach. In the year after CompStat’s introduction, crime in New York City fell by 12 percent—a positive trend that has continued for two decades since then.
Yet even as the city became safer, public trust in the police—particularly in minority communities—cratered. A major source of friction was aggressive policing strategies—such as “stop-question-and-frisk”—that, some believe, resulted in racial profiling. Thus, when Bratton—who since leaving NYPD in 1996 had served as Los Angeles’s Police Chief—returned to lead NYPD in January 2014, he focused on healing. “We will all work hard,” he said, “to identify why is it that so many in this city do not feel good about this department that has done so much to make them feel safe—what has it been about our activities that have made so many alienated?”
In January 2014, Bratton quickly assembled his command team, marking the beginning of what Dermot Shea, the Deputy Commissioner for Operations, characterized as a “frenetic” period of evaluation and planning. Department officials held strategy meetings on topics ranging from victims’ rights to crime fighting to equipment. They also initiated a bottom-up review of the department. Finally, NYPD commissioned two surveys, one involving rank-and-file officers and another focused on the public, to understand more clearly why NYPD was drawing so much criticism. The data revealed deep mistrust within and outside the department (in some neighborhoods and boroughs) as well as substantial concern over policies like stop-question-and frisk. NYPD leaders therefore concluded that they needed to pursue three goals: changing elements of their operating model without increasing crime, reengaging the community and building trust, and increasing department morale.
While fully realizing these objectives would take years, NYPD officials felt that they could make immediate progress by developing a less defensive posture toward two recent efforts to increase external oversight. Initially, in June 2013, the New York City Council had passed a law creating an independent inspector general for NYPD. Then, two months later, a federal judge had recommended that the federal government establish a monitor for NYPD. , At first, NYPD and city officials bristled at this oversight, most notably by appealing the stop-question-and-frisk case in late 2013. In stark contrast, newly elected Mayor Bill de Blasio decided to drop the appeal. To Shea, this represented a crucial transition. He explained, “If you’re going to change something, if you’re going to dig your heels in and defend your prior actions, what are we really accomplishing? We’re slowing down the pace of change…and in fact it’s going to be an antagonistic situation.”
Unfortunately, just as NYPD began to pursue reform, the department and city endured a tragic series of events that caused public ire to rise and the department’s morale to plummet. In July 2014, Eric Garner, a New York City resident, died after an NYPD officer placed him in a chokehold. , Combined with several other similar events across the country, including the killing of Michael Brown, a teenager, in Ferguson, Missouri, the incident contributed to an intense national debate surrounding the relationship between law enforcement and the black community. And in New York City, as Shea said, “the embers were really stoking,” with large protests, rising crime, and an uptick in assaults against and criticism of police officers. Then, in December 2014, a man assassinated two NYPD officers.
For Bratton, these tragedies presented a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he had to assuage the concerns of NYPD officers, whose morale had plummeted. On the other hand, he had to demonstrate sensitivity to the public’s concerns and accelerate and concretize the reform mentality the department had begun to demonstrate during the first half of 2014. He began to accomplish his first goal—reassuring downtrodden officers—by delivering a powerful eulogy at the funeral for one of the slain NYPD officers in which he lauded NYPD personnel for their bravery and “hero[ic]” work. Meanwhile, the leadership team unveiled a more detailed reform agenda focused on five “T” goals: tackling crime, preventing terrorism, rebuilding trust, improving training, and making better use of technology. These guidelines were helpful in part because they provided a consistent, alliterative message to communicate with the media and community; in addition, as Shea explained, they embodied a new perspective surrounding the priorities that NYPD needed to advance.
The challenge became how to advance these objectives. NYPD had already enjoyed substantial success tackling crime and preventing terrorism, so it needed to sustain its effectiveness in those areas while allocating resources toward the leadership team’s other goals. This began with trust, which Bratton and other senior department officials hoped to bolster through an increased emphasis on community policing during officer patrols. In the past, the department had focused patrols on combatting crime and maximizing arrests in high-crime “Impact Zones” scattered throughout the city. NYPD, however, introduced a new model, Neighborhood Coordinator Officers (NCOs). NCOs would be assigned to the same neighborhood every day, and they would be expected to devote approximately a third of their time to community engagement.
To ensure that officers had the skills and tools to interact constructively with the community, Bratton and his leadership team also placed a greater emphasis on training and technology. NYPD introduced trainings focused on non-confrontational communication and a range of alternative physical engagement tactics. At the same time, he modernized the department by distributing smart phones to every officer, equipping squad cars with tablets and automatic vehicle locators, and making more expansive use of social media to communicate with the public and rank-and-file officers. The latter innovation was significant because, as Shea explained, in a heated public discussion, “We will tell our story as opposed to others telling our story [for us].” More broadly, the reforms signaled what Shea characterized as a “complete mind[set] shift” in which NYPD was paying heed to broader goals.
While signaling a shift in the organization’s mindset was critical, NYPD had to make sure that it institutionalized this change. Thus, in February 2016, NYPD unveiled “CompStat 2.0,” a revamped version of CompStat that placed granular crime data online where it was available to all New Yorkers. CompStat 2.0 also shifted the focus of CompStat meetings from arrests to convictions. This heightened NYPD’s focus on arrest quality and shifted the tenor of CompStat meetings and department interactions. CompStat meetings had historically focused on arrest numbers. This contributed to a conflictive climate in which anxious subordinates would respond to concerned superiors with as much data as possible. CompStat 2.0 meetings, by contrast, featured more insightful, nuanced discussions in which NYPD officials—representing an array of departmental bureaus and often working in tandem with other city agencies—gauged whether specific arrests were leading to convictions. “We are no longer satisfied with an arrest,” Shea explained, “because that’s not the answer. We’re trying to break that cycle of the hamster on the wheel, which will just repeat itself over and over again.”
In August 2016, Commissioner Bratton announced that he would step down in September and transition to the private sector. This meant that it would be up to his successor, then-Chief of Department James O’Neill, to continue the reform process.
Sustaining this effort was critical because NYPD still saw room for improvement. For example, the department was exploring how to track officers’ time to ensure that a third of patrols focus on community engagement. Nonetheless, NYPD had made substantial progress: index crime was near an all-time low, arrests were down 20 percent, and gun arrests had become more targeted. More broadly, NYPD had embraced the need to collaborate, a realization that, according to Shea, boiled down to a simple question: “When you know you have to change, what is going to be your posture? Do you dig your heels in or do you accept it and work with others?”
Leadership for a Networked World’s applied research, student innovation challenge, and on-campus summit programs are an initiative of Dr. Antonio M. Oftelie, Innovation Fellow at the Technology and Entrepreneurship Center at Harvard (TECH), part of the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. TECH is a hub for students, faculty, alumni, and government and industry leaders to learn together, collaborate, and innovate. LNW accelerates these efforts by connecting leaders across sectors and developing cutting-edge thought leadership on innovation and organizational transformation.