If not already clear, recent DOJ reports out of Ferguson highlight a broken system of policing and justice rather than a few rogue actors. For many the report was less than revelatory. As one local law professor put it, “it’s like being told that water is wet.” How did we get here? Were there missed opportunities along the way? How do we fix the problem beyond acknowledging a broken system in DOJ reports and in periodic commission reports?
Perhaps part of the solution can be found in commission reports, particularly if we look at change over time. Problems in policing have changed significantly; commission reports in part demonstrate such changes. For example, the NYPD’s 1972 Knapp Commission indicted specific forms of problematic policing. Corruption then was largely a “corruption of accommodation,” police officers giving and taking bribes, buying and selling protection. If anything, cops were turning a blind eye to too much crime on the streets.
Fast forward past two full decades of the modern Drug War. At the tail end of the Crack Era, the NYPD’s Mollen Commission pointed to new sets of problematic police practices. The 1994 report so much as noted in its conclusion: “Today’s corruption is not the corruption of the Knapp Commission days.” Old corruption was, “in its essence, consensual.” The new face of corruption could be characterized by, “brutality, theft, abuse of authority and active police criminality.” Undoubtedly, both forms of corruption were active on the ground in both 1972 and 1994. Nonetheless the shift in emphasis is striking and instructive.
At the outset of the Crack Era, many New Yorkers were tired of the first form of corruption. Rising rates of crime and drug abuse—from resident’s perspectives—had much to do with police inaction. A lack of police, and inactive police, proved yet another example of benign neglect. The denial of needed police resources spoke to the heart of the matter. Residents in places like the Bronx had grown accustomed to being denied both resources and respect.
Legions of Neighborhood Associations and Church Affiliated Groups took to the streets to protest the forms of corruption highlighted in the Knapp Commission. These groups chided the NYPD and Federal Government to action, demanding more police resources and safer streets. One local group protested outside local precincts as well as their District Attorney’s office to win more resources and action. This specific Bronx community—and scores of others—wanted to cooperate with police. Coalition members and community residents utilized “constituent sheets” to inform on their neighbors and tip-off police. Others took to “court monitoring” to ensure that those arrested were prosecuted firmly. Police “response rates”—the ratio at which neighborhood complaints were actually addressed and adjudicated—became a major point of emphasis.
While community residents offered clear evidence that they were prepared to engage police, such a relationship remained unrequited. High-ranking police commissioners regularly refused to acknowledge organized community residents, sending an underling to appease the masses or in other cases, sending nobody at all. In one letter to Bronx Boro Command, the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition vented their frustrations: “Indifference has replaced interest, and confrontation has replaced cooperation on the part of the Boro Command.”
Throughout the Crack Era, one theme pervades most all conversations regarding police reform: the need to repair broken bonds of trust. For community residents, the only path forward need include more local control, community empowerment, and cooperation between police forces and communities entrusting police to protect and serve. Activists expected well-intentioned community policing with community oversight. In an internal letter to coalition members and residents, the NWBCCC noted a pattern: “When cops don’t live in the community, when they don’t regularly walk the streets of our neighborhoods and when they patrol as strangers in passing cars, trust between the community and police breaks down.”
The major problem confronting activists of the period is that police did not care to learn the contexts of individual neighborhoods and communities. As such, they rarely learned to identify the difference between the law-abiding and the law-breaking. For humble, hard-working residents, daily harassment became an added insult to the daily affronts of living beside open-air drug markets. For officers, an opportunity to build trust and foster important resources for information had also been lost.
Local activists were extremely unhappy with the first offering made by the NYPD to appease disgruntled residents. Operation B.A.N.D.—the Bronx Anti-Narcotic Drive—otherwise known as “Operation Band-Aid” by less than impressed residents, did not win many supporters. For a period of years, activists marched to bring T.N.T.—the Tactical Narcotics Team—to their districts. Residents based much of their logic on two realities: 1. T.N.T. had been executed in more prized districts of Manhattan; 2. As some of the areas like Washington Heights gentrified, it appeared T.N.T. “worked.”
Nothing about T.N.T. in practice resembled community policing. Intended as quick, targeted drug sweeps, T.N.T. did not spend time developing bonds of trust within communities, nor did T.N.T. stick around to deal with the aftermath. After celebrating the “victory” of winning T.N.T. in their district, activists quickly began to note the unintended consequences of such substantial, highly militarized policing. The scorched-earth policy of these new units left little room for nuance. One resident noted: “As a consequence such tactical activities often bring into their ‘net’ neighborhood youth who, while perhaps marginally associated with drugs or other problems, are not legitimate targets of tactical operations.” The resident also noted that if such practices were to continue, “neighborhood residents and police will become alienated from each other.”
As T.N.T persisted, resident critiques began to look more and more like that of the Mollen Commission. Constituent Gregory Firaga noted yet another unintended consequence—the loss of public space. Firaga compared streets under T.N.T. to, “occupied zones, quite hostile and nowhere anyone would want to linger in.” Firaga also noted the “overabundance” of police and their aggressive tactics, “which are often committing crimes themselves.” Without defending or diminishing the significant corruption noted in the Knapp Commission, might cops looking the other way or those exercising “extreme discretion” be less problematic? Certainly, there appear to be less unintended consequences.
In a 1991 Newsday article entitled, “A Battle of Wits in a Tough Precinct,” the periodical profiled the sideways community policing born out of the Crack Era. The portrait of the western Bronx 46th precinct reads a little like the script of Fort Apache. Defending aggressive measures taken by police, Officer Patrick Brosnan quips: “We can’t afford to treat this like a traditional community. We are forced to adjust.” When reminded that many citizens in his district had informed on their neighbors in the name of safe streets Brosnan equates such residents to a drop in the bucket, “that’s the kind of thing that reminds you that not everybody out there is an animal.”
Coalition activists responded immediately with a letter-writing campaign to Newsday. One frustrated resident wrote: “We are working hard in our neighborhoods. There are many viable groups here. We would hope that officers assigned to protect us would put a greater value on this.” Clearly, officers like Patrick Brosnan placed little, if any, value upon such residents. We can see now just how short-sighted he and others had been. Instead of the cooperative community policing model coalitions organized for, residents got—and continue to get—an iteration of community policing that is per Newsday, “more like cowboy community policing modeled on a bulletproof-vest wearing posse in the Old West.”