COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Community Policing and Change

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

by William Bratton

President, First Security Consulting, Inc.

From Parks As Community Places: Boston, 1997, a publication on the Urban Parks Institute's annual conference.

Change has happened in American policing in a major way in the last few years, and that change is reflective of what's happening in our society. There are common threads in what we are all experiencing, whether it be in parks, in city police agencies, or in our country.

The change that I think that is happening on the national scale is a movement away from an age of entitlement, in which institutions and governments do for people, to an age of partnerships, where we're looking to do with people. That is a phenomenal change which has manifested itself in the new philosophy of community policing.

American policing has gone through two very significant changes in my lifetime. In 1970, when I entered the Boston police department, we were at the beginning of the "professional police" era. Out of the disturbances and the societal changes of the '60s, the Boston police reluctantly - more slowly than most American police agencies - embraced the concept of professional policing. This philosophy was that crime was caused by many factors - joblessness, race, demographics - and that the police could not hope to deal with those factors. So policing changed from a preventative mode into a reactive mode - you call 911, and we will come very quickly.

We would randomly patrol in our cars. We took our police officers off their beats and lost the intimate contact and partnerships that those beat officers had for many years with neighborhoods. And our investigation of crime was always after the fact. American police became reactive, and lost control, and, in effect, depoliced our streets.

The ingredient that was missing was the concept of partnership. In the late 1980s American policing finally came to understand that fact, and that we were falling farther and farther behind trying to do for you. We could not keep up. We lost our streets, and our neighborhoods, and increasingly, we were losing our cities, and it wasn't until it began to affect the suburbs that we felt the pressure to change.

Now, we are changing rapidly. And the good news about the change that policing is going through, the good news about the change that society is going through, is that it can occur rapidly. What is essential for change? How can you make it happen? I've done it in five organizations, and I've come to believe that there are essential elements to change, particularly rapid change. One is the idea of leadership. In the case of New York City, leadership took the form of a new mayor who was confident in his ability to change government very quickly. In terms of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), or the police department here in Boston before that, it was a leader who had confidence and could lead change. A leader with vision is absolutely essential.

The second element that is essential to change is having goals and a vision. Not just by the leader, but by those people that the leader wants to work with. We need to say to them: If you want change, you need to work with us. We need to work together to prioritize what we are going to seek to change. During the '70s and '80s, the police sought to prioritize dealing with significant crime. But what communities increasingly wanted us to prioritize was to deal with the loss of quality of life in the streets. A lot of little things were making life hell in our neighborhoods - prostitution, street drug activity, graffiti, litter, aggressive begging - all these things were generating fear and society had ceased to act upon them. But the police weren't listening.

In the case of the New York City Police Department, maybe more than any other police organization in America, we had pulled away from New York's streets, and the results were self-evident in the late 1980s and the early 1990s. We needed to change. Now, we have reclaimed the streets. How did we do it so quickly? The NYPD received a great deal of the credit for the increasing safety of the city of New York, but it could not have been done without the cooperation of all the other city agencies. We worked with the parks department, on the cleanliness of their parks: the result - there was no graffiti on those walls for more than 24 hours in any of the city's parks. Cops aren't painting over those walls, or picking up the litter in those parks, but they work to stop people from doing it. The partnership component is absolutely essential.

The next element is the concept of empowerment. As police commissioner of New York City, I was probably one of the most powerful police persons in America. I gave away a lot of power to my precinct commanders. But I wasn't born yesterday. I know that you don't give something away without expecting something in return. In return, I expected that they would meet the department's, and the mayor's goals, which were quite simple: reduce crime, reduce disorder, and reduce fear. That's it. Those are the three goals of the organization. How you do it is up to you.

"The best way to approach any problem is through partnership and empowerment."

In exchange for empowerment is accountability. We developed a computer statistics system called Compstat that is now being duplicated across the country. It gathers crime information in a timely, accurate way. In the Compstat process, my managers come together twice a week, to talk about crime and disorder in various neighborhoods of the city, to share ideas and information. Conversations centered around This worked. Did you try that? That didn't work. You might not want to try that.

By empowering the precinct commander, he or she can instantly use their resources to respond immediately to the coordinated identification of problems with the neighborhood residents and the institutions in that neighborhood. Instead of having to go up the chain of command, to the chief of detectives, and over to the chief of narcotics, and then down their chain of command to get a squad of narcotics detectives to come in and deal with the problem in a park three months after the fact, they can act immediately.

The last element in making change is relentless follow-up. If you set a goal, you want to keep coming back to ensure that you're still moving toward the goal. One of the problems of policing - and indeed, one of the problems of many institutions - is that once goals are set, nobody ever follows up to see that they're done. In New York, we passed down the line the idea that in exchange for empowerment, you were going to be held accountable. And if you were successful, there were promotional opportunities, and there was also the psychic reward that neighborhoods felt better about themselves and about the police.

The change that was created in the NYPD is a change that's occurring in policing all over the country. A change in which we have learned that the best way to approach any problem is through partnership and empowerment. Rather than the idea of government doing for you - or to you, the idea of working collectively together: goal-setting; leadership; empowerment; decentralization; management systems that ensure accountability and partnership; and changing the organizational mentality from we know it all to one in which we clearly admit that we don't, but that we hope that you do.

Within an organization, key elements of change include: decentralization, empowerment, goal-setting, and accountability. This is a change from the '70s and '80s, when people institutionalized, and centralized, so that the top was telling everybody in the organization what to do -- but the top was out of touch with the individual communities. In the 1990's, under the concept of community policing, working with the communities we identified what the problems were that we all wanted to solve and prevent from reoccurring at the neighborhood level. And that is the responsibility of our precinct commanders in the city of New York.

We decentralized accountability and empowered our precinct commanders to work with local groups - whether they be park managers in the various districts or other community groups - to identify the problems that were affecting the neighborhood, prioritize them, and work together to deal with them.

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