Learning to honor the badge: A longtime community organizer diagnoses three great challenges in American policing, and praises NYC’s proud example
Bratton and Giuliani policed New York City with professionalism
In 1977, I was starting out as a community organizer on the west and northwest sides of Chicago, including in my old home parish, Our Lady of the Angels. Anyone of a certain age from there knows that the OLA school caught fire in 1958 and burned, killing 92 students and three nuns. The shock of that day triggered a national campaign to improve fire safety in schools.
Just 20 years later, the school and community were caught in another crisis that would kill far more young people, over time, than that horrendous fire: an explosion of drug-selling and drug use. In fact, right outside the rebuilt school, drug dealers set up shop every afternoon and evening.
The principal, Marion Murphy, pulled out her video camera and secretly filmed the drug market several days in a row. She also kept a log of all of her calls to the police, who either didn’t respond or responded so belatedly that the drug dealers had already wrapped up their day’s work.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out that the police were somehow involved and that calling them in and telling them that we had video of the drug-dealing was not the wisest course. So we asked the local CBS affiliate at the time, anchored by Bill Kurtis, to set up a camera crew on the third floor of the school and take their own footage.
It was bitter winter. For the first two days, snow and wind kept the drug sellers and buyers away. On the third day, the weather calmed and the drug operation resumed, unaware of the camera on the third floor and sound booms hidden in the building’s crevices. The report aired soon after — leading to a belated crackdown on the drug ring.
The police suspected something was up. One afternoon, as I left the rectory, a cop car followed me as I drove very slowly over icy streets. About two blocks away, it pulled me over. A young blonde cop came out and confronted me: “You are going way too fast.” I was driving no more than 15 mph.
“And, if you keep going fast,” he added, “you’re going to get hurt.”
The second warning was delivered by two of my close childhood friends, both cops in the district. They met me in a bar for a drink that same night and told me everyone knew what our group was up to and that, if we had any sense, we would stop. The entire precinct was involved, they said, including the commander, William Hanhardt.
Their education to me went like this: “On a night shift, let’s say 10 cars that leave the station. One or two really patrol. The others drive into warehouses or factory parking lots and shut down for the night. We get paid cash by the business owners to provide security. Then we head back to the precinct at the end of our shift. So, you see, nothing you do will matter. It’s never going to get better. You might need us some night. And we won’t be there.”
I had grown up with these two guys, was godfather to the daughter of one of them. They were trying to teach me the facts of life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but they were laying out the three undercurrents of American police work, ones still flowing today: corruption, over-policing and under-policing.
Corruption is a favorite topic of Hollywood movies and provides great grist for enterprising reporters. In Chicago, reality was worse than the hardest-to-believe film script.
Hanhardt, the commander I was warned about in 1977, later become the chief of detectives, one of the highest ranking positions in the department. He was dogged, throughout his career, by rumors of Mafia connections and illegal activities.
The rumors all proved to be understated. He led a rogue group of officers who specialized in jewelry robberies – including a $2 million heist of jewels in 1994 from a hotel in Columbus, Ohio. Hanhardt was ultimately caught, tried and convicted of some of his crimes.
New York has seen its share of similar malfeasance. In the mid-1980s, a cop named Michael Dowd led a group in Brooklyn who conspired with local drug dealers in East New York. We at Metro IAF found out the hard way. We were identifying drug dealers in that area and sharing our information with police whom we had grown to trust. One afternoon, one of our leaders received a visit from a drug dealer who threatened to kill her if she continued to rat on him.
The other undercurrent is what we at Metro IAF first called over-policing, a term soon picked up by many others for when cops come into a community or home like a ton of bricks. Here’s an example from a middle-class white homeowner on Staten Island. In 2006, he got a call from his wife that his son, a young man in his 20s, was out of control due to his mental illness. She called the police, too.
He rushed home, only to find that the cops had arrived ahead of him, stormed in with guns drawn and scared everyone witless. He asked them to put their guns away, went upstairs and calmed his son down so he could be taken to the hospital for evaluation.
When he brought his son down, the cop in charge asked my friend who would be riding in the ambulance with the son. My friend said that he thought he’d drive his own car to the hospital so that he could take his son home later. The cop said, “Fine by me. But don’t blame us if we have to tune him up on the way.” My friend decided to ride in the ambulance with his son, so that a beating wasn’t added to all the other challenges that his son was dealing with.
This scene was played out in Baltimore, when Freddie Gray was tossed into a squad roll and “tuned up,” fatally in a rough ride on the way to a precinct.
As corrosive as corruption and over-policing are, the third, less obvious undercurrent — under-policing — does at least as much damage.
Gray was arrested on April 12, went into a coma after surgery for spinal damage inflicted in a paddy wagon, and died on April 19. The city erupted in the weeks that followed.
Once the protests ended and the media departed, our leaders in and around the Baltimore community where Gray lived noticed that the police had stopped patrolling and responding to calls. The gang bangers had noticed as well, so they methodically murdered anyone they thought was an enemy — rivals, their girlfriends, even kids.
Our IAF affiliate, BUILD, called for a meeting with local commander. At that June meeting, one of our leaders bluntly asked the commanders when they would be returning to work. Here’s what one answered: “We’ve been discussing that. We’ve decided that the community needs to send us a sign.”
“What,” our leader asked, “would that sign be?”
“We’ve decided that you should all cook us some food and bring it to the station.”
Our leader was speechless. But we really owe that commander an award for speaking what some police, in communities we work in across the country, believe and feel. They believe that they are dealing with mutts and dregs — what one Jersey City cop called, while screaming in my face, “the dysfunctionals.” They believe that, if some terrible things happen along the way, they shouldn’t be held accountable.
Periods of over-policing attract attention and reaction. The attention and reaction lead to more intensive phases of under-policing — a terrible cycle of overly aggressive police work followed by purposefully passive police work.
So is the problem intractable, inevitable? If I hadn’t worked in New York City since 1980, I might think so. But living and working here for the past 35 years gave me a front-row seat on the transformation of police work and police behavior in one big, complex city.
Until the last years of the Dinkins administration, the cycle of corruption, over-policing and under-policing prevailed. We organized in all of the city’s toughest precincts. In one, East New York, there were more than 125 murders each year.
When we started to excavate foundations for new homes in one part of East New York, our contractor would have to stop the job periodically because he was digging up corpses from mob hits. It would take months to get a meeting with a beleaguered or cynical local commander. We would hear lectures about the global drug trade and family pathology — in other words, pleas not to be held accountable.
Then Mayor David Dinkins and City Council President Peter Vallone pushed through a large budget increase to hire more cops. And incoming Mayor Rudy Giuliani and NYPD head William Bratton engineered the most impressive improvement in the culture of a public agency that we have ever witnessed.
Before the Giuliani-Bratton period, a call for a meeting with a commander would go unanswered or take months to schedule. What meetings did finally happen would often end in futility. Suddenly, commanders were willing to meet. Information was taken seriously. Concrete plans for addressing local issues were agreed to. And commanders would often call — on the day after a bust or major police action — to get our evaluation and suggestions.
CompStat was not just a public relations technique. It was a pragmatic and useful way to isolate career criminals and zero in on those causing mayhem in local communities. The homicide total plummeted from a high of 2,245 in 1990 to about 350 today.
A test of any culture change is whether or not it lasts beyond one leader or one administration. For more than 20 years, with some unnecessary and harmful detours along the way (like the disastrous stop-and-frisk fad of the Bloomberg-Kelly years), the NYPD has functioned in a different and more effective way.
While there are some deadly and tragic instances of over-policing and while there still may be some bouts of under-policing, what New York has demonstrated, over two decades, is that persistent professional policing can have a profound impact on the quality of life in communities once written off as beyond the pale.
And other cities, too have proven that improvements in policing can make a dramatic difference. In Miami-Dade County, the retraining of front-line officers in critical intervention techniques for individuals with mental illness has led to an almost unbelievable reduction in the counter-productive pattern of sending sick people to jail. Over the past five years, only 109 people have been arrested who showed signs of mental distress, while 10,855 were diverted to treatment alternatives. The jail population has plummeted from 6,777 to 4,710.
Of course, there’s more to be done. Gun homicides in America hover around 11,000 a year, and each life taken terrorizes a block, a neighborhood, a community.
A few weeks ago, a team of leaders from our Chicago affiliate attended a meeting of the International Association of Chiefs of Police where the chair, who’d just come from a two-day meeting of all the big city police chiefs, declared: “As we all know, gun violence is up all across the country. We discussed this for two days. We really don’t know why this is occurring. And we ended up concluding that we have no solutions.”
If the police chiefs don’t have any solutions, we do.
Use police departments’ buying power — 15% of the entire national gun market (the federal government represents another 25%) — to make guns safer and to close down rogue dealers, which help put weapons in the hands of criminals.
Encourage the kind of meaningful police-community relationship building that we see in New York and now, again, with a new chief in place, in Baltimore.
And — by far most important — discourage or punish corruption, over-policing, and under-policing.
Get to the real work of persistent and professional policing by cops who value their jobs, want to do their work well, and police will find an endless number of allies in every community willing and able to help.
Gecan is co-director of the Metro Industrial Areas Foundation.
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