October 5, 2015 5:30 pm


Editorial: A New Message At NYPD


Yes, NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure was indulging in hyperbole when he described the department as “living a little bit in the Dark Ages with respect to its use-of-force policies.” But in expressing his outrage at the characterization, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was protesting a bit too much, given that he did so at a press conference where he announced a new protocol for documenting force by cops that he described as “a very, very significant change.”

There will always be tension arising from the Police Commissioner’s role as the final disciplinary authority for the department and any outside agency that could be seen as infringing upon that authority. It is why there was resistance within the NYPD to the creation of the Inspector General’s Office in 2013 when the City Council overrode Mayor Bloomberg’s veto of the measure, and the change at the top of the department from Ray Kelly—whose stop-and-frisk policy was a prime catalyst in the push for the office—to Mr. Bratton wasn’t going to alter that.

But Mr. Eure earlier this year released a report noting that prior to the death of Eric Garner 15 months ago after a Police Officer applied what looked to be a department-banned chokehold, numerous cases in which the Civilian Complaint Review Board substantiated allegations of such chokeholds being used resulted in little or no disciplinary action. The message sent by the lack of discipline may have been that Mr. Kelly in particular did not take the CCRB seriously, but it was hard not to also infer that cops were being told that the ban on chokeholds shouldn’t be taken that seriously either.

And that is a bad and foolish message to send. At some point in the future, the Police Commissioner is going to have to deal with the officer who used the chokehold against Mr. Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, and that will be a moment of reckoning for both him and the department. But as the IG’s report documented, based on 179 cases between 2010 and 2014 in which the CCRB found excessive force was used by officers, the department was providing insufficient training and guidance on tactics that could allow cops to limit force to what was necessary or de-escalate situations so as to avoid its use altogether.

Some graduates of the Police Academy in recent years have said that little time was spent on preparing them for such situations, as if instructors didn’t want to alarm them about the possibility that they would be engaged in physical struggles once they were out on the streets. Mr. Bratton himself following the Garner incident set about preparing for in-service training of all officers on dealing with such situations, saying this hadn’t been adequately done in the past.

One reason for that rather-stunning omission was that the department in recent years had been stretched thin as the Bloomberg administration pared back uniformed staffing by close to 6,000 officers since the final year of Rudy Giuliani’s mayoralty in 2001. Michael Bloomberg was fond of the concept of “doing more with less,” but in the case of the NYPD in some ways it turned out to be an empty phrase.

Mr. Kelly himself implied that the pressure applied through stop-and-frisks was necessitated by trying to keep crime down in problem neighborhoods with a diminishing number of officers for patrols. And providing the kind of in-service training that cops are now being given requires taking them away from regular patrol duties—a luxury the department generally couldn’t afford as its ranks became depleted in service to the Mayor’s mantra.

The result, we can now see, is that sometimes, spin-doctoring aside, you wind up doing less with less.

Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch complained after Mr. Bratton unveiled changes that include requiring cops to document all uses of force, and to apprise commanders of cases in which their colleagues use it excessively, that the new policy would discourage cops from “proactive policing” to avoid being second-guessed and disciplined for any situation in which they resorted to force.

That shouldn’t be the case, however. The temptation already exists for cops not to get involved in situations that would place them in jeopardy due to the threat of physical harm or career damage. The great majority of them resist that temptation because of the pride they take in being entrusted to uphold and enforce the law.

One area where they have generally hesitated, however, has been in implicating colleagues who have abused their authority, for fear of being ostracized or, worse, not being supported by other officers in perilous situations.

It would be hard to change that part of the culture and reasonably expect them to come forward about colleagues who are engaging in brutal conduct. But with the onus placed on them to do so, it’s possible that they will make clear to fellow officers that they don’t want to be put in that position by someone going beyond what’s reasonable in the use of force.