Staten Island Advance
updated October 25, 2015 at 10:08 AM

Making things tougher for cops helps nobody (commentary)

By Steven Matteo
City Council Minority Leader

Over the past year, we have been reminded far too often of the grave dangers the men and women of the NYPD face each day on the job.
Yet, with all of the recent focus in city government on the workplace conditions, pay, and benefits of New Yorkers, it is disconcerting how the NYPD is notably exempt from those concerns.
In fact, working conditions are worse, not better, for our brave men and women in blue because of policies and laws enacted in the recent years. This is before we even mention the divisive public narrative that has sought to pit our communities against their protectors.
The consequences of all this could make working and living in this city worse for all of us. Because this extremely difficult work environment threatens to stifle our police officers' ability to perform their most important job: Keeping this city safe.

Thanks to the current milieu of mistrust, the NYPD – an agency that is already monitored by an internal investigation unit, the U.S. Justice Department, five district attorneys, the state attorney general and a Civilian Complaint Review Board  - now faces additional levels of scrutiny by a recently created police watchdog, the Inspector General, and a highly paid (and completely unnecessary) federal monitor.

As if those internal pressures weren't enough, officers also face escalating scrutiny each day in the court of public opinion, as the eyes of cellphone cameras and social media provide a venue for instantaneous judgement and outrage, manipulated by an assortment of highly vocal anti-police groups.

Anti-police wave

This wave of anti-police sentiment has led to the scrapping of "Stop and Frisk," a highly successful policing tactic when used correctly, and, if these same "activists" had their way, the entire Broken Windows policing model – which has helped make New York the safest big city in America - would be scrapped, too.

Instead, officers must hand out customer service cards to potential suspects they have questioned or frisked, with a phone number for the Civilian Complaint Review Board.

Another proposal gaining traction would require officers to get written or recorded consent to search a potential suspect, after telling said suspect he or she can refuse to be searched.

The message seems to be clear: Cops are not on your side.

It's no wonder that payouts from lawsuits filed against the NYPD have soared to $202 million this past fiscal year, a 30 percent jump from the previous year and the highest total in five years.

Patrol reform

I am not against reform. Everything can be improved, and policing is no different. But I have to question whether all of these recent changes are really improving policing in this city, making us safer and our police officers safer, or just appeasing detractors who will never be satisfied no matter how much we handcuff our officers.

For example, I welcome clearer guidelines in the Patrol Guide on the use of force and annual re-training, especially teaching techniques that will keep our officers and the public safe. However, along with this new guidance comes an extremely onerous requirement that our officers fill out reports on every single incident in which force is used.

Officers suspect these reports will be used to dissect and second-guess their every move, and in this current climate, who could blame them for those suspicions? Knowing that any confrontation could lead to them losing their jobs, facing a potentially financially devastating lawsuit or being charged with a crime, one can understand why police officers may be hesitant to engage at all.

If you don't think policies like these are having a chilling effect on policing in this city, you may want to speak to some rank-and-file officers (privately, of course). Many will tell you how working under a cloud of suspicion and intense scrutiny has made their already tough jobs even tougher – and has made them more risk averse. They will also tell you that more and more people are resisting arrest, and how respect for police authority has hit a new low.

Hesitant officers, constantly worried about being punished for trying to do their jobs, are not safe officers, and they cannot do the proactive policing that turned this city around 20 years ago.

Police officers are, in most respects, no different than you or me. In fact they are you and me – they are our family members, our neighbors, our friends. Like all of us, they have a job to do and they want to do it well and go home to their families.
The difference is, most of us fully expect to come home to our families. That is never a guarantee for a police officer. The tragic murder of Officer Randolph Holder, one of four NYPD officers slain in the past 10 months, underscores that unfortunate reality.

Officer Holder and too many other police officers have been killed doing their jobs, heroically confronting the violence and ugliness in our society that most of us do not want to confront. There is no way to prettify it all, no matter how much we try.

If we want our officers to continue to do their job well, we need to empower and support them, not create a climate of fear and apprehension. We need to look at policing as a whole without the prejudice or cynicism that has recently pervaded our public narrative, and make our policies and laws reflect that.

In other words, we need to focus on improving their work environment, too, because that ultimately keeps us all safe.

Steven Matteo (R-Mid-Island) represents the 50th City Council District on Staten Island.