December 6, 2013

Challenge for New York's new top cop: Refine tactics, keep results


(Reuters) - Incoming New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton faces a delicate task: delivering on his boss's campaign promises to rein in the department's most aggressive tactics while preserving the sharp decline in crime his predecessor achieved.

Bratton is taking the reins of a police department whose role has dramatically expanded over the past 12 years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and current police commissioner Ray Kelly, developing one of the nation's most sophisticated domestic surveillance networks and an intelligence division with global reach.

The NYPD's budget has nearly doubled under Kelly, to $9.66 billion in 2014 from $5.3 billion in fiscal year 2002, according to city budget records obtained by Reuters.

Crime is down 32 percent in the largest U.S. city since 2001, a drop that has far outpaced a nationwide decline. The murder rate has fallen to levels not seen since the 1950s.

That has come even as the number of uniformed cops in the New York Police Department has dropped to 35,000, compared with 39,300 when current commissioner Ray Kelly took over in 2002.

The force Kelly leaves behind has been demoralized by years of bruising controversy over its aggressive use of a "stop and frisk" tactic that critics said unfairly targeted young black men, and by its monitoring of Muslim communities.

Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, who campaigned on police reform, named Bratton to the job on Thursday.

"This is the single most important appointment that he will make," said civil liberties attorney Norman Siegel, former head of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "If, in fact, relations between the police and communities of color deteriorate, or if the crime rate goes up at all, he'll be labeled soft on crime."


Bratton served as NYPD commissioner from 1994 to 1996 - driving crime rates down by 39 percent, but resigned after clashing with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani. He ran the Los Angeles Police Department from 2002 to 2009. Bratton has since authored management-strategy books and founded a tech start-up, Bratton Technologies, which earlier this year launched BlueLine - the first social media network for cops.

Bratton will need to work closely with a civil liberties community that aims to curtail the NYPD's surveillance practices, gain access to many of its currently classified internal databases, and overhaul its use of stop and frisk.

He will also face unprecedented new oversight from both a city inspector general and a court-appointed federal monitor, put in place after a U.S. judge ruled the stop and frisk practice unconstitutional.

Civil liberties groups and minority leaders assailed the tactic for years and the controversy heated up in early 2012 when the New York Civil Liberties Union released a report showing police stops more than quadrupled to 685,724 in 2011 from 160,851 in 2003.

In recent months - largely in reaction to criticism about the practice - the number of police stops has plunged more than 80 percent, according to department statistics.

Critics have suggested that better training could significantly improve police-community relations.

"There is not some evil intent with stop and frisk," said Siegel, who suggested that doubling the standard six months of police academy training for new cops could help. "The cost involved would be made up by better prepared officers, less costly lawsuits and improved police-community relations."

For beat cops, ‘draconian" discipline driven by staffing shortages has sapped morale in recent years, said Patrolmen's Benevolent Association president Patrick Lynch, whose union has been working under an expired contract since 2010.

"There are not enough cops on patrol," he told Reuters. "Morale and discipline go hand in hand, and discipline has become so draconian under Commissioner Kelly … that it has crushed the morale of the cops."


Bloomberg came into office just months after the September 11 attacks, when hijackers crashed commercial jets into the World Trade Center, killing about 3,000 people and ushering in an era of far tighter policing across the United States.

That gave Kelly an extraordinary level of political support in expanding the traditional boundaries of what a municipal police force does, especially in the area of counter-terrorism.

One of his earliest moves was to hire former CIA Deputy Director of Operations David Cohen in 2002 to the newly-created position of Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence. Cohen provided a direct link to the CIA and real-time briefings on overseas threats that could affect New York City.

The move deeply angered the FBI and other federal agencies and contributed to tension between the local police and the FBI, which continues today.

Kelly also committed more than 1,000 of his 35,000 officers to counter-terror operations, and the drain of resources away from traditional crime fighting, some critics believe, resulted in inadequate oversight of other areas of the department.

Experts who study the NYPD predict that the intelligence division could be completely overhauled.

"One of the most difficult decisions the new commissioner will have to make is whether to maintain or scale back the resources that Commissioner Kelly diverted to counter-terrorism," said Heather MacDonald of The Manhattan Institute, an urban public policy think tank.

Another potential battleground is the NYPD's surveillance practices.

In 2012, the NYPD unveiled a $230 million surveillance system that ties together strands from thousands of surveillance cameras, license plate readers and radiation detectors to vast databases of 911 calls, arrest records and a trove of other city databases.

"We don't know anything about what the police department is doing with the data," said NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman. "The new commissioner needs to make a commitment to respecting the Fourth Amendment," which guards against illegal search and seizure, she added.

The intelligence arm of the NYPD could face new scrutiny in the coming years, said Christopher Dickey, author of "Securing The City: Inside America's Best Counterterror Force," a 2009 book about the creation of the NYPD's Intelligence Division.

"It's not like the NYPD has ignored the law. They have been very successful in court," said Dickey. "But politically the wind has changed."

(Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)