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January 14, 2023, 6:00 PM

As morale issues and resignations hit NYPD, it’s clear tackling crime is about more than bail reform

By Michael Gartland

One of the issues that has dogged — and vexed — Mayor Adams most since coming to City Hall is bringing crime under control.

And while reforming the state’s bail laws has become a major focus, criminal justice experts say a far more complex problem needs to be solved for crime rates to come back down: A seismic cultural shift underway within police departments, not only in New York, but throughout the U.S.

That sea change is marked, to varying degrees, by a more tentative, less aggressive approach from cops trying to come to terms with measures intended to curb overly aggressive tactics, massive protests aimed against police brutality and the preponderance of cell phone cameras that make filming police on the street enormously easy, experts and cops say.

“Most of policing is up to the judgment of the officer — what they want to get involved in, how deep they want to probe, how relentless they want be,” said Brandon del Pozo, who served in the NYPD for nearly two decades and as a police chief in Burlington, Vt. for four years.

“When they perceive that as generating exposure and having a lot of downsides, they become hesitant to do it.”

Del Pozo, who now works as an assistant professor focused on medicine, health services and policy at Brown University, said the hesitancy among officers is a byproduct of the criminal justice pendulum swinging too far one way and then too far in the other direction.

The more aggressive policing that helped bring street crime under control in New York and elsewhere, many argue, contributed to the abuses that in turn fueled the “defund the police” movement that exploded in the wake of George Floyd’s death in 2020.

“The holy grail is to get the pendulum to stop, to stop in the right place where gravity brings it to where it belongs,” he said.

The impact of morale on policing is complex, experts say. The takeaway shouldn’t be that police aren’t doing their jobs. The question is whether public officials have created an environment where the message to police is to step back when confronted with a choice between being more proactive, or less.

“The signal from many elected officials — especially the ones who agitate for police discipline and punishment — is do the minimum and we wish you do nothing,” he continued. “The police don’t completely control crime, but the idea that they have no influence on crime is a dangerous myth.”

One veteran NYPD officer, who asked not to be named, said the question boils down to this: “Why put our necks on the line?”

“Either we’re gonna get sued or there’s gonna be a video that goes viral and everyone screams ‘Police brutality,’” said the Brooklyn-based cop, who spoke anonymously out of fear of reprisal.

Even when police body-camera footage shows an officer did nothing wrong, he said it means little in the court of public opinion.

“For those who hate us, none of that matters,” he said.

The union that represents rank-and-file cops contends some of the recent reforms go too far — such as the so-called chokehold law, which prohibits police from applying pressure to a person’s diaphragm, as well as the City Council’s repeal of qualified immunity, which allows cops to be sued for civil damages.

“We’re glad that the conversation is returning to common sense and public safety. However, that doesn’t undo a decade-plus of laws and policies that emboldened criminals,” said Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch. “Even if every misguided law was changed overnight, cops would continue to quit at record rates because they’re demoralized, overworked and underpaid.”

More than 1,700 NYPD officers quit their jobs last year before being eligible for a pension and 1,955 retired — the highest rate of departures in 20 years, according to the union.

Is bail reform the culprit?

Despite the importance of morale, much of the pubic debate has focused on the issue of bail reform.

Adams scored minor wins on bail in April when Gov. Hochul approved new provisions allowing judges to consider a defendant’s gun use as well as accusations of inflicting serious harm when setting bail. Still, the mayor’s push to make bail laws stricter by allowing judges to weigh a defendant’s dangerousness ended in defeat in 2022.

That failure coupled with a 22% jump in overall crime last year has meant that Adams keeps getting asked — and having to answer — questions about bail.

Criminal justice experts, former cops and those still on the job contend those questions are valid — that changing the bail laws can help address recidivism — but many of them argue that bail reform is far from the sole driver when it comes to higher crime statistics.

Adams, a former NYPD captain, acknowledges that himself. He has taken great pains to impart to reporters that changing the state’s bail laws aren’t his only policy goal when it comes to crime. He has said publicly and repeatedly that streamlining the discovery process and speeding up the court system are also priorities.

He has also alluded to something a bit more difficult to quantify — the attitudes cops take with them when on patrol.

In an interview with the Daily News, Adams recently acknowledged that a shift in policing to a more tentative approach is problematic, a situation he described as “inherited.”

“I inherited a department where morale was low,” he said. “Everyone felt they were one Facebook post away from being brought in no matter how much they did their job.”

To change that, Adams said he’s taken a hands-on approach.

“What was taking place behind the scenes is that if I had an officer who made a great arrest, I would get on the phone and call him,” he said. “We had two officers where a prisoner they were trying to take in wrestled away from them and got in a car and escaped. It was embarrassing — to be posted on social media and go viral. I called them and I said, ‘Listen, thanks a lot for not getting so angry that you discharged your weapon. You figured we’ll catch this guy the next day. I know it’s sort of embarrassing, but I appreciate what you did and the city appreciates it.’”

He also pointed to an incident in Harlem where an NYPD officer was caught on film striking a woman after she’d entered a crime scene. Critics attacked the cop’s decision. Adams publicly voiced support.

“I said, ‘No, that officer did his job.’ That sends the message that this is a mayor that is going to be with us if we do our job,” he said. “Traditionally, everyone would have jumped on her.”

NYPD Commissioner Keechant Sewell seemed to have a similar, but slightly different take when she spoke recently with The News.

“By every metric that we have in this police department our officers are engaged,” she said. “I’m sure there are things that may make them apprehensive, based on legislation, but that’s not what I see. I see them out there every single day doing what we asked them to do to keep the city safe.”

“Historic bias”

Last year, homicides dropped by 11% and shootings decreased by 17% compared with 2021 — but felonies shot up by more than 23,000 compared with 2021, according to NYPD crime stats

Those numbers include a 25% rise in robberies, a 12% jump in felony assaults and a 32% spike in car thefts.

But Adams has focused on trends improving as the year went on, even in areas that showed big year-to-year spikes.

“While there is still more work to do, we are turning the tide on crime,” he told The News. “Gun arrests are at a 27-year high, robberies decreased to the third-best December since CompStat began 30 years ago, and transit crimes were at the third-lowest level in over 25 years.”

Like the mayor, New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams says he wants the police to succeed, albeit in a more narrowly defined way.

Williams, who made criminal justice reform a priority as a city councilman, believes there’s now much more consensus around the idea that responsibility for driving down crime stats doesn’t rest solely with the NYPD and that conversations around those numbers should be broadened to include other people and measures, including stats on housing insecurity, mental illness and school truancy.

“Police can’t fix those,” he said, referring to issues like homelessness and mental health. “We need them when there’s an acute problem that’s happening, but at best it’s a stopgap.”

Williams and people who share his opinions also say improvements in safety, however, must include reforms aimed at holding police abuses in check in the wake of the deaths of Eric Garner, George Floyd and others.

“There is historic bias in who gets the harshest part of law enforcement,” he said. “You see that in things as bad as George Floyd and also how they implemented mask wearing in COVID. You just saw there was a harsher reaction in different communities. For that reason, you always have to make sure there’s accountability and transparency.”

Others note that some of the reforms that should be preserved are changes to the state bail laws from 2019.

“The reforms passed in 2019 were enacted to combat a fundamentally racist and unjust criminal legal system,” said Legal Aid Society lawyer Arielle Reid. “Every suggested rollback brings us one step closer to returning to that.”

Liz Glazer, who served as director of the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice under former Mayor Bill de Blasio, said without reforms and other guardrails, witnesses who can help solve cases might be less likely to because the relationship between the NYPD and community requires trust.

“You need the police to solve crimes. That is the one thing only the police can do,” she said. “But they can’t do it alone. So how do you build a belief among New Yorkers that they should be helping the police?”

One way, she said, is to ensure police are following the rules.

One NYPD detective, who spoke anonymously, said morale is key as well — and blamed much of the current situation on de Blasio, who was notoriously loathed by many rank-and-file cops.

“After eight years of de Blasio, we have a hands-off approach,” he said. “Cops feel that they’re going to get banged for doing anything but the bare minimum. Why would you want to be put on the cover of a newspaper and have your career destroyed for going the extra mile when you thought it was the right thing to do? Who wants to do that?”

But after a year of Adams in City Hall, the detective said he’s seen a gradual shift.

“They feel that City Hall has their back more than the de Blasio administration ever did,” he said. “Morale is slowly coming back.”

Another veteran NYPD cop agreed.

“Cops are going to do what they’re told to do. If they want us to make fewer arrests, give fewer summonses, that’s what cops will do,” the Queens-based officer said. “Look at Adams. He keeps talking about the increase in arrests. That’s what he wants. That’s what the cops are told to do.”

While that may be the case, del Pozo suggested big cities, including New York, still have much to learn when it comes to crime and policing.

“We are now going to learn the lesson that taking out the police at the knees and encouraging them to do nothing is going to hurt our most vulnerable communities,” he said. “What we do with that is up to us. If we use it as a license to go hog wild on enforcement and go back to enforcement numbers are the only thing that matters rather than the true outcomes of a healthier, better, more resilient community, then shame on us.

“But maybe we can learn the lessons of the past few years and show that we need policing, but we need to measure it’s success not in the enforcement numbers — that’s only an intermediate measure of success — the true measures are longer and healthier lives and more resilient communities.”

With Thomas Tracy and Rocco Parascandola