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Commentary By William J. Bratton, Jon Murad

Precision Policing: A Strategy for the Challenges of 21st Century Law Enforcement

Public Safety Policing, Crime Control

Editor's note: The following is the second chapter of the book Urban Policy 2018 published by the Manhattan Institute.


America has nearly 18,000 police agencies, ranging from two- or three-man resort-town departments that add seasonal officers as necessary, to the New York City Police Department (NYPD), with 36,000 sworn officers.1 With such a large universe of police departments, uniformity—of training, tools, procedures, and policies—can seem impossible.

What’s more, these departments face a multitude of challenges. Among them: an overdose epidemic, driven by opioids and synthetics like fentanyl, killed more than 72,000 Americans in 2017.2 Over the past four years, a so-called Great Divide has opened between police and minority communities in many cities and towns. There are allegations that police, leery of unfair criticism, are pulling back from proactive enforcement in some cities, a phenomenon known as the “Ferguson Effect.” There has been an appreciable surge of shootings and homicides in several cities. There is heightened public and media scrutiny of police. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is a looming crisis around police recruitment and retention.

“The two most important components of Precision Policing are focused crime-and-disorder enforcement and Neighborhood Policing...”

We believe that these challenges can be addressed by “Precision Policing,” an organizing principle for the complexities of structuring, managing, motivating, and leading a modern police agency. Coauthor Bratton and his executive team at the NYPD, which included coauthor Murad, implemented the strategy during Bratton’s second tenure as police commissioner of the City of New York (2014–16). Under Bratton’s successor, Police Commissioner James O’Neill, it has continued and been improved.

The two most important components of Precision Policing are focused crime-and-disorder enforcement and Neighborhood Policing, both of which will be explained in greater detail below. In brief, they respectively recognize that: a) the violent criminals who damage communities are a small percentage of the population; and b) working with the far larger percentage of the population who strengthen communities reinforces the fact that public safety is a shared responsibility. Accordingly, Precision Policing depends on active collaboration between police, political leaders, and the public. Because it incorporates best practices from around the country and because it understands that local conditions have local solutions, we believe that it can be applied, with appropriate modifications, in any police department. Police leaders can use it to make any city, town, or neighborhood safer, and to improve relations between law enforcement and the population.

Precision Policing grew out of lessons that American law enforcement learned over the last half-century, and it is best understood in this historical context.

Crisis, Reform, Unintended Consequences, Next Crisis: A Short History of Modern Policing

The social upheaval that marked the 1960s, from race riots to anti–Vietnam War protests, affected police in unprecedented ways. Police were frequently at the center of the tumult and change, whether attempting to maintain order or, sometimes, as causes of disruption or agents of state violence—a stain on the profession that was particularly pronounced during the fight for integration. In what would become a pattern over the next half-century, this crisis led to reforms. The reforms, however, led to unintended, counterproductive consequences, which led to the next crisis.

The greatest of the law-enforcement reforms that arose from the 1960s crucible was “professional policing” and its three “Rs”: rapid response, random patrol, and reactive investigation. Along with the advent of the 9-1-1 system in 1968, professional policing gave rise in the 1970s to an all-consuming fixation on response time and reaction via portable radios, 9-1-1 calls, and vehicular patrol.

Unfortunately, that fixation meant abandoning bedrock principles first promulgated by the London Metropolitan Police (founded by Sir Robert Peel) in 1829—first, that “the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder”; and second, that “the ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”3

Then came crack cocaine, the explosion of violence around its trade, and policing’s next crisis: the crime wave of the late 1980s. The nightly news was filled with stories of children sleeping in bathtubs and innocent victims caught in playground crossfire. The three “Rs” proved inadequate; cops seemed unable to gain the upper hand.

In 1990, as crime reached its peak in New York, Bratton was appointed chief of the Transit Police Department, which was then a separate department (it merged with the NYPD in 1995). Bratton implemented a theory called Broken Windows, or quality-of-life policing. The term, and the theory, comes from an eponymous 1982 article in The Atlantic by criminologist George Kelling and political scientist James Q. Wilson.4 In sum, they asserted that people assigned a high value to public order and that unaddressed disorder encourages more disorder. From unaddressed disorder follows petty crime, and then more serious crime, and finally violence. Stopping small things before they become big things is key, as is the recognition that many citizens actually care more about the former than the latter. Why? Because even during the city’s period of highest crime, victims of major crime or violence were a small fraction of the city’s population—but everyone could see and sense the disorder.

Bratton applied these ideas to fighting crime in the New York transit system, and they worked. Not only did addressing disorder address the disorder; it also forestalled more serious crimes—particularly as it became apparent that serious criminals didn’t just commit robberies and assaults: they jumped turnstiles and disobeyed Transit Authority rules, as well. Nabbing an armed criminal for fare evasion means getting a weapon off the streets, and pinching a “lush worker” for moving between train cars means preventing drunks from getting robbed later in the night. From 1990 through 1993, rates of major crime—that is, the seven categories tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation: murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto—in the subway system fell by 35.9%. In the city above, rates fell only 17.9%.5

Quality-of-life policing was paralleled by the three “Ps” of community policing: problem solving, partnership, and prevention. Each was intended to leverage Kelling and Wilson’s central point: “The essence of the police role in maintaining order is to reinforce the informal control mechanisms of the community itself.”6 At the heart of this is the concept of properly applied police officer discretion and a recognition that enforcement is not the only option for preventing crime and disorder. After all, cops dealing with disorderly behavior say “knock it off” or “move along” far more than “you’re getting a ticket” or “you’re under arrest”—the essence of officer discretion. In safe communities, neighbors do the same.

If, for example, Mrs. Smith in Apartment 7B feels safe telling Tommy Down-the-Hall to knock it off when he misbehaves, officers can prioritize admonitions rather than enforcement—if they have to get involved at all. But if Tommy Down-the-Hall is too dangerous or too out of control, and/or if Mrs. Smith is too scared, the police must intervene. They must take action for Mrs. Smith. When warnings won’t do, handcuffs will. The goal, however, is to enforce only until things get better—and then transition into more discretionary policing that can be done with Mrs. Smith. The final stage comes when the overall sense of safety is such that Mrs. Smith can reinforce those informal control mechanisms for herself.

Problems arise when that transition does not occur. Imagine that police officers have helped bring crime down, that Tommy is rowdy but not criminally threatening, and that Mrs. Smith feels safe. If the police are still in the “for” and not in the “with” mode, their enforcement efforts may have the opposite effect on Mrs. Smith. Rather than feeling relieved that the cops have protected her, she feels resentful at how Tommy is treated.

“CompStat and quality-of-life policing became the main drivers of New York City’s massive drop in crime. It also helped kick-start a national decline in crime,”

In practice, however, community policing was often separated from crime-fighting. You don’t push Mrs. Smith on the “shared responsibility” of public safety when Tommy has an Uzi and a murder occurs in the city every four hours. D-Day comes before the Marshall Plan. Neighborhoods had to be made secure before cops could ask people to come out and work with them.

Establishing that security was greatly facilitated by CompStat, which grew out of Bratton’s pioneering use of data in Boston in the 1970s as part of the Fenway project. Using acetate pin maps, he noted crime hot spots and put cops on the dots. When Bratton came to the NYPD in 1994, he took this practice to the nth degree, with the help of the late Jack Maple and then-Chief of Department Louis Anemone. The CompStat system brought precinct commanders and other police leaders to headquarters every week, where the NYPD’s executive corps would hold them accountable to identify patterns and trends of crime after several incidents, not after 20 incidents, and recognize conditions before they deteriorated. CompStat was a data-driven return to Peel and a rebuke of response-oriented policing.

CompStat and quality-of-life policing became the main drivers of New York City’s massive drop in crime. It also helped kick-start a national decline in crime, showing the nation that something could be done about crime beyond answering radio runs and hand-wringing over root causes.7

Policing and the Great Divide

Nevertheless, these reforms led, once again, to unintended consequences. Because CompStat used numerical inputs (crime statistics and enforcement numbers, like arrests, summonses, and, to a lesser extent, reasonable suspicion stops, aka “stop, question, and frisk”) as proxies for its operational outcomes (a safer, more orderly city), it was susceptible to confusing the means for the ends. In other words, it could be misapplied as a numbers game rather than a results-oriented system. Moreover, CompStat and Broken Windows policing could also be misinterpreted as “zero-tolerance policing,” which they are not and have never been.

An overemphasis on numbers ultimately become a source of the next major crisis for the NYPD: stop, question, and frisk. That crisis, in turn, presaged the next major crisis for policing across the country: the Great Divide.

During the first decade of the 2000s, the NYPD saw the huge crime declines of the 1990s level out. This was largely a function of how high crime had been: there was, simply, less room for it to fall. But in New York, even as then-Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly assigned hundreds of officers to new units involved with antiterrorism and intelligence following 9/11, his budget-conscious mayor Michael Bloomberg quietly allowed the NYPD’s rolls to dwindle from approximately 41,000 to just over 34,000. Faced with the challenge of continually doing more with less, the NYPD pushed harder on the CompStat system, and essentially pared it down to a single, implicit maxim: “more is better.” That is, more arrests, more summonses, and, unfortunately, more stops. Arrests and summonses are predicated on probable cause, but stops are predicated on reasonable suspicion. Like probable cause, reasonable suspicion is a constitutional standard but a more subjective one. Overemphasizing reasonable-suspicion stops through CompStat was a significant mistake.

At the same time, to compensate for its ebbing rosters, the NYPD created a new deployment plan, Operation: IMPACT, in the mid-2000s. Inexperienced rookie officers, fresh from the police academy, were sent to some of the city’s highest-crime precincts. They were separated from the standard precinct structure and removed from the normal burdens—and lessons—of patrol. Instead, they were encouraged to employ enforcement with relatively little discretion. While this was not an official policy of “zero tolerance,” arrests, summonses, and stops trended sharply up, by more than 40% from 2003 to 2011, with ever-diminishing returns insofar as crime reduction was concerned and ever-worsening alienation of too many citizens. By 2011, the NYPD had recorded 694,482 reasonable-suspicion stops, many done by officers assigned to Operation: IMPACT. Expecting the least experienced officers to use, with more and more frequency, one of policing’s most complicated tools—the ability to understand, recognize, act on, and then articulate reasonable suspicion—was another significant mistake.

When public opinion began to turn against the volume of stops, the NYPD defended their value. The department argued that UF-250s (the internal form on which officers recorded each reasonable-suspicion stop) had contributed to important arrests and even helped exonerate suspects—for example, by showing that someone was stopped in the Bronx when he was alleged to have been committing a crime in Brooklyn. The department argued that nearly 700,000 stops did not mean nearly 700,000 people because many suspicious people—pattern-robbery recidivists stalking victims, petty thieves casing parked cars, drug dealers peddling on the corner—were stopped repeatedly. The department argued that with more than 15,000 officers in enforcement positions, nearly 700,000 stops meant fewer than one stop a week per cop—and if a police officer going about his or her regular duties doesn’t see a single thing that is reasonably suspicious in the course of five work shifts, he or she might not be doing the job very well.

Moreover, the NYPD argued that nearly 700,000 stops weren’t really nearly 700,000 stops—because some cops used UF-250s to document witness interviews, warnings, or even simple interactions such as, “Hi, how are you, can I get your name?” The department argued that only half the stop-and-questions included the more invasive frisk; it argued that the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the practice, Floyd et al. v. City of New York et al.—with years to find an army of complainants with glaring instances of abused authority or clearly unconstitutional acts—had instead found only a small number of complicated encounters whose subtleties were discernible in a judge’s chambers in ways they were not on the street.

None of these arguments was successful. The NYPD’s case for its reasonable-suspicion stops failed to win over critics. For neighborhoods that felt encumbered by experiences that didn’t happen elsewhere, for individuals who felt humiliated by the stops, and for observers tallying the data, numerical context did not matter. Deep dives into the statistics did not matter. What mattered was that, in the communities that needed the NYPD the most, the fact of nearly 700,000 stops with a 12% summons-or-arrest rate was unacceptable. It mattered, too, that the racial disparities in stop, question, and frisk were stark. The fact that blacks and Hispanics are the victims as well as the perpetrators of violent crime at rates that far exceed their representation in the city’s population—rates even greater than the rate at which blacks and Hispanics were stopped—was obscured by the massive tide of stops and a profound sense that they were not applied equally.

By the time unease about stop, question, and frisk came to a head in 2013, with the mayoral election and a ruling against the NYPD in Floyd, the department had already begun to address the issue, largely by happenstance. As executives and supervisors foresaw the outcome of the federal trial, they eased their performance pressures. New, onerous review policies meant that each UF-250 had to be examined and countersigned by a supervisor. Many supervisors ceased asking their subordinates for reasonable-suspicion stops. When sergeants ask their squads how many radio runs, complaint reports, summonses, and arrests they have for a quarterly evaluation period, but they leave out stops altogether, cops get the message. Accordingly, cops drastically curtailed the practice. From their high of 694,482 in 2011, stops fell to 540,453 in 2012, and to 194,142 by the end of 2013, when Commissioner Kelly’s term ended.

At the same time, Operation Crew Cut, a focused-enforcement effort that Commissioner Kelly began in 2012, made significant dents in the violent crews that were disproportionately responsible for shootings and homicides. Those categories of violent crime fell significantly. Inadvertently, the NYPD had stumbled onto a new truth: you could decrease blanketed, pervasive enforcement operations in hot-spot areas (a notion that went against prevailing wisdom) and simultaneously increase narrowly directed enforcement against impact players and still reduce violence.

“If you’re a cop, you acknowledge that these quality-of-life conditions can’t go unaddressed, but you also know that enforcement is not the only way to deal with them. ”

When Bratton became commissioner for the second time, in 2014, the NYPD began actively cooperating with the monitor appointed by the federal court to oversee the NYPD’s internal policy around reasonable-suspicion stops. That scrutiny, as well as the more elaborate UF-250 that was developed with the plaintiffs, pushed stops lower still, to 22,939 by the end of Bratton’s first year.8 For the NYPD, it seemed that the crisis was being addressed.

Then came the police-involved homicides of Eric Garner on Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in the summer of 2014. This touched off the next great crisis for law enforcement: the Great Divide between police forces and the public, especially in minority communities.

Recurring protests ensued in cities around the country. Accurately or not, these protests became nearly synonymous with the group Black Lives Matter; in truth, hundreds of thousands of Americans from all walks of life and all races participated in them, calling out for fairer, more connective policing. Although the great preponderance of demonstrators were peaceful, some were bent on disorder. In several high-profile incidents, demonstrations dissolved into riot. Even those that were predominantly nonviolent were frequently characterized by deep vitriol—descending to an entire crowd chanting, “What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!”9 In not a few instances, the police tactics used to quell the disorder were clumsy, ineffective, and overly militarized, leading to even more antipolice sentiment.

In New York, the frequency and scale of demonstrations intensified in November 2014, following the death of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old African-American man shot by police in Brooklyn,10 and a Missouri grand jury’s decision not to indict the Ferguson officer who shot Brown. Unlike the Ferguson protests, the New York demonstrations did not end in arson and tear gas; nor did the NYPD use military-style long-guns, camouflage, or armored vehicles to quell the disorder. But the ranks of protesters swelled again in early December, after a Staten Island grand jury refused to issue an indictment in the death of Garner. These protests were more chaotic and included several assaults on officers. Some nights saw hundreds of arrests.

New York teetered on the edge of bedlam until the assassination of Detectives Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn by a madman claiming retribution for Garner and Brown.11 The killings knocked the wind out of the more vehemently antipolice protesters. Not that the anger or hatred vanished: a third NYPD officer, Miosotis Familia, was killed on July 5, 2017, just for the uniform she wore.12

Big demonstrations continued elsewhere, though, usually motivated by new police-involved shootings, often of black men, some unarmed. But the ambush of Dallas cops at an otherwise peaceful march on July 7, 2016, which killed five officers and injured nine others, and the shooting of six Baton Rouge officers 10 days later, killing three, changed the national tenor. There would still be protests; but by this point, the press had mostly turned away from the protests and demonstrations.13

Nevertheless, cops everywhere still feel their impact: in the cell-phone cameras that seemingly come out every time they take public enforcement action; in what they believe is a greater willingness to resist arrest; in the alarming spike in felonious line-of-duty deaths police have suffered this year (firearms-related line-of-duty deaths are up 37% through August 3, 2018, versus the same time span for 2017);14 and every time they are judged as a class, based on a lone officer’s actions.

These feelings have led to one of the most self-defeating outcomes of the Great Divide. In places where public trust was already tenuous, some officers apparently began to ease off policing, damaging public safety and further eroding trust. Speaking in Chicago in October 2015, then-FBI Director James Comey noted “a chill wind blowing through American law enforcement.” The proof of this de-policing phenomenon, the so-called Ferguson Effect,15 has been contested, although a recent study by two professors at the University of Utah found “empirical evidence that the reduction in stop and frisks by the Chicago Police Department beginning around December 2015 was responsible for the homicide spike that started immediately thereafter.”16 Even in cities where its putative impacts—decreased enforcement and higher crime—aren’t apparent, few officers doubt its existence.

In New York, for example, following the 2014 protests and the assassinations of Ramos and Liu, the NYPD went through a brief enforcement slowdown in December 2014 and January 2015. The decreased enforcement was not accompanied by higher crime, however. Contrary to most public opinion at the time, we believe that the slowdown was largely ad hoc, not driven by the unions and not premeditated. It was, instead, the reaction of exhausted men and women who had policed 10 weeks of constant demonstrations in cold weather, maintaining order while being shouted at, goaded, and even spat upon. Then, just in time for Christmas, they had watched aghast as two of their fellow officers were murdered.

The NYPD’s command staff used that unplanned slowdown to set a new enforcement baseline. On their own, the cops had figured out how to ease up on some enforcement—summonses, certain misdemeanors—while maintaining response times to “heavy jobs” (radio runs for in-progress felonies) and continuing to make felony arrests. Much of what they moderated, they believed, were activities that contributed more to the city’s administrative needs than to public safety, such as ticketing parking violations and writing peddler summonses. If you’re a cop, you acknowledge that these quality-of-life conditions can’t go unaddressed, but you also know that enforcement is not the only way to deal with them. A quick hit on a police siren can get a double-parked car to move; a warning can get a peddler to clear the sidewalk. These actions can save cops a day in court, too, keeping them out in the field.

The NYPD embraced this use of individual officer discretion and made it strategically intentional. Bratton and his team immediately enhanced training, procured safety equipment, and, within six months of the murders, prevailed upon the mayor and the city council to authorize the first headcount expansion in more than a decade. At the same time, then-Chief of Department O’Neill and then-Deputy Commissioner for Operations Dermot Shea used the NYPD’s weekly CompStat sessions to reorient commanders and cops alike on quality over quantity.

Precision Policing as a Response to the Great Divide

Creating cultural change among cops requires buy-in because cops hate two things: change and the way things are. The NYPD embraced the idea that a strong security environment meant that we could decrease certain types of enforcement while stressing others. Crime-fighting and better police–community relations could go hand in hand. Precision Policing is a framework, an organizing principle, to ensure that police work with the community in ways that add up to police legitimacy because the methods are integrated into the heart of patrol work, and not segregated as an ancillary function. It ensures that police use connectivity more than enforcement; but when enforcement is necessary, it is accurately and narrowly directed. In the New York context, the reinvigoration of CompStat, the emphasis on focused crime-and-disorder enforcement, and the development of Neighborhood Policing were applied to many initiatives, including:

Unified Investigations. In 2016, Bratton reorganized the detective bureau; under then-Chief of Detectives Robert Boyce, “the Bureau,” as it’s called, absorbed the majority of the NYPD’s other investigative units. The goal was to create a single umbrella command while allowing the parts within it to work more closely with one another and with precinct-based, patrol resources. Organizational and informational “silos” are out—the unified investigations model thrives on collaborative operations.

The Gun Violence Suppression Division, for example, targets offenders most likely to use firearms. It works not only within the department but also with a host of external partners, such as the FBI, the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives), and the courts. Inside the NYPD, the division integrates the long-term casework experience of detectives from gang, narcotics, and vice with the street knowledge of precinct-based squad detectives and anticrime officers. This division is owed a great deal of credit for New York’s tremendous drops in homicides and shootings.17

Trust-Building Mechanisms. Bratton created an Office of Collaborative Policing under Deputy Commissioner Susan Herman, for example, with a mandate to find innovative ways for the NYPD to connect with the people it serves and to identify and build the partnerships necessary to do so. The office was tasked with three roles: 1) exploring nonenforcement options, including efforts such as Project Reset, which provides pre-arrest diversion for first-time nonviolent offenders aged 16 and 17, and is intended to reduce the number of people “in the system”; 2) expanding the public’s access to police services, including a Crime Victim Assistance Program; and 3) designing creative strategies to complement the department’s focused crime-and-disorder enforcement, such as co-response teams that include mental-health clinicians and NYPD officers. The teams are designed to intervene with people who are experiencing mental-health and/or substance-use disorders, who are a threat to the community and/or themselves, and who frequently are, or may become, homeless.

Counterterrorism. The first years of Mayor de Blasio’s term coincided with the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). Using social media marketing principles equal to any Madison Avenue shop, this terrorist group created a poisonous narrative that framed failures as success; promised adherents belonging, valor, and empowerment; and gave them tools to pursue jihad. It also created new methods of terror. Al Qaeda strove primarily for large “directed” attacks, where the actors were trained, and/or equipped, and/or deployed by handlers or leaders in the terrorist organization, or “enabled” attacks—those where the actors have been in direct contact with and guided by the terrorist organization. ISIS is different.

The Islamic State perfected the “inspired” attack—one in which an actor or actors, working alone or in tight, frequently familial groups, have no direct contact with the leaders or agents of any terrorist organization. These are often called “lone wolf” attacks, and they often eschew grand schemes and high body counts for brutally simple violence that uses whatever tools are at hand—knives, axes, or cars. As of this writing, three such attacks have occurred in the city in the past two years: the Chelsea bombing in September 2016 (exactly one day after Bratton retired); the West Side Highway vehicle attack in October 2017 that killed eight; and a suicide-bombing attempt in a Times Square Port Authority tunnel in December 2017. 18

To address this threat, Bratton directed Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism John Miller to create the Critical Response Command, or CRC, while then-chief of department O’Neill created the Strategic Response Group, or SRG. CRC comprised 520 uniformed officers, specializing in site protection, counterterrorism, and countersurveillance. They were equipped with heavy weapons and trained in active-shooter response, as well as CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear defense) and VBIEDD (Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device Detection). They would be the Emergency Service Unit’s (ESU) first line of assistance. The Strategic Response Group comprised 660 uniformed officers, specializing in crowd control and disaster preparedness. CRC and SRG help the NYPD keep people safe while keeping first responders safe, as well.

Enhanced Training. The NYPD Police Academy added a field-training module to its six-month-long recruit-training program. Much of the training initially was associated with de-escalation, but it also includes instruction on ethics, the nobility of policing, new physical-control tactics, and new deployment models such as active-shooter interventions. The NYPD also worked with mental-health professionals and researchers to develop crisis-intervention training, or CIT, which teaches officers to recognize, approach, connect with, and gain voluntary compliance from substance abusers and emotionally distressed persons. The course does not turn cops into social workers, but it does give officers better tools to help people and keep them safe.

Satisfaction and Safety. When police leaders do right by their cops, it translates to cops doing right by the neighbors they serve. Morale is always a complicated issue, affected by the micro (“Do I like my assignment, my commute, my partner?”) and the macro (“Is there meaning and reward? Am I treated and compensated fairly?”). No leader has the capacity to address all of these, so Bratton endeavored to address disciplinary fairness, career satisfaction, and officer safety. With Mayor de Blasio’s approval (and his addition of attorneys to the New York City corporation counsel’s office), the city stopped acquiescing to frivolous lawsuits that, in the short term, were cheaper to settle than to fight but that were doing long-term damage to officers who knew that they had acted lawfully. We renovated precinct houses; upgraded our 9,000-vehicle fleet; provided new safety equipment like better bullet-resistant vests, helmets, and shields; deployed additional TASERs for supervisors and senior officers; and created new positions and new career possibilities, along with the technological means to access and navigate the new opportunities.

Technology. To support the training, to facilitate new programs like Neighborhood Policing, and to enhance focused crime-and-disorder enforcement, we gave the cops new technology. From smartphones with custom-designed applications that allow cops to access terabytes of data in the field, to body cameras, to tablets in their vehicles, we modernized a department that had been using typewriters and Polaroids as recently as a few years ago.

Telling the Story. All these efforts would be only half-measures if no one knew about them. To that end, we endeavored to create true, two-way communications between the NYPD and its members, and between the NYPD and the community. This included an exhaustive schedule of community meetings and personal outreach on the part of the commissioner and his executive staff, but it also leveraged social media. Starting in January 2014, Bratton immediately took to Twitter; by the end of the year, in a program developed by then–Deputy Commissioner of Strategic Initiatives Zachary Tumin, every precinct had a Twitter account of its own. Today, there are more than 110 precinct Twitter and more than 50 precinct Facebook accounts, as well as a central Facebook account with 775,000 followers, a newly redesigned official website that had more than 10 million page views in 2017, and a variety of ways for the NYPD to tell its own stories of bravery, compassion, and humanity.

Putting It All Together

Precision Policing is not only a reform for big cities. It is, instead, an organizing principle that can work anywhere, by embracing local culture, history, environment, geography, size, demographics, and politics. The two primary components, focused crime-and-disorder enforcement and Neighborhood Policing, can be expanded or contracted, as appropriate, but the strategy boils down to a simple mantra that can work in any of the country’s 18,000 police departments: in all things, police leaders must ask, “Is this precise? Is it focused and intentional? Is it designed to prevent crime and disorder? Will it make people safer, and is it fair?”

“Across America, overall major crime—murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto—is down 38.4% since 1991.”

For example, in a relatively low-crime city, Neighborhood Policing would benefit from more attention than focused crime-and-disorder enforcement. In a city experiencing high crime, that calculus may be reversed. But in any city, the focus on fairness and crime prevention, on both the “public” and the “safety” parts of “public safety,” can make policework more precise and effective.

Foremost among caveats and cautions: with regard to quality-of-life enforcement, tempering does not mean abandoning. While maximizing resources by scaling back time-consuming arrests for low-level offenses (as we did with marijuana enforcement) can be smart management, officers should not be mandated to abandon their penal enforcement tools in favor of civil enforcement tools in all cases. Similarly, with regard to the balance of focused crime-and-disorder enforcement and Neighborhood Policing, scalable does not mean removable. Neither police leaders nor political leaders can discard components wholesale. For example, recent trends in New York that cease enforcing offenses like fare evasion in the subways are a source of concern, and certain crime upticks should be taken as warnings against these trends.

Looking Back--and Ahead

Based on the past half-century of law-enforcement experience, it is all but inevitable that, however successful it is and will be, Precision Policing will be criticized. In many communities, focused crime-and-disorder enforcement will be subject to objections that it affects minority populations more than others. In some communities, there may be a risk that allowing officers to exercise greater discretion may lead to abuses of authority or corruption.

Consider the first objection. No matter how much focused enforcement diminishes the total universe of people affected by police enforcement in America’s major urban centers, minorities—now and for the foreseeable future—will be disproportionately the victims and perpetrators of violent crime. We can hope, however, that as Neighborhood Policing strengthens communities throughout the city, those proportions will change even as the whole numbers are continually driven down.

And consider the second objection. The answer is training, supervisory oversight, and accountability. The more officers are inculcated in the police mission, the more their discretion will be used in its service.

Across America, overall major crime—murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny, and grand larceny auto—is down 38.4% since 1991. Although it has decreased every year since 2002, those decreases have become smaller and smaller. And although overall violent crime—murder, rape, robbery, and felony assault—reached a 36-year low in 2014, it suffered an appreciable 8% spike from 2014 to 2016. The jump was driven mostly by large increases in several major cities; Chicago, for example, experienced a 58% increase in homicides in 2016. But owing to Precision Policing’s focused crime-and-disorder enforcement, New York has defied the trend. Crime there is down 80.8% since 1991. Not only has the city avoided the nation’s violent-crime increase; it has dropped 13.2% over the past five years. Robberies, shootings, and murders have had particularly steep declines.19

The police profession can, and must, confront the things it needs to do better. Working with the public and elected officials, it can help to make communities safe and fair, everywhere for everyone.


  1. U.S. Department of Justice, “The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” May 2015, table 1.
  2. Margot Sanger-Katz, “Bleak New Estimates in Drug Epidemic: A Record 72,000 Overdose Deaths in 2017,” New York Times, Aug. 15, 2018.
  3. See, e.g., William J. Bratton, “Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing,” New York Times, Apr. 15, 2014. The authors acknowledge that the historical record attributing the principles to Peel is disputed, but we hold with The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
  4. George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety,” The Atlantic, March 1982.
  5. NYPD, “Broken Windows and Quality-of-Life Policing in New York City,” May 2015, p. 2.
  6. Kelling and Wilson, “Broken Windows.”
  7. From 1990, the height of New York’s violent crime, through 1996, when CompStat and Broken Windows made their first, dramatic impact, New York’s overall crime fell 46.14% (from 710,221 to 382,555). Nationally over the same period, the drop was a mere 6.78% (from 14,475,613 to 13,493,863). Put another way, New York City’s crime drop constituted 33.38% of the nation’s crime decline. Over the following decade, from 1997 to 2006, as Bratton’s methods were adopted by more and more departments, the nation began to catch up, although even then, New York’s decline was 42.25% for the period and America’s was 13.19%. (Note that these statistics are those reported to the FBI’s UCR; New York City’s CompStat numbers will differ from New York City’s UCR numbers owing to the fact that crime definitions for New York State differ from those used nationally by the FBI.)
  8. By 2017, the NYPD had recorded 12,004 reasonable-suspicion stops, a 98.27% drop from 2011.
  9. Video Shows NYC Protesters Chanting for ‘Dead Cops,’ ”, Dec. 15, 2014.
  10. Alan Feuer, “Ex-New York Officer Gets 5 Years of Probation in Fatal Brooklyn Shooting,” New York Times, Apr. 19, 2016.
  11. Benjamin Mueller and Al Baker, “2 N.Y.P.D. Officers Killed in Brooklyn Ambush; Suspect Commits Suicide,” New York Times, Dec. 20, 2014.
  12. Benjamin Mueller and Al Baker, “Police Officer Is ‘Murdered for Her Uniform’ in the Bronx,” New York Times, July 5, 2017.
  13. Joel Achenbach et al., “Five Dallas Police Officers Were Killed by a Lone Attacker, Authorities Say,” Washington Post, July 8, 2016; Julie Bloom, Richard Fausset, and Mike McPhate, “Baton Rouge Shooting Jolts a Nation on Edge,” New York Times, July 17, 2016.
  14. National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, “Preliminary 2018 Law Enforcement Officer Fatalities,” retrieved Aug. 3, 2018.
  15. See Christine Byers, “Crime Up After Ferguson and More Police Needed, Top St. Louis Area Chiefs Say,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Nov. 15, 2014; and Heather Mac Donald, “The New Nationwide Crime Wave,” Wall Street Journal, May 29, 2015.
  16. Paul G. Cassell and Richard Fowles, “What Caused the 2016 Chicago Homicide Spike? An Empirical Examination of the ‘ACLU Effect’ and the Role of Stop and Frisks in Preventing Gun Violence,” University of Utah College of Law Research Paper no. 252, Apr. 13, 2018.
  17. There were 33.24% fewer homicides during the five-year period from 2013 to 2017 (1,645) versus the five-year period from 2008 to 2012 (2,464); there were 28.76% fewer shootings for the same comparison periods (5,198 vs. 7,296).
  18. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Public Affairs, “Chelsea Bomber Ahmad Khan Rahimi Sentenced to Life in Prison for Executing September 2016 Bombing and Attempted Bombing in New York City,” Feb. 13, 2018; Benjamin Hart and Margaret Hartmann, “Manhattan Truck Attack Kills 8; Note in Vehicle Reportedly Says It Was Done for ISIS,” New York, Nov. 1, 2017; and Sarah Maslin Nir and William K. Rashbaum, “Bomber Strikes Near Times Square, Disrupting City but Killing None,” New York Times, Dec. 11, 2017.
  19. NYPD, “The Police Commissioner’s Report 2018,” January 2018, pp. 130–33.


William J. Bratton is executive chairman of Teneo Risk. He also serves as vice chairman for the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security’s Advisory Council. During a 46-year career in law enforcement, Bratton led six police departments, including seven years as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and two nonconsecutive terms as police commissioner of the City of New York. 

Jon Murad is managing director at Teneo Risk, where he leads strategic and crisis-communications campaigns. Previously, Murad served in various roles in the New York City Police Department, including as an assistant commissioner under William Bratton.

This piece originally appeared in Urban Policy 2018