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“Losing the Humanity of the Street”: Retired Police Officer Narratives of the Evolution of Low-level Enforcement in New York City

Published onNov 01, 2017
“Losing the Humanity of the Street”: Retired Police Officer Narratives of the Evolution of Low-level Enforcement in New York City


Low-level enforcement activities such as pedestrian and traffic stops, the issuance of criminal court summonses (tickets or citations), and misdemeanor arrests comprise the vast majority of police-citizen encounters relative to the policing of more serious, felony-level offenses. The complexities of these activities—particularly from the perspectives of the police officers who carry them out—have received relatively little scholarly attention. In an effort to more fully understand the nuances of low-level enforcement, in particular how such activities have changed over time and how police officers have experienced such changes, in-depth interviews were conducted with a small sample of retired New York Police Department (NYPD) officers. Findings shed light on how officers understand and experience proactive policing tactics and the pressures associated with data-driven accountability. The implications of this research for improving police-community relations are explored.


I think what it’s accomplishing is alienating policing. You can’t have community policing if the community doesn’t trust the police. It’s not gonna happen ... How many times do you hear people saying, “The police are like an occupying force”? And they don’t see them as being there to protect them, they see them there as to check and see if they’re doing anything that they can get a summons for. One of the terms I heard is low-hanging fruit. Because that’s what police are gonna do. You put them in the situation and say, “You gotta bring up your numbers. You gotta get numbers.” And so, okay, there’s the easiest number to get, that’s the one I’m gonna get.—Will, retired NYPD officer, active 1964 to 1990

Misdemeanors account for the vast majority of arrests conducted by police officers and thus the cases processed in the courts. Approximately 10 million misdemeanor cases are processed annually in the United States, in contrast to 2.3 million felony cases (Natapoff, 2015). Furthermore, the number of misdemeanor cases processed nationally more than doubled between 1972 and 2006 (Boruchowitz, Brink, & Dimino, 2009; Roberts, 2011). In New York City—the focus of the present study—official statistics indicate that misdemeanor arrests increased by 190 percent between 1980 and 2013 (Chauhan, Fera, Welsh, Balazon, & Misshula, 2014).

In spite of these trends, the research literature has paid considerably more attention to the policing and processing of felony offenses. This focus is understandable, given the precipitous growth of incarceration in recent decades and the extensive collateral consequences of a felony conviction. However, as evidenced by both recent scholarship and highly publicized police-citizen encounters, the proliferation of low-level enforcement activities—misdemeanor arrests primarily, but also criminal court summonses (often called tickets or citations in other jurisdictions), and pedestrian stops—has far-reaching implications and thus is in need of careful scholarly examination. Likewise, recent research offering important insight into officer perspectives has largely relied on survey methodology. There exists scant qualitative work, which can provide in-depth insight into the meanings officers ascribe to their work, as well as their understandings of the policy and political contexts within which they operate.

This study seeks to address this gap by presenting findings from in-depth interviews with retired New York Police Department (NYPD) officers. I examine officers’ perceptions of low-level enforcement activities and the substantial changes over time in both crime rates and departmental mandates regarding low-level enforcement. Analysis of officers’ narratives reveals how they understand policy changes oriented toward proactive policing tactics and the pressures associated with the advent of data-driven accountability. These efforts to bolster accountability, I conclude, have contributed to officers’ sense of alienation, not only from the policies they carry out, but perhaps more importantly, from the human service aspects of their work.

The low-level enforcement crisis

Rates of low-level enforcement have increased considerably in recent decades, and this trend has been experienced most intensely by individuals in certain demographic groups and communities. Black and Latino people comprise the majority of individuals who experience pedestrian and vehicle police stops in American urban areas (Rojek, Rosenfeld, & Decker, 2012; Rosenfeld, Fornango, & Rengifo, 2007; Worden, McLean, & Wheeler, 2012). More police contact begets a higher likelihood of arrest. In New York City, for example, the rate of misdemeanor arrests for young Black men ages 18 to 20, the demographic group most likely to be arrested, nearly tripled between 1990 and 2013. At the peak in 2010, Black men in this age group had nearly a one-in-three chance of being arrested for a misdemeanor. The misdemeanor arrest rate for young Latino men in this same age group more than doubled over this 23-year period, with a peak likelihood of a one-in-six chance of a misdemeanor arrest in 2010. In contrast, arrests for young White men in this age group also more than doubled, yet at the peak in 2010, the likelihood of arrest for this demographic group was less than one in ten (Chauhan et al., 2014; Golub, Johnson, & Dunlap, 2007).

The demographically uneven distribution of low-level enforcement, as well as the extensive consequences of such contact, has contributed to the erosion of police-community relations, particularly in urban communities of color. The work of Rod Brunson and his colleagues has shed light on how Black young men accumulate direct and vicarious experiences with police which deleteriously affects their perceptions of the police (Brunson, 2007; Brunson & Miller, 2006; Brunson & Weitzer, 2011; see also: Stoudt, Fine, & Fox, 2011). Scholars have likewise found that Latino young men’s perceptions of the police are shaped by order maintenance policing strategies that claim to be “race neutral,” but which nonetheless are fueled by the typical concerns about gangs and drugs in Latino communities, and which differentially target recreational and cultural behaviors in these communities (Vera Sanchez & Gau, 2015; see also: Rios, 2011; Solis, Portillos, & Brunson, 2009).

Worse still, justice of any sort is elusive in the processing of low-level offenses. In the vast majority of cases, misdemeanor arrests result in neither a finding of guilt nor any formal punishment (Kohler-Hausmann, 2013, 2014; Natapoff, 2012, 2013; Solomon, 2011). There are also numerous collateral consequences—from debt accrued from fines and fees to eviction from public housing to denial of employment—that can befall an individual convicted of a misdemeanor offense (Natapoff, 2012). The same managerial form of social control is visible in the processing of what are known in New York  City as criminal court summonses issued in lieu of a  misdemeanor  arrest, or “C-summonses.” The city has seen explosive growth in the number of C-summonses issued in recent decades,1 yet only about one out of every five criminal summonses issued results in a disposition of guilty (Chauhan, Welsh, Fera, & Balazon, 2015).

Unsurprisingly, the accumulation of negative experiences of proactive policing tactics and their consequences has contributed to a profound crisis in police legitimacy (Armaline, Vera Sanchez, & Correia, 2014; Gau & Brunson, 2010). For young people in New York City, the proactive police tactic of stop, question, and frisk has been associated with an erosion of trust in and willingness to report crime to the police (Fratello, Rengifo, & Trone, 2013; see also: Howell, 2009).2 A recent rash of well-publicized incidents, many precipitated by low-level enforcement activity and some resulting in citizen deaths, has brought these issues into sharp relief, highlighting what Brunson (2015) has referred to as the “sizeable rift between police departments and many communities of color” (p. 510; see also: Okafor, 2015).

Distinguishing broken windows from zero-tolerance policing

Much of the criticism of low-level enforcement practices centers around order maintenance policing as a driver of police-perpetrated injustice. Yet    it is crucial to distinguish broken windows from its later iteration, zerotolerance policing. The central feature of order maintenance policing is the proactive enforcement of misdemeanor laws that prohibit offenses which deteriorate “quality of life,” such as drinking alcohol in public, urinating in public, loitering (often synonymous with panhandling), and subway turnstile jumping (Harcourt, 2001; Wilson & Kelling, 1982). This style of proactive policing, now popularly referred to as broken windows policing, first came to prominence through the work of James Q. Wilson and George Kelling, who posited the thesis that crime prevention and order maintenance are inextricably linked:

The citizen who fears the ill-smelling drunk, the rowdy teenager, or the importuning beggar is not merely expressing his distaste for unseemly behavior; he is also giving voice to a bit of folk wisdom that happens to be a correct generalization— namely, that serious street crime flourishes in areas in which disorderly behavior goes unchecked. The unchecked panhandler is, in effect, the first broken window (1982).

It is important to note here that Wilson and Kelling’s original argument, that serious crime can be prevented by addressing disorder in communities in “the downward spiral of urban decay” (Skogan, 1990), did not indicate that mass misdemeanor arrests—nor the issuance of criminal summonses or even stop, question, and frisk—were the solution. As Wilson and Kelling continue,

Patrol officers might be encouraged to go to and from duty stations on public transportation and, while on the bus or subway car, enforce rules about smoking, drinking, disorderly conduct, and the like. The enforcement need involve nothing more than ejecting the offender (the offense, after all, is not one with which a booking officer or a judge wishes to be bothered). Perhaps the random but relentless maintenance of standards on buses would lead to conditions ... that approximate the level of civility we now take for granted on airplanes.

As Kelling (2015) has recently reiterated, the original idea reflected in the passage above emphasized crime prevention through police problem-solving. Such an approach, he writes, is “highly discretionary, easy to abuse, but when conducted properly contributes enormously to the quality of urban life” (p. 628). Thus, much of the criticism of broken windows policing (see Camp & Heatherton, 2016 for an exception) is not of the original spirit of the idea,  but rather how it was subsequently applied in New York City and by police departments across the country (Harcourt & Ludwig, 2006; Stuart, 2013).

While couched in the rhetoric of community policing that was at the heart of Wilson and Kelling’s original argument, scholars like Manning (2001) and Harcourt (2001) have traced how the application of broken windows in New York City rapidly transformed from one of problem-solving to one of zerotolerance. During the high-crime periods between the late 1970s and early 1990s, police leadership in New York City invoked a “war-tinged metaphor” of “taking back the streets” from criminals (Manning, 2001, p. 321). As Manning and others have observed, zero-tolerance policing, unlike broken windows, “assumes making arrests for misdemeanors reduces more serious crime” (p. 321; see also Harcourt, 2001). The zero-tolerance approach targeted a set of “quality of life” offenses, including prostitution, panhandling, and, perhaps most notably, the possession of marijuana and other drugs (Golub et al., 2007; see also: Solomon, 2011).

The zero-tolerance policing style was augmented by new accountability measures implemented during this time, primarily via crime mapping and weekly COMPSTAT meetings. COMPSTAT has been celebrated by policing practitioners (Bratton & Knobler, 1998; Bratton & Malinowski, 2008; Police Executive Research Forum [PERF], 2013), while scholars have taken a more critical look at its effects on police behavior. Eterno and Silverman (2010), for example, found that NYPD managers (at the rank of captain or above)  felt intense pressure to lower crime once COMPSTAT was implemented, and that they often felt pressured to sacrifice their professional integrity to do so—namely, by making unethical “statistical adjustments” to show a reduction in crime (see also: Eterno & Silverman, 2006; Harcourt, 2001; Weisburd, Mastrofski, McNally, Greenspan, & Willis, 2003). Though some scholars have argued that the advent of COMPSTAT and the accompanying zero-tolerance approach have functionally reduced front-line officer discretion in dealing with low-level offenses (Harcourt, 2001; Manning, 2001), others have suggested that such arguments are overstated (Sousa, 2010).

The need for understanding police perspectives on low-level enforcement

While extensive scholarship now exists on the effects of order maintenance policing on police-community relations, the voices of police officers are less audible. Quantitative methods dominate in the field of criminal justice (Copes, Brown, & Tewksbury, 2011; Tewksbury, DeMichele, & Miller, 2005) and in studies of policing in particular, it has been argued that there is a methodological overreliance on surveys (Reynolds & Hicks, 2015). This trend exists despite the fact that, as Manning (2001) points out, some of the most influential studies of policing in previous eras have used qualitative or mixed methods (see: Bittner, 1967; Reuss-Ianni, 1983; Skolnick,  1967; Wilson, 1968). This is not to discount important insights that survey research, particularly on the NYPD, has recently offered on topics such as officer perspectives on COMPSTAT (Eterno & Silverman, 2010) and variations in officer job satisfaction across race/ethnicity and gender (Cooper, White, Ward, Raganella, & Saunders, 2014; White, Cooper, Saunders, & Raganella, 2010). However, the highly structured nature of surveys means that they can only capture information planned in advance by researchers. An inherent strength of qualitative approaches is the flexibility to account for the element of surprise, or “serendipity” (Fine & Deegan, 1996), during data collection, allowing researchers to capture knowledge that they otherwise would not have known to anticipate.

Some reasons for the relative lack of qualitative policing scholarship may be that surveys are far less labor-intensive to conduct, can yield considerable statistical power and thus facilitate generalizability of findings, and may also be seen by police departments and police unions as less invasive and potentially damaging than qualitative methods such as in-depth interviewing or participant observation. Nevertheless, if police-community relations are to be repaired, the perspectives of police officers must be part of the scholarly conversation.

This qualitative study was initiated based on quantitative findings from the Misdemeanor Justice Project, which is examining trends in enforcement of low-level offenses in New York City—and, to a lesser extent, New York State—using arrest and court processing data from the NYPD, the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, and the New York State Office of Court Administration (Chauhan et al., 2014, 2015). As reviewed above, the initial findings are reflective of profound changes in policing practice over the past few decades. Yet much more needs to be understood about how these trends occurred, how they have been experienced by both the police and New York City residents, and the extent to which the trends indicated by official statistics match up with officers’ on-the-ground experiences. Thus, the qualitative research team sought, in focus groups and in-depth interviews, to understand how people working in the police and court systems, as well as young men and adults living in communities with a high volume of low-level enforcement activity, experienced and understood these trends. The perspectives of court officials and community members are examined in separate papers (Barrett, 2017; Barrett & Welsh, 2018).

In order to capture the experiences of front-line police personnel in conducting low-level enforcement activity during this historical time period, I conducted in-depth interviews with retired NYPD officers. The decision to interview retired rather than active police officers was made not only because, as noted above, gaining access to active officers can be difficult and time-consuming, but also because retired officers were more likely to have the extensive knowledge necessary to contextualize the trends visible in the quantitative data.

To guide this part of the qualitative project, the following research questions were posed:

  1. How do retired NYPD officers explain trends in low-level enforcement activity—specifically, misdemeanor arrests and C-summonses?

  2. To what extent do the trends indicated by official statistics align with officers’ on-the-ground experiences?

  3. To what extent do retired officers buy into and/or resist dominant narratives regarding the utility of low-level enforcement strategies?


Recruitment and sampling

The analysis presented here draws on in-depth interviews conducted between December 2014 and June 2015 with a small sample (n=10) of retired NYPD officers. A mixture of purposive and snowball sampling was used to recruit study participants. Potential participants were identified through the professional networks of the Misdemeanor Justice Project team, and were emailed a brief description of the larger project and the nature of the interview in which they were being asked to participate. At the end of each interview, participants were asked to recommend other retired officers who might be willing to participate in the study.

Selection criteria required that officers had served on the force for at least five years and that they had worked patrol for at least some of that time. Additionally, potential participants who had worked patrol in precincts within the three communities targeted for our community focus groups (East New York/Brownsville, Harlem, and South Bronx) were purposively approached, and thus six out of the ten participants had worked patrol in at least one of these areas.

Table 1. Participant characteristics

Participant (pseudonym)

Year started on force

Years on force










































Note: All participants were White; the average number of years spent on the force was 22.

Officers’ time on the force ranged from 5 to 35 years, with a mean of     22 years. Officers’ starting year on the force was between 1963 and 1992. Although substantial effort was made to recruit a sample of participants that was diverse by race/ethnicity and gender, all officers interviewed were White, and all but one was male. While this lack of diversity is an important limitation of the sample, it is reflective of previous eras in the department3—a focus of the study here—and an issue that is still relevant today amid struggles to maintain diversity on the force.4


This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board  (IRB)  of the City University of New York, and all data collection and analysis procedures maintained human subjects protections, including the maintenance of confidentiality through the assignment of a code to each participant prior to analysis to protect participants’ identities. Additionally, any references made to information that could be traced back to participants, such as specific job roles occupied in specific precincts, have been removed from the data excerpts presented here. I conducted and audio-recorded all interviews, had them transcribed for analysis, and then checked each transcript for accuracy. Interviews ranged in length from 55 minutes to two hours long, with the average length being 90 minutes. Each interviewee was compensated with a $30 gift card and—for those still residing in the city—a round-trip MetroCard.

I conducted the interviews in a semi-structured style, in which topics were set in advance but the sequence and wording of questions were determined as each interview unfolded (Patton, 2002). Open-ended questions asked officers to describe the sorts of activities they undertook while working patrol, to reflect on aspects of the communities they worked in, and to describe what—if any—changes they noticed in the numbers of misdemeanor arrests and for what types of offenses these arrests typically occurred. Officers were also asked about their summons activity and the sorts of charges for which summonses were typically issued. When changes over time were noted, officers were asked what they thought accounted for these changes.

Some recent qualitative research with police has benefited from researchers’ “insider” positionality as current or former police officers themselves (Eterno & Silverman, 2010; Moskos, 2008; Oliver, 2015; Reynolds & Hicks, 2015). As a “civilian” researcher who was new to interviewing police officers (but not new to interviewing other law enforcement professionals), I was keenly aware that interview participants understandably might be apprehensive about candidly answering my questions about their time on the force. I wanted to be especially sensitive to this possibility given the nature of the questions I would be asking about the history of policing and crime   in the city, as a non-native New Yorker who had only lived there since 2009, and who thus had not lived through the high-crime years of the late 1980s and early 1990s. To monitor this, I followed a modified version of Spradley’s (1979) rapport process, which conceptualizes the developmental stages of rapport throughout an ethnographic interview as being comprised of apprehension, exploration, cooperation, and participation.5 I have reason to believe that I achieved cooperation quite quickly, as evidenced by interviewees’ willingness to correct my usage of terms and ask questions about the Misdemeanor Justice Project data.


The sample of officers interviewed was small and lacked racial/ethnic and gender diversity, and thus this study’s findings cannot be  generalized  to all NYPD officers, let alone to officers in other departments. Rather, the aim of the exploratory analysis presented here is to make modest claims (Charmaz, 2006, p. 114) about officer perceptions and to suggest directions in which future studies might look. Moreover, while the retired status of the officers interviewed for this project is an asset in terms of the extent of their knowledge, their remarks, despite the usefulness of their insight into current issues in policing, and their likely willingness to be more candid about their perceptions in comparison to active officers, should not be interpreted as reflecting what is presently happening in the NYPD, nor should their perspectives be ascribed to current NYPD officers. Lastly, a key methodological concern in this study is the issue of retrospective construction, or the tendency to construct specific moments in time as significant in retrospect. With low-level enforcement gaining substantial public attention in recent years, I sought to minimize the influence such developments might have on the interviews in how I framed the interviews and posed questions. There is some evidence from psychological research on memory to suggest that people are better able to recall events when asked to do so in chronological order (Anderson & Conway, 1993; Belli, 1998). At the beginning of each interview, I showed participants line graphs depicting trends in the rates of misdemeanor arrests, C-summonses, and violent and non-violent crimes and asked them to recall their experiences on the force starting with their academy training and rookie year. I then asked participants about the extent to which their experiences matched up with these data (see Figure 1). This approach sought to attenuate possible bias by keeping the interviews grounded in the data.

Figure 1. Rates of felony arrests, misdemeanor arrests, violent crime, and nonviolent crime in New York City, 1980 to 2013

Note: Source is Chauhan et al. (2014).


As is standard in qualitative research, data analysis was iterative, beginning during the first interview and continuing for three months after the last interview took place. In every interview after the first one, I discussed with my participants the themes I was seeing in the data to confirm accuracy and to highlight conflicting perspectives amongst participants (Patton, 2002). Reliability in a qualitative research context depends on internal and external consistency (Kraska & Neuman, 2008, p. 410). Internal consistency was maintained though my questioning on the same topics throughout interviews. External consistency was achieved by cross-checking observations with other sources of data and by testing “rival explanations” of the data during analysis (Patton, 2002, p. 553). Interviews were transcribed verbatim by a transcription service. I then carefully read each transcript while listening to the audio recording of the interview to ensure accuracy. Data were first analyzed using an inductive thematic approach (Braun & Clarke, 2006) to identify patterns and categories. Once these codes were established, they were refined based on relevant themes from the literature (Patton, 2002).


Tracing the evolution of low-level enforcement

For the purpose of the discussion to follow, a brief review of crime trends is useful. Until the early 1960s, the homicide rate in New York City was low and steady at around 5 homicides per 100,000 people. In what some have characterized as a roller coaster (Fagan, Zimring, & Kim, 1998), the homicide rate then more than doubled between the mid-1960s and 1972, fell, then peaked again in 1979 and 1991. In raw numbers, homicides reached their highest point in 1990 at 2,262 homicides before steadily declining to a historical low of 328 in 2014 (NYPD, 2016).

The historical context of the NYPD has been carefully documented by others (see: Darien, 2013; Silverman, 1999; White, 2014) and thus I do not detail it here. A few key facts are worth noting, however. The year 1994 is the line of demarcation between two distinct eras in New York City and NYPD leadership. Rudolph Giuliani became mayor in 1993, elected on a “tough on crime” platform. He appointed William J. Bratton for what would be his first of two stints as police commissioner in December of 1993, and Bratton began implementing tactics associated with order maintenance policing, as described above, in 1994 (Harcourt, 2001). However, it is also important to note that, although Bratton has been widely credited for the dramatic reduction in crime in New York City in the 1990s, the crime decline actually began under Raymond Kelly, who also served as NYPD Commissioner twice—from 1992 to 1994 and from 2002 to 2013. The officers interviewed for this project took care to distinguish between Kelly and Bratton, not only because of what was happening around crime during their tenures, but because of the distinct policy initiatives each implemented. Specifically, the police strategy of stop, question, and frisk—a tactic commonly linked with broken windows and order maintenance policing—proliferated during Kelly’s second term. NYPD data indicate that under Kelly, pedestrian stops by police officers more than quadrupled inside of a decade, growing from 160,000 in 2003 to 685,000 in 2011 before falling sharply to 191,000 in 2013 (Chauhan et al., 2015).

Early days: Productivity and discretion in low-level enforcement pre-1994

A helpful entry point for tracing changes in low-level enforcement in New York City in recent decades is through how police officer productivity was measured. The officers I interviewed who engaged in low-level enforcement prior to the Bratton era consistently noted that their productivity was measured by the issuance of traffic summonses for parking and moving violations (“movers”), much more so than by any other activity:

Precinct commanders would really look at things like [traffic] summons activity. Summons activity generated revenue for the city. So that would be a big thing ... You know, like how much revenue are you generating for the city? (Abe, active 1972 to 2012)

It went from maybe ten [traffic] summonses and two movers, to now we expect twenty summonses and eight moving violations. It just kept growing. And that’s when I think the PBA [Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association] got involved ... It wasn’t fair because, I guess some commanders used it as a really strict quota and they didn’t care if you were out sick for half of the month or whatever. Like, “What? You only gave me ten summonses.” “Yeah, but I was out sick, boss. I couldn’t.” “Well, you know what? Now you’re not in a radio car anymore. For the next month, we’re gonna take you out of the radio car. Or we’re gonna change your hours until you get the message ...” (Sam, active 1967 to 2002)

Two themes are notable in the above narratives. Although traffic summonses were integral to ensuring quality of life in the city—by enforcing laws against double-parking, for example—officers recognized that there was a profit motive to ensuring that they issued a minimum number of such summonses every month. Second, the emphasis on issuing traffic summonses and “movers” (summonses for moving violations) exemplified a larger perspective on the role of policing during this era, which was that there was little that police could or should do to prevent crime (PERF, 2013), a point that the officers interviewed for this project reiterated. As Sam, who started with the NYPD in the late ‘60s, put it, “There were cops who always cared about crime, but they were never directed to really care about it.”

Thus, it is unsurprising that during this time, criminal summonses, or “C-summonses” were considered to be neither an effective policing tactic nor an important source of revenue for the city. Either the suspected offense was serious enough to merit an arrest or the officer simply gave a verbal warning to cease the behavior:

In those days, I just never felt the pressure that some police officers apparently say they feel today to issue [criminal] summonses. (Tim, active 1963 to 1968)

I never did any of that. No, no. You know, urinating in pub lic back then would be maybe a kick in the ass or something along those lines. [laughter] You know, “Get the hell out of here. What’s the matter with you?” You know what I mean? And depending on the age of the person ... an old Irish drunk that just fell out of a bar or something, what are you gonna do with them? If I knew him—I mean, I probably knew him, knew his wife and … It was a whole different world, such a whole different way of looking at things. (Bob, active 1968 to 1996)

Back in the day, C-summons, criminal court summons, were pretty rare. I’m talking about in the ‘70s and stuff. We didn’t do it. You just didn’t. People got locked up. You did regular parking and moving. And very few cases involved a C-summons. And when you did it, you usually had to ask somebody, “Gee, I never gave one of these out.” For something like a park regulation, back in the day, no one would get a ticket for being in a park when it was closed. We wouldn’t do it. It was silly. (Sam)

The theme of discretion emerges here in officer narratives of how they handled behavior that now would receive a C-summons. For example, the most frequent charges for which people were issued C-summonses in 2013 were: public consumption of alcohol, disorderly conduct, public urination, park offenses (such as being in a park after hours), and riding a bicycle on the sidewalk (Chauhan et al., 2015). In contrast, during this era, issuing a summons for these types of offenses was neither something that was encouraged by the department nor was it an approach that officers believed would be effective in deterring behavior. A better approach, as Bob, who was a patrol officer in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, put it, would be a literal or figurative “kick in the ass.” This approach would be particularly appropriate if he knew the offender. Misdemeanor arrests were similarly discounted during this time:

When I was a cop before this Broken Windows thing, or COMPSTAT, we didn’t care so much about the misdemeanors. You know, we didn’t give a crap about them. They actually, they were frowned upon in a lot of ways. Like, you made a collar, “What did you do?” “Oh, it was criminal trespassing.” “Oh, yeah, big deal!” Maybe he was just in the project, just warming up because it’s cold outside ... But if you got a gun collar or something along those lines, then that was a whole different ... you’re risking your life, and the guy had a weapon, you know? So misdemeanors weren’t that important. (Bob)

Thus, the emphasis during this time was, as Tim put it, on making “good arrests,” which he defined has being for “something dangerous and serious.” If an officer made an arrest for a less serious crime, s/he could be overtly criticized for doing so.6 Similar to C-summonses, officers linked the difference between how misdemeanor arrests were used as an enforcement tool then versus now to changes in the amount of discretion officers have:

Back in the day, low-level enforcement was not emphasized at all, okay? It was, officers had a lot more discretion, and an officer, at the end of the month, you would turn in your activity report. And if you had, say, two arrests in a month, you would be looked upon as an active officer ... No one would ever say to you, “Gee, you didn’t make any arrests. What are you doing?”... The idea was [traffic] summonses were real important and arrests really weren’t that important, as long as crime wasn’t getting totally outta control. (Sam)

What seems to be going on now is that the discretion is being pulled out of low-level enforcement, which has made it possibly so disproportionately important. Instead of it being what you just do in the course of your regular work, it’s become the raison d’etre, and therefore, it’s come under too close scrutiny. Police interacted with people all the time, and basically, nobody paid attention to it. That was what the job was. Now, everything is under the microscope. (Sarah, active 1978 to 1988)

As these passages reflect, prior to departmental policy changes in the mid-1990s, officers believed that they wielded more discretion in how to deal with misdemeanor offenses; the subsequent curtailing of discretion (whether perceived or real) was accompanied by additional scrutiny of this aspect of policing.

Taking responsibility for crime: The era of accountability

William J. Bratton served as the Commissioner of the New York Police Department for two relatively brief though defining stints, from January 1994 to April 1996 and from January 2014 to September 2016. While the officers I spoke with were at times critical of how some of the policies he initiated have evolved over time, officers were unanimous in their admiration of the positive changes Bratton made to the Department during his first term as Commissioner:

Bratton I think is a strong leader. I remember when he first became chief of the transit police [in 1990]. He said some thing that was absolutely shocking ... He said, “I am taking responsibility for crime in this city ...” And, of course, that’s     a wonderful step forward where—I mean, the Bratton era changed policing. Everybody then had to say, “Yeah, crime is our responsibility.” (Tim)

The first thing he did that made him what he is today, [was] not implementing low-level crime initiatives and all that. What made him what he is today is the fact that he got the police department to work again. And how did he do that? The first thing he did was he had someone go out and analyze all the police precincts in the city that needed paint jobs, that needed new plumbing, that made it an environment that you want to go to work in. He gave them new uniforms, he gave them 9 mm handguns. He gave them dignity. So the cops got all these good things to make them cops again, you know, and there’s this big sign up in COMPSTAT, over the big room, that says, “We are the police. We’re not just report takers.” So he made cops feel good about themselves, he made cops feel that they were doing something important. And then everything else followed. (Abe)

These narratives indicate that, by rebuilding the dignity of the police through material improvements such as new uniforms and better facilities, Bratton primed the Department for what at the time were revolutionary changes to policing, particularly around the notion of the police taking responsibility for preventing and solving crime.

Officers also repeatedly emphasized that discourses around policing today tend to either ignore or forget that officers were operating in a very different reality in the 1980s and 1990s than they are today. Police responses to crime were a product of this context. Officers consistently recalled that crime was an ever-present threat and source of fear in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s. As Stu, who was a rookie officer in 1992, put it,

The people who are actually adults now who were alive during the ‘70s and ‘80s know what crime was really like in the city. You would think nothin’ of gettin’ on a subway now at three o’clock in the morning and taking the A to 125th Street. You didn’t do that. You got off at 59th Street, or we never saw you again. People don’t understand that. Why do you think they used to stop at 59th Street and leave the train there and say, “All right, next stop 125th Street?” (Stu, active 1992 to 2012)

This passage reflects a consistent perception among officers: that people who live in the city now—in an era of historically low crime—have the luxury of being critical of police practices because they either weren’t around for or don’t remember how bad it was.

During this time, misdemeanor arrests became a key crime reduction tactic, not just for order maintenance, but also as an investigative tool. As Chuck, who also started on the force in 1992, put it, “misdemeanors gave you the opportunity to solve a lot of major crimes,” either by converting misdemeanor offenders into informants (see also: Harcourt, 2001), or by catching more serious offenders in the act of committing lower-level crimes.7 Thus, the approach to reducing crime was to cast a wide net effecting a lot of arrests for low-level offenses—and thereby increase the likelihood that some more serious crimes would be solved as well. Sam sums up this shift like this:

The message was, “lock up all these people.” And it probably wasn’t a bad message, because it had come from an era where “Oh, don’t get involved. The more you get involved, the more bullshit you’re gonna stir up, and then we’re gonna get a civilian complaint, and we’re gonna do this, and we’re gonna do that. It’s not good for my career if you get involved.” And it got to, “Lock up people. We’ve gotta get the city back.” (Sam)

As this passage reflects, the message to patrol officers during this time was about arrests—not the problem-solving that Wilson and Kelling (1982) had written about. Also notable is the invocation of the war metaphor of “we’ve got to get the city back”—a technique Manning (2001) identifies in his dramaturgical analysis of this era of policing in New York City.

The “lock people up” approach was incentivized through the possibility of swift promotion (see also: Eterno & Silverman, 2010), as Abe described like this:

So it was through repetitively locking all these people up, sooner or later, you were gonna get somebody of significance … So that was the concept. Go out there and, you know, little things could mean a lot … Cops were saying to themselves, “if I get the  right guy and  I lock up the  right guy, and I break a big case …”. It was nothing for Bratton to promote people to detective right on the spot ... Normally, it would take you three years to become a detective doing investigations. This way, he would show the incentive by promoting people on the front page of the news, because they solved a big crime just based on a minor infraction. (Abe)

The idea that low-level enforcement could facilitate the solving of more serious crimes also extended to C-summonses, though officers acknowledged that these summonses could also lead to arrests simply for not resolving the initial summons. As Chuck put it,

What happened at that point in time was directives came down that you couldn’t issue a summons without first conducting a warrant check. So now you had to run their name right away. A lot of people had open warrants. So they’ve already demonstrated that they’re not gonna show up when they’re [issued a] summons in lieu of arrest, because they didn’t show up the last time, which is why they had a bench warrant issued. So those people oftentimes were arrested for the warrant and for the minor crime. (Chuck, active 1992 to 2014)

In this way, the issuance of a C-summons could now become the gateway to a much more extensive encounter with the criminal justice system. Indeed, recent analyses indicate that just over a third of C-summonses result in a warrant being issued (Chauhan et al., 2015).

COMPSTAT: Accountability through data

The first iteration of COMPSTAT, called “Charts of the Future,” was enacted by Jack Maple while both he and Bratton were in the Transit Department (Eterno & Silverman, 2006; Harcourt, 2001; PERF, 2013). The thrust of this initial version was simple: compile, store, and visually display crime statistics to direct enforcement efforts. Bratton, who was Transit Commissioner prior to becoming Police Commissioner, rebranded the approach as biweekly “Crime Control Strategy Meetings” or COMPSTAT (for “Computerized Statistics” [Bratton & Malinowski, 2008] or “Compare Statistics” [Eterno & Silverman, 2006])—and subsequently expanded it to the entire department upon becoming Commissioner. COMPSTAT, which has since been adopted by police departments both across the U.S. and internationally, has been credited with changing three key facets of policing: information-sharing among and across different divisions within a police department; decentralization of decision-making through a reduction in hierarchical bureaucracy; and a more creative, flexible, and thereby responsive organizational culture (Chauhan, 2011; PERF, 2013). COMPSTAT has been widely regarded as a ground-breaking development particularly because, as noted previously, prior to this time, it was commonly accepted that the police couldn’t do anything to lower crime (Harcourt, 2001; PERF, 2013). The following narratives reflect the extent to which COMPSTAT fundamentally changed how police officers did their jobs:

COMPSTAT is fantastic, because what happens is everything is computerized, and wherever the crimes are, that’s where the personnel goes. (Mark, active 1968 to 1992)

There was no more coming into the squad, drinking your coffee, and reading the newspaper for the first hour. You hit the ground running, and you just worked, worked, worked, and worked. (Abe)

There were aspects of [COMPSTAT] that were really good ... Commanders really started to monitor what was going in their precincts, where before, you took a report and it got filed and got recorded, and got filed, and next, all day long. At least now you had some data you could go to. You could say, “You know what? We’ve had 300 robberies here. And the majority of those robberies have taken place, say, on 104th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.” So now everybody could start focusing on an area … and like I said, we’d lay on the outlying areas because now we knew in between what times these things were taking place, whereabouts they were taking place. So it was really, really good for anybody who wanted to really work, because you could make a difference, because you had the data now. (Vic, active 1982 to 2002)

Across interviews, the theme of increased accountability consistently emerged as the key development that occurred with the advent of COMPSTAT. Many aspects of this were quite positive; officers who were motivated to address crime now had tools with which to do so. COMPSTAT facilitated the informed allocation of police resources where they were needed most, and in doing so, officers felt they could really “make a difference” in addressing crime.

There was also a dark side to this shift, however. Officers readily talked about the burden of having to play what others have referred to as the “numbers game” (Skolnick & Fyfe, 1993; see also: Cooper et al., 2014). While in the pre-COMPSTAT era, police productivity was primarily measured through traffic summonses, now, police leadership was held accountable for crime rates, and front-line officers were expected to show consistent activity toward lowering crime. Officers described feeling pressured to conduct pedestrian stops, particularly in high-crime areas:

Like they say, poop runs downhill, or whatever they say? Now the precinct commander knows he’s gonna get beat up if he doesn’t rectify this [an increase in crime]. So what is he gonna do? He’s gonna beat up the lieutenants, he’s gonna beat up the sergeants, he’s gonna beat up the cops. “You go out there and give me stop and frisk,” you know? So whether you have reasonable suspicion or not, you’re throwing people up against the wall, and you’re doing your stop and frisk. So you couldn’t come down a block without getting thrown up against the wall. You got tossed, you got beat up. So you’re violating people’s civil rights. Why? Because the pressure is on from the top ... You don’t generate stop and frisk reports, you don’t generate gun arrests, you don’t do this, you don’t do that, life is gonna become very difficult for you. (Abe)

[Under Kelly,] if you weren’t stopping people, you weren’t fighting crime. That’s how [COMPSTAT] went off the rails a little bit. His idea was stopping people in the street shows that your cops are out there trying to fight crime. Well, if you put a number on how many people I have to stop today, you’re basically doing away with my discretion or doing away with my personal observation skills mattering. (Chuck)

Because precinct-level commanders were under immense pressure to reduce crime—several officers described how commanders would get “beat up” and “humiliated” at COMPSTAT meetings. There was also pressure on patrol officers to minimize felony arrests. Chuck recounted a typical instance in which an attempt at order maintenance spiraled out of control, in which he confronted a man in possession of stolen magazines who was sleeping on a park bench:

Alright. It’s a misdemeanor, a classified misdemeanor and a parks regulation. It’s disorderly behavior. “Listen, you got to go.” “I’m not gonna—.” Now you have to physically stand him up. Now I know he’s in possession of stolen property. What, am I gonna check every newsstand on Broadway to figure out which one he stole it from? He’s up. He’s been in prison. He’s been doing nothing but pushups for the last two years. It’s gonna hurt, and I’m realizing that this is gonna hurt me more than it hurts him. So now it’s a fight. Now I’m involved in a struggle with this guy because he’s sleeping on a bench. He punches me, we’re rolling around. Another cop nearby comes over, and we get him arrested, no problem. So the desk officer, the lieutenant who initially says, “Hey, clear the benches. I don’t want to see any homeless sleeping on the benches on your post,” now when I bring him in and I want to charge him with felonious assault for punching me, “Oh, that’s kind of a heavy charge.” Exactly. “What are you bringing in felonies for? We don’t need felonies. COMPSTAT measures your felonies.” You told me to do this, so I’m gonna try to do it to the best of my ability. It winds up being a fight here. Now you’re gonna tell me not to charge it. (Chuck)

This narrative vividly illustrates the extent to which officers felt pressured to demonstrate continuous progress toward the reduction of serious crime, not only through reduced rates of reported crime, but also through fewer felony arrests. It is important to note that Chuck described the above encounter to make another, related point: that the substantial rise in the misdemeanor arrest rate indicated by official statistics may be artificially inflated by a number of factors, not only due to the downgrading of felonies, but also because some misdemeanor arrests were of repeat offenders. As he put it, “I think the recidivism rate will be very telling. It’ll be a small portion of your society, of New Yorkers, who are committing the bulk of these crimes. Only because—this is anecdotal—but in my experience we locked up the same people all the time.” Indeed, a limitation in the arrest data used by the Misdemeanor Justice Project and many others is that they are of unique arrests, not of individuals. Still, New York City’s Data Analytic Recidivism Tool for 2009 data (City of New York, 2016), estimates that 80 percent of the arrests in the dataset were of unique individuals. In other words, approximately 20 percent of those arrested for a misdemeanor were rearrested at least once in the same year (Chauhan et al., 2014). Thus, as others have noted (Harcourt, 2001; Manning, 2001), just as with rates of reported crime, official statistics of police activity should not only be interpreted with caution, but should also take into account contextual factors such as recidivism rates and shifts in policy mandates.

Recognizing the limitations of the era of accountability

When asked to reflect on how things have and haven’t changed in New York City in recent decades, several officers noted that in conversations about “progress,” crime trends should be decoupled from other “quality of life” factors, such as poverty and inequality. For example, Vic observed the following:

I worked in a minority community my whole time. I don’t view it as that. I view people as people. But I will say that in my opinion, and in the area that I worked—I worked there almost 21 years—and in that area I didn’t see a lot of positive change for the people there. And we did get a handle on crime under Giuliani. We positively took down crime substantially by different programs that were initiated under his tenure as mayor. The homicide rate went down, which directly affects the minority community there, less people being killed unnecessarily, and things like that. But for the peoples’ quality of life, I didn’t see much change. It’s haunting to me, because  I met a lot of great people there, and I wish things would’ve gotten better for their lives. (Vic)

Notable in the above narrative is the observation that misdemeanor arrests and pedestrian stops were driven by a myopic focus on crime rates, and while crime—and violent crime in particular—did fall dramatically starting in the early 1990s, few other changes were made to improve quality of life, particularly in communities of color that were already otherwise marginalized.

Officers noted that even when crime had gone down, the pressure not only remained to demonstrate productivity, but also persisted through changes in leadership. As Stu put it, “even after Bratton left, Giuliani was still pushing this stuff forward. And Bloomberg picked up the baton right afterwards. You know, nobody to tell you to turn it off.” Sam likewise described the continued push to achieve ever-lower crime rates like this:

They didn’t know when to let up. In other words, they came to a point where crime was down dramatically, and instead of saying, “You guys are doing a great job. Let’s try to …” All they had to say is, “We’re not gonna compare numbers from last year to this year.” And they didn’t do that. They would go, “Last year you made 100 stop and frisks. This year you only did 70. What’s going on?” And the answer is, there aren’t many guns on the street and crime is better. People in COMPSTAT didn’t accept that. They would look at it and say, “No, there’s still crime out there. You have to get your guys to do more stop and frisks.” (Sam)

In recognizing the limitations of these policing strategies, the overall stance of the officers I interviewed was that while programs like COMPSTAT undoubtedly improved police effectiveness, in combination with tactics like stop, question, and frisk, it was taken too far:

It’s not brain surgery, the Broken Windows theory or the COMPSTAT theory. It’s been enhanced too much. It’s what’s caused the stop, question, frisk (issue) … I look at that as your performance, if I start using those numbers, you start to lose the humanity of the street. Then you start to look at it as just as a bunch of figures. (Bob)

Broken Windows works. I’ve seen it work. But like everything else, you have to move with the times. We had 2,300 murders in 1994. Broken Windows is gonna work great. Fourteen hundred murders, Broken Windows is gonna work great. Two hundred and eighty murders, Broken Windows is not gonna work. (Stu)

Several officers acknowledged that, in neglecting to “move with the times”—to change course once crime had dropped—these shifts in policing practice continued to threaten already-fragile police-community relations. Unprompted, a majority of the officers interviewed referenced the case of Eric Garner, a high-profile incident involving the death of an unarmed civilian in Staten Island at the hands of an NYPD officer, as an illustrative example of the ways in which this loss of “humanity” in policing has harmed both police and the citizens they are meant to serve and protect. Garner’s death, which occurred only five months prior to the beginning of this study, occurred as a result of NYPD officers’ decision to stop, question, and subsequently restrain Garner on the suspicion that he was committing a misdemeanor offense, the sale of loose cigarettes8—an offense for which he had previously been arrested multiple times.

The officers who referenced the Garner case were highly critical of Daniel Pantaleo, the main officer involved in the case, who subdued Garner through the use of a chokehold technique that is prohibited by NYPD policy. However, the officers who cited the Garner case did so to support the assertion that proactive policing is often dictated by political pressure both within and beyond the Department, and that this can produce negative outcomes both for individual citizens and for public perceptions of the police more broadly. The following narratives are representative of what officers had to say about how the Garner case is directly linked to larger political pressures, and particularly to a profit motive:

People don’t realize how many tens of millions of dollars the state and city loses on tax revenue for cigarettes. Every friggin’ year, which means store owners are losing, which means they’re not hiring, which means there’s no tax revenue. The states aren’t getting the tax revenue. It’s not going into the budget for welfare and other work programs—and people don’t understand that. They all think it’s bullshit. Yeah, it is bullshit to the average observer, but the problem is so big that the states and the cities want this thing enforced. We were enforcing loose cigarettes back in ’92 when I was a rookie cop. This isn’t something new. We just didn’t start this ... I mean, we’re talking one truckload of cigarettes is a million bucks. One truck. They pay like a seven cents tax in North Carolina. They bring them up here, and it’s a $5 tax ... The state and the city is losing that five bucks. That’s why it gets enforced. You think the cops just said, “Hey, let’s go get the guy for loose cigarettes?” Who gives a fuck? (Stu)

What all of this really comes down to is that the police officers’ discretion has been curtailed. And a lot of people who don’t like police officers think that’s a good thing, but police officers make better decisions left to their own devices than when they’re being pressured to do something. I’m convinced that those police officers in the Garner case probably would have ignored him if they had not felt pressure from above. But I’m also sure that the same shopkeepers who were all so horrified after he died were the ones who were calling in the complaints, because either they were in their bodegas also selling loosies, and he was cutting into their income, or for the people who were put off by that, he was discouraging other business. So ... they were all horrified by the outcome, but they were probably the ones who were calling in the complaints, ‘cause certainly the people buying the cigarettes weren’t complaining ... Even stop and frisk, one could think, “I could get a gun off the street,” you know? Or, “I could pick up some heavy narcotics.” So there at least … But to a guy selling loose cigarettes who’s there every day that you’re there, I mean, you’re not gonna have guys working in plain clothes going, “Let’s go lock up guys selling loosies.” That’s coming from above. (Sarah)

These narratives reflect important themes that were consistent across interviews with officers. First, officers recognize that the low-level enforcement of “bullshit” offenses like selling loose cigarettes is neither readily understood by the public, nor is it what police officers typically consider to be worthwhile police work. The theme of discretion also reemerges here, as the officers believed that the limiting of discretion was a key precipitating factor in the Garner case. It is beyond the scope of the data gathered here to assess the veracity of this perception. However, it is notable that the officers interviewed here suggested that when discretion is curtailed, the likelihood of negative police-public interactions increases.9

Discussion: Toward a contemporary understanding of police alienation

It is well understood that community residents, particularly young men of color, often feel alienated from society due to their negative experiences with police, and that policing policies oriented toward order maintenance have especially contributed to this dynamic. What emerged in the narratives of the officers interviewed for this study is that the police officers carrying out these policies have experienced their own form of alienation. The officers interviewed for this study articulated— across the distinct eras explored here—the profit and political motives undergirding low-level enforcement, as well as the alienating effects of having to carry out these enforcement tactics. This, coupled with the reality that police officers are regularly tasked with confronting an impossible array of social issues (indeed, as Bob aptly described it, the police are “the catcher’s mitt of society”) contribute to a sense of alienation both from the larger policy mandates they are charged with carrying out, but also from the communities they police.

This is not a new concept, but rather one that I argue must be revived   in contemporary examinations of policing. Alienation among police officers was a hot research topic in previous decades (Crank, Regoli, Hewitt, & Culbertson, 1995; Niederhoffer, 1967; Poole, Regoli, & Lotz, 1978; Regoli, Poole, & Hewitt, 1979) but has since largely disappeared. The focus of these studies was largely inward, examining the effects of professionalization efforts on officers’ levels of cynicism and commitment to the work. More recently, scholarship has focused on multiple facets of officer job satisfaction (Cooper et al., 2014; White et al., 2010), and importantly, how satisfaction varies by officer race/ethnicity and gender. Findings from this research—much of it conducted with the NYPD—indicate that officer alienation is now produced through the numbers-driven ways in which officer performance is assessed. Indeed, in their analysis of a survey of NYPD officers, Cooper et al. (2014) observed the deleterious effects of “the shift from a street-cop orientation to a micromanaged and numbers emphasized management-cop culture” which has led officers to “resent this aspect of the job, the support of their superiors, and the ‘real’ motives behind what they were told to do on a daily basis” (p. 54). This alienation in turn has a profound effect on police legitimacy and community relations.

The concept of worker alienation originates with Marx (1844), who argued that workers suffer from objective alienation because they have ownership of neither the products of their labor nor the means of production. In his seminal Street-level Bureaucracy (1980), Michael Lipsky theorizes the contributing factors to the alienation of front-line public service workers. Such workers become alienated, he argues, for four reasons: they work on only one part of the product of their work; they do not control the outcome of their work; they do not control the raw materials of their work; and they do not control the pace of their work (Lipsky, 1980, pp. 76-79).

Despite this alienation, according to Lipsky, the saving grace is that street-level workers exercise wide discretion—the freedom and flexibility  to make decisions about how to do their jobs. In aggregate, these discretionary decisions constitute policy-making, and thus street-level workers wield an incredible amount of power. Yet as the narratives of the officers interviewed for this study reflect, recent changes in policing, particularly around data-driven accountability and the proactive enforcement of low-level laws that have a larger profit motive, have meant a reduction in the perceived or actual amount of discretion exercised by officers.10 If officers perceive that their discretion has been limited, alienation may be a result. Lipsky contends that, when alienated, workers are “more willing to accept organizational restructuring and less concerned with protecting clients’ interests and their own connection with clients. The more tenuous the relationship with clients, the less salient that relationship becomes, and the easier it is to transform the relationship further” (pp. 79-80). This dynamic is particularly evident throughout the narratives presented here, as officers were increasingly pushed to enforce the “low-hanging fruit” of low-level offenses. Officers noted that despite the numerous positive aspects of COMPSTAT, the pursuit of ever-lower crime statistics through the use of aggressively proactive tactics was pushed far beyond the point when such strategies yielded any benefits in terms of crime reduction—and importantly, to the detriment of police legitimacy and relationships with community members. Indeed, as Cowper (2000) observed, COMPSTAT produced, “a more combat enforcement oriented force, with a resulting increase in isolation from and hostility between police and citizens” (p. 237; see also: Eterno & Silverman, 2005).

Due to limitations in sampling, this study failed to uncover any variation in alienation by officer race/ethnicity or gender. There is some recent evidence (Cooper et al., 2014) to suggest that officers of color may feel more satisfied with their jobs than do White officers, and that Black and Latino officers feel particularly more satisfied with their ability to develop relationships with members of the communities they police. Cooper et al. (2014) speculate that this may be due to White officers possessing some “unfulfilled expectations of what the job would be” (p. 52). Future qualitative research should dig into how officer perceptions of low-level enforcement might vary by officer racial/ethnic and gender identities. 


As White (2014) notes, although the NYPD is unique in many ways, much of its history, particularly its changes enacted in response to crises such as police corruption and soaring crime rates, is relevant to police departments across the country. Now-former Commissioner Bratton recently stated that the decline in the NYPD’s low-level enforcement activity over the past five years signifies the “peace dividends” associated with New York City’s historically low crime rates (Goodman, 2015). This phrase is an extension of the war metaphor that Manning (2001) observed—and that the officers interviewed for this project reiterated—as justification for the proactive policing tactics that have contributed to the straining of police-community relations in recent decades. The implication in this metaphor is that such dividends will disappear when crime rates go back up, and there is some indication that crime rates are doing just that, both in New York City and in some cities across the country (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2016; NYPD, 2016). Yet there is ample scientific evidence suggesting that the proactive approaches favored in recent decades do far more harm than good: they do not substantially contribute to lower crime rates (Weisburd, Hinkle, Braga, & Wooditch, 2015), they impair police-community relations, and, as the data presented here suggest, they may contribute to a sense of alienation from what one of the officers interviewed for this project eloquently referred to as “the humanity of the street.” The analysis presented here should serve as a reminder of how we arrived at the present rift in police-community relations and a warning to not repeat past mistakes.

With crime potentially on the rise in some jurisdictions, now is the time to carefully examine the role we ask police officers to play in our society: the President’s Taskforce on 21st Century Policing (2015) has recently emphasized the need for law enforcement to “embrace a guardian—rather than a warrior-mindset” to build public trust and legitimacy (p. 11). Recent training efforts to build empathy and compassion among NYPD patrol officers who frequently encounter people with severe mental illnesses (Rodriguez, 2015) are promising and should be expanded and adapted for other common police-citizen encounters (see also: Birzer, 2008). Aside from the obvious potential benefits to citizens, the development of these interpersonal skills may serve to bolster officers’ sense of agency and discretion, and result in reduced alienation. Furthermore, as the narratives of the officers interviewed for this project reflect, so much of what has contributed to the current frayed state of police-community relations can be traced back to the pursuit of ever-lower crime rates, largely by placing pressure on patrol officers to engage in the proactive policing strategies of pedestrian stops. Another promising direction forward may be to integrate indicators of police-community relations into COMPSTAT measures (Willis, Mastrofski, & Kochel, 2010). Future research should continue to carefully examine how the quality rather than the quantity of police-citizen encounters can be improved and properly measured.


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Megan Welsh is an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice and Public Administration in the School of Public Affairs at San Diego State University. She is an ethnographer who seeks to understand how people experience, navigate, and at times subvert social welfare and criminal justice institu tions. Her writing has also appeared in Feminist Criminology and the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare. Correspondence may be addressed to: Megan Welsh, School of Public Affairs, San Diego State University, 5500 Campanile Drive, San Diego CA 92182, USA. Email: [email protected].


I thank the retired NYPD officers who participated in this research for sharing their experiences with me. I am grateful to Carla Barrett, Josh Chanin, Preeti Chauhan, and Jeremy Travis for their thoughtful feedback on previous drafts. This project is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Points of view or opinions contained within this document are those of the author and/or the participants and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the Misdemeanor Justice Project.

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