Summary of proceedings at inaugural Herb Kurz Chair panel on aggressive street policing tactics, 4/18/2013

On April 18, 2013, the inaugural Herbert Kurz Chair panel took place at Brooklyn College.  The subject was one that is central to the civil liberties and rights of New Yorkers, the controversial aggressive street policing tactics of the NYPD that began in the Giuliani administration and continued, if not escalated in the Bloomberg administration.  The panel was attended by 70 people, including 7 faculty members of various departments, and the Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. (I extended invitations to both NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg's office and after multiple follow ups, these offices either declined or did not respond.)

The panelists represented various perspectives on the subject (from sociology, criminology, and the media) which provided a broad overview of police policy in New York and nationally.  The Q&A was a lively debate about the benefits and costs of NYPD's aggressive police tactics and whether in the end, these policies actually make New Yorkers safer.  That final question was not answered definitively, but most left the panel much more cognizant about the effects, motivations, and a greater appreciation for the complexity of police policy.

First the 4 panelists each presented for about 15 minutes.

Professor John DeCarlo, a criminologist from New Haven University, kicked off the event.  Drawing on his experience as a former Police Chief of Branford, CT, where he instituted polices of community policing, DeCarlo spoke about the need for the police to have legitimacy.  Since the police cannot be everywhere at all times, he said that they must rely on the community to be their eyes and ears.  He noted that if the police are perceived to be racially biased, it erodes the trust between them and the communities that they are charged with protecting and the very same communities who help solve crimes.  He spoke about the need of the police to understand the social norms of the community and how at Branford, he handled a spate of shootings carried out by young men.  Instead of stopping and frisking them as the NYPD has done, he brought the young men in to the police station, with their mothers and ministers, to talk to them about why they were shooting at each other.  He underscored that people will not obey laws or talk to police officers if they perceive that the polices are not carried out in a just and equitable manner.

Michael Powell, a journalist at the New York Times, spoke next. Powell spoke about police tactics from the vantage point of reporters and the media.  He began by stating that because the NYPD does not provide much access to the press, he must rely on academic studies to understand what the police are doing for his reporting.  He added that as a non-academic reading academic studies, he often has to take a skeptical view of academic studies that purport to be non-biased because frequently, especially on a controversial subject like police tactics, he finds conflicting studies produced by well-respected academics.  He then has to "toggle back and forth" between the studies and "interrogate" those studies, and in the end, make a judgement call about what to do with conflicting data.  He gave one example of what reporters can do in such a situation.  He went to York College, found 20 black men, all fully matriculated full time college students, and asked about their experiences with the NYPD.  He reasoned that if the NYPD policy was not just simple racial profiling, that these upstanding citizens would not have been targeted.  Instead, virtually all of his interviews had been stopped and frisked multiple times, sometimes violently.


Alex Vitale, a Sociologist from Brooklyn College spoke next.  He began by saying the NYPD has occasionally requested his articles, but when he tried to reach out to them and follow up, NYPD declined all his offers.  Vitale noted the NYPD non-responsiveness is a stark contrast from his experience with police departments in other countries who provided a lot more access to researchers and the press. Vitale argued that the NYPD aggressive tactics have not really reduced drug use or homelessness, but simply driven those activities underground or displaced them to other, less publicly visible areas. He stated that the NYPD's policy has been to target non-normative behavior.  As a result, felony arrests were down, but misdemeanor arrests have skyrocketted.  Vitale questioned whether the decline in arrests of felons and the increase in misdemeanor arrests was actually making the city safer.  He concluded that the NYPD's tactics have been unnecessarily harsh and have left a reservoir of bad feelings among many communities that the NYPD is supposed to protect and serve.

Frank Zimring, a criminologist from UC Berkeley spoke last.  He noted that even though there was a worldwide and national drop in crime in the last 20 years, the crime drop in NYC in multiple categories of crime, was sharper than the rest of the country and the world, and it lasted longer than in other places.  He acknowledged that while the crime drop cannot be solely attributed to police policy, "an awful lot" of it can be attributed to three police policy changes.  First, NYPD put more cops on the streets.  Second, NYPD used qualitatively different tactics from before 1990 (use of computer mapping of crime, increased policing in "hot spots", destruction of public drug markets that led to a decrease in drug related homicides).  And third, the NYPD became a lot more aggressive in its tactics compared to before 1990.  Zimring asserted that these tactics have worked in reducing all kinds of crime.  He conceded that the "value added" of the aggressive and sometimes violent nature of the policing is in question.

The one thing all the panelists could agree upon is that the crime drop in NYC is a complex phenomenon of which the NYPD of course is part of the explanation, but that reducing the crime decline to just police tactics is foolish.  All the panelists called for more attention and research on the other variables that have contributed to the crime reduction including changes in social norms, and cultural, demographic, and economic shifts in our region.

Because I was moderating the Q&A, I did not take detailed notes except to recall there was a question about whether it would be beneficial for NYPD to have an internal watchdog (Yes, but of limited use since the police would be policing themselves.) , whether the skyrocketing misdemeanor arrests have led to a self-fulfilling prophecy of more violent offenses later (No, stats show misdemeanor arrests do not lead to those persons to later commit more violent crimes.).  There were other great questions that I lost track of.  The session ended with a spirited back and forth between Powell and Zimring over the question of the constitutionality of these tactics.  Powell noted that it is beside the point whether the tactics are efficacious of they are unconstitutional.

Here are some reactions to the panel by my colleague Samir Chopra of Philosophy who posted his thoughts on the event here. I hope to have an audio clip up soon.

I wish to thank the many cosponsoring units at my college for helping with audience turnout:  Women and Gender Studies, Africana Studies, Puerto Rican and Latino Studies, History, Sociology, English, Political Science, and the Wolfe Institute.  The following student clubs were also cosponsors:  the Political Science, LGBTA, and Students for Justice in Palestine clubs.  I also wish to thank my undergraduate research assistant Daniel Margolis who helped me with a lot of the logistics of the event.

In the future, the Kurz Chair will create similar programing around issues having to do with civil liberties and civil rights.