As New York police commissioner in the 1990s, William J. Bratton — one of the authors of this column — revolutionized policing with CompStat, a system that helped track and map crime in the city. Less understood is his second such revolution: precision policing, which he brought to the NYPD upon returning as commissioner from 2014 to 2016.
Precision policing has two broad themes. The first, focused crime-and-disorder enforcement, hinges on a revitalized version of the CompStat system. Bratton rejected the prevailing belief that, with regard to enforcement activity, “more is better.” The NYPD reduced the number of stops by more than an order of magnitude and reduced arrests and summonses as well, while still reducing crime.
Bratton and his team reinvigorated CompStat, applying intensive analysis to individual cases and crime patterns alike. Every Thursday, staff from several precincts make their way to headquarters at One Police Plaza to explain how they handle conditions in their commands. By bringing top executives into regular contact with precinct commanders, detective squad supervisors and other unit heads, the NYPD marries its strategy to its tactics. Data mining and case analysis ensure that evidence gets collected, that available technologies get deployed, that new ideas are generated and that everyone works together.
The second broad theme of precision policing: Whereas focused crime-and-disorder enforcement targets the few who make communities unsafe, neighborhood policing works with the large number of residents who make communities strong. Commissioner James O’Neill has called neighborhood policing the “greatest change to NYPD patrol in more than 50 years, and the largest systematic outreach to New York’s communities in department history.”
It borrows significantly from two sources: the Boston Fenway Neighborhood Policing initiative, established by Bratton during the 1970s and guided by consultant Robert Wasserman; and the long-established Senior Lead Officer, or SLO, program used by the Los Angeles Police Department, which Bratton led from 2002 to 2009.
The New York version centered on the Neighborhood Coordination Officer, or NCO, who leveraged and built on the fact that in the neighborhoods, people like their cops. The NCO is a crime-fighting caretaker who isn’t tied to radio response but can instead invest in local partnerships and problem-solving. Neighborhood policing and focused crime-and-disorder enforcement form the operational backbone of precision policing.
The broad heading of precision policing can also be used to encompass myriad other initiatives that Bratton launched. Among them was an organizational reengineering effort, which Murad helped design and supervise. The process used polling, focus groups and team-based assessments to perform a kind of CAT scan of the department to determine what worked and what didn’t. It involved department officers and civilians of all ranks, who made countless recommendations, such as redesigning field training, working with social-services partners to reach at-risk youth and improving disciplinary procedures.
Improved transparency and tracking was another goal. Recent policing controversies revealed the inadequacy of the FBI’s national use-of-force data. Tracking and investigating every firearms discharge, as well as training or disciplining based on the data, are vital to reducing violent incidents. At the NYPD, Murad helped create the nation’s most comprehensive public accounting of firearms discharges. At the LAPD, Bratton had instituted a cutting-edge force-investigation unit. In 2015, he inaugurated a similar division in the NYPD, and, the following year, we announced an expanded public accounting of all uses of force.
Precision policing is working to keep crime and disorder under control. Indeed, New York is safer than ever. Across the country, major crime — murder, rape, robbery, felony assault, burglary, grand larceny and grand larceny auto — is down 38.4 percent since 1991.
But from 2014 to 2016, violent crime spiked by 8 percent. The jump was driven mostly by large increases in several major cities. Chicago, for example, experienced a 58 percent rise in homicides in 2016. New York has defied the trend: Violent crime dropped 13.2 percent in the city over the last five years. We believe that the department’s reforms helped make that possible.
The challenges facing American policing present an enormous opportunity. The profession has done untold good, and its men and women are rightly proud. It must build on what it has done well and learn from its mistakes. And its leaders must ask, about everything, “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?”
William J. Bratton is a former police commissioner for New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Jon Murad is a former NYPD assistant commissioner. This essay was adapted from City Journal.