The false trade-off

As New York struggles to rein in its police department, Boston brags about reducing crime and police brutality at the same time.

Published April 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Even a journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step. And so it is a small, if slightly comical, sign of progress that New York police officers will now carry palm cards with pointers for behaving more politely to a populace they have grown accustomed to bullying. "Use terms such as 'sir' and 'ma'am,'" the cards advise. "Say 'hello' and 'thank you,'" and "apologize for any inconvenience."

But apologies won't do much to compensate for the "inconvenience" of Amadou Diallo, the African street vendor who was shot 41 times and killed by police Feb. 4. And forced manners aren't likely to placate the many thousands of New Yorkers who have come to see the city's police force as the enemy.

By now, New York's dilemma is familiar: Under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the city's crime rate has plunged, with homicides down 70 percent and felonies down by half since 1994. At the same time, police brutality and harassment complaints have risen alarmingly. New York registered about 5,000 complaints about its officers' conduct in 1998, up from about 3,600 in 1993. Racial tension is peaking as minorities feel especially targeted by the department's aggressive tactics -- a concern crystallized in such high-profile incidents as the Diallo shooting and the brutal beating of Haitian immigrant Abner Louima last year. To some, the lesson is that stamping out crime means stomping on civil liberties.

Less publicized, however -- as good news always is -- is a happier story to the north. In Boston, not only has crime dropped even faster than in New York, but complaints about police tactics have fallen as well -- by an astonishing 50 percent. Like New York, Boston has adopted new crime-fighting strategies in the 1990s, but there has been no backlash against its police force -- no street protests, no cries of racism, no expletives hurled at the mayor. As people try to figure out what New York did wrong, they should look first at what Boston has done right.

Where the New York police have acted like an occupying force in the city's neighborhoods, Boston's police have succeeded through partnerships. Where New York has relied on an aggressive strategy that cultivates fear and intimidation, Boston's police have worked with local clergy and community leaders to identify and target actual criminals, rather than wantonly sweeping neighborhoods. Next to New York's archetypal "NYPD Blue" approach, Boston's strategy might sound wimpy. But don't snicker. President Clinton has called on "communities around the country [to] follow the example of Boston." And New York Sen. Charles Schumer recently proclaimed: "The Boston model will work in New York, and we should move quickly to implement it here."

So what's Boston's secret? "Basically, [Boston] has done it with the community," says Northeastern University criminologist James Alan Fox, "and not to the community."

New Yorkers may think of Boston as a quaint, provincial New England capital. But a decade ago, the city was an urban nightmare, with drugs, guns and gangs terrorizing residents.

Bostons low point came in 1989, with the nationally publicized murder of Carol Stuart, a pregnant white woman who, her new husband said, had been stabbed by a young black man. Stuart's murder led to a citywide manhunt in which Boston police officers shook down dozens of black males who fit her husband's vague description. The cops proudly apprehended their man -- but then released him when Stuart's husband was revealed to be the actual killer. Minority neighborhoods seethed.

The Stuart case touched off deep soul-searching within the city. But it took another horrifying event to bring a revolutionary change to the city's police culture: At the May 1992 funeral of a 20-year-old Boston gang member, a dozen hooded kids from a rival gang rushed into Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan, firing on mourners and stabbing a teenager nine times. Days later, 300 local ministers met at the church to come up with a way to address the drug and gang epidemics in the city's minority neighborhoods. (Contrary to its shamrock image, Boston has a minority population of more than 40 percent.)

In the late 1980s, according to one Boston police superintendent, "there was a lack of trust, there was no communication" between the police and the neighborhoods. Now the traditional rivals needed one other. The police wanted to shed their reputation for racism, and the clergy wanted to stop the killing. The result was a partnership between the police department and neighborhood leaders that allowed the cops to crack down on minority offenders without being resented in minority neighborhoods.

"That is the approach of neighborhood policing," says Boston Police Commissioner Paul Evans. "It's the idea that the police cannot solve the problems themselves. They have to work with the communities to solve problems."

Evans might sound like a social worker, and if his approach hadn't paid off, he might be one now. But neighborhood policing has won converts among cops in Boston because it works.

Ironically, New York and Boston both owe their 1990s police department overhauls to the same man, William Bratton. It was Bratton who changed the Boston police force's mission by placing an emphasis on selective crime prevention over haphazard response. Bratton left Boston for New York, where he served as that city's acclaimed police chief from 1994 to 1996, before ego clashes with Giuliani forced him out.

Since replacing Bratton in Boston, Evans has become hailed as an innovator in his own right. A modest, low-key product of South Boston, a tightly knit Irish neighborhood, Evans has been less of a publicity hound than Bratton. He has been willing to cede his power, for instance, decentralizing the police force by breaking up the department's five jurisdiction zones into 10 smaller districts, and is quick to share credit for his department's successes.

Like Boston, New York also practices neighborhood (or community) policing, which gets officers out of their patrol cars and onto the streets. But Boston police have given a higher priority to building relationships with neighborhood residents than to the "zero tolerance" crime prevention strategy that prevails in New York. Better known as "broken windows" policing, the strategy is to crack down on small offenses like jaywalking or public drinking, which are often used as an excuse to "stop and frisk" thousands of people in a hunt for guns. The result is that thousands of innocents are harassed: More than 27,000 New Yorkers, largely minorities, were frisked by the NYPD's street crimes unit last year; only about 4,600 were arrested.

In Boston, the guiding principle has been integration, not intimidation. Ministers, street workers and community leaders have made an explicit compact with the police: They will identify lawbreakers in their neighborhoods and accept decisive police action against those criminals. In return, however, the police refrain from the kind of sweeping and indiscriminate stop-and-frisk tactics that bred such anger during the 1989 Stuart manhunt.

David Kennedy, a senior researcher at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who has been intimately involved with Boston's policing efforts, describes the police philosophy this way: "In Boston the logic is, 'We know where the action is and we're going to carefully act in ways that can be very meaningful indeed to those people and places. But if you're in that neighborhood and you're not involved, we're gonna walk right by you.'"

Commissioner Evans cites curfews as an example of this strategy. Although youth curfews are in vogue in troubled cities like Baltimore and New Orleans, Evans says they clash with his department's philosophy. "Instead of those types of enforcement tactics that go across the board and target everyone, we do focused intervention," Evans says. "We put area restrictions and time curfews on young people who earn them instead of every young person in the city."

Evans has also focused on nontraditional crime-prevention tactics. He recalls a 1994 meeting with officers in his department's gang unit at a moment of rising violence in Boston's low-income Roxbury neighborhood. "I asked them what we could do," Evans says. "And I expected them to say, 'More cops, tougher judges and more jail space.' But what they said to a person was, 'We need jobs and alternatives for these people. We need to provide them with hope.'" The result has been a network of programs for youths and young adults, from business-sponsored summer jobs to "midnight basketball" to whitewater rafting trips.

Evans is particularly proud of his department's new practice of using federal block-grant money -- dollars traditionally used for salaries and overtime -- to award its own grants to local community groups who submit specific plans for assisting in crime-prevention. (This year the department will give out $1 million to 20 local groups.)

Leroy Stoddard, director of community services for Urban Edge, a Roxbury community development corporation that has received grant money, says the work can be as simple as shooing unwanted loiterers off building stoops and moving illegally parked cars -- tasks that are "below the threshold of police attention." As someone who works on the city streets every day, Stoddard can attest to the larger success of Boston's cooperative approach. "It's important to educate people and ready them for police enforcement," he says. "It's better for residents to be aware that the police are coming rather than be surprised by a crackdown."

What does this all amount to? Not just a plunging crime rate -- homicides are down from 152 in 1990 to 34 last year, and all violent crimes and robberies are down more than 80 percent since 1990 -- but also a steady drop in complaints about officer misconduct, by more than 50 percent since 1990.

Arguably, New York was asking for its recent troubles. Police Commissioner Howard Safir has been less enthusiastic about community policing than his predecessor, Bratton. Safir has cut back the number of officers on neighborhood beats, a move criticized by Bratton.

Harvard's Kennedy cautions against oversimplifying the NYPD's tactics, however, saying the department boasts an array of innovative policing efforts. "The actual behavior of NYPD doesn't match the cartoon version that got put on the street," Kennedy says. But he acknowledges that the department's prevailing attitude has been to clamp down on the streets "until the streets simply cry uncle." It should also be noted that while overall police brutality complaints are way up, killings by police are down 50 percent under Giuliani, high-profile tragedies like the Diallo shooting notwithstanding.

But there is no doubt that under Giuliani, New York police have resisted cooperative efforts with the community. Shortly after the Diallo shooting, according to New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, some 100 clergy members met with the Bronx borough president to discuss response strategies. A Bronx official told Herbert, "The one thing everybody at the meeting said was: 'We could be a resource. But they're not using us. The police don't even know us. They don't come and talk to us.'"

Boston's not perfect either, of course. In February, for instance, the city paid $900,000 to settle the case of a black plainclothes police officer who was beaten by colleagues who thought he was a criminal. Some critics say that when complaints are registered, the department doesn't deal decisively with its problem officers. And finally, it's not clear whether acts of harassment and brutality have actually decreased, or whether a more trusting community is less likely to report them.

Still, there's a consensus that life on Boston's streets -- and the relationship between Boston's police officers and its neighborhood residents -- is as good as anyone can remember.

"Ten years ago you wouldn't see young kids -- 5, 6, 7 years old -- out playing, riding bikes, in the parks. The parents wouldn't let them out of the house. There was a lot of fear," says Lt. Gary French, who runs the Boston police's anti-gang unit. "Now we have a very good relationship with a lot of the inner-city neighborhoods. The community leaders know they can call us if there's a problem." Instead of alienating whole neighborhoods, he says, "we're ticking off the right people."

Community leaders mostly agree. "I can remember how, in the late '80s and early '90s, it was an us-against-them mentality between the community against the police," says Tracy Litthcut, a Boston community worker who has been a key liaison between the police department and the neighborhoods. "The police had no credibility. It was 'stop-and-frisk,' and that didn't go over well."

Litthcut says "there's no doubt" that its better police behavior, and not just a happier relationship with the neighborhoods, that explains the city's drop in harassment and brutality complaints. "Those complaints sometimes come through youth workers" -- like himself -- "because people might not feel comfortable passing them on through law enforcement." But Litthcut says the mood on the street is good. "People in the community are very pleased with the work law enforcement is doing. Not only are the police doing the enforcement piece, but there's also a social work component."

Just as it took a pair of watershed tragedies to awaken Boston's police and community leaders to the need to cooperate, perhaps some good can come of the Diallo shooting and the Louima beating. If only to soften his image for a Senate showdown with Hillary Rodham Clinton, perhaps Giuliani will heed the exhortations and try harder to adopt Boston's cooperative model. "That's basically the choice we've got at this moment in policing," says Kennedy. "There's one big banner out there that says, 'zero tolerance,' and there's another that says, 'exercise judgment.' The challenge is clearly to figure out how to exercise judgment well."

By Michael Crowley

Michael Crowley is a staff writer at the Boston Phoenix.

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