The Closing of the NYPD’s Mind

Today, Brooklyn College hosted a panel titled ‘Are We Safer? Costs, Benefits, and Alternatives to 20 Years of Aggressive Street Policing” (organized by the Herbert Kurz Chair in Constitutional Law and Civil Liberties, Professor Anna Law.) The panel’s discussants were: John DeCarlo, Michael Powell (New York Times), Alex S. Vitale, and Franklin E. Zimring.  The range of topics covered in this discussion between three academics (DeCarlo has served in the police in the past) and one journalist were wide-ranging: the significance of statistics pertaining to police-citizenry contact (racial divisions, nature of contact, outcomes of contacts etc); the gap between academic and press coverage of police and criminology issues; the insularity of the New York City Police department; the tactics and strategies of New York City policing; their effectiveness in reducing crime in New York City; hidden causal factors in crime reduction; the constitutionality of the NYPD’s tactics; and so on.

I will not try and recapitulate the entire discussion as I did not take detailed notes. Here, however, is what stood out for me the most.

Both Powell and Vitale reported on a culture of seclusion that exists within the New York City Police department: it does not reach out to make, or invite, contact with journalists or academics who might be reporting on, and studying, it. There is no attempt by the department to offer insight or perspective into its decisions, to clarify and elucidate its  responses to past events, to engage in debate with scholarly or informal analysis about their operations and methodologies. It is, in sum, a closed and opaque system: it does not seek transparency in any way. Perhaps its members might complain of being misunderstood as a result of the lack of any meaningful full duplex communication, but this is a situation that  the department seems to have willfully created. Vitale reported that while he occasionally receives requests for copies of his writings on the NYPD, he has never been able to enter into a dialog with police officers; this is in sharp contrast to his interactions with other police departments elsewhere–both in the US and overseas–who have organized conferences and meetings with their officers for him, and thus sparked off an ongoing conversation, one hopefully educational for both parties. (On a side note: Professor Law invited the NYPD to participate in today’s panel and they either declined or did not return her email.)

The culture of seclusion at the NYPD is alarming in several dimensions. For one thing, it contributes to groupthink within the department; it remains embroiled in an echo-chamber of its making, content to suspiciously peruse the offerings of those who would dare write on it, but never bothering to engage in argument with them, either to change their minds or to entertain the possibility of having theirs changed. Engagement with commentary on the NYPD should not be viewed by it as an optional, supererogatory public relations exercise; rather, it should be understood as an essential part of its communications with the ‘community’ it polices. This is what one segment of the community thinks and understands about it, this is what it reports to its remaining members; it behooves the NYPD to be part of this conversation. Both parties would be enriched by the other’s perspective.

The NYPD and the communities it polices, are hurt by its barricading itself in its precincts and the subsequent closing of its mind.

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