“This Is a Fundamentally Different Way of Policing”

Can Susan Herman repair the broken relationship between the New York Police Department and the city’s most disadvantaged residents?

A man escorts a girl to school as New York Police Department officers search the site of a shooting in the Bronx, Jan. 6, 2015.

Photo by Adrees Latif/Reuters

This is the fourth installment in a series on victims of crime. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

When New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio named Bill Bratton as his police commissioner, in December 2013, critics picked up where they’d left off when Bratton last ran the NYPD, in the 1990s. In the interim, Bratton had presided over a successful makeover of the Los Angeles Police Department, burnishing his image as an innovator in policing. But Bratton’s New York foes saw his second coming as a betrayal of de Blasio’s campaign promises of police reform, and argued that the selection of the champion of broken windows policing doomed the city to more heavy-handed police tactics. As Lumumba Bandele, a community organizer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, put it, “For most of the people who are doing and have been doing police brutality work here for some time, and for people who have working, functioning memory, Bratton was not welcomed.”

Six weeks after his appointment, Bratton revealed how he intended to prove his critics wrong. His gambit: a new approach to community policing that attempts to repair the breach between police and citizens in the city’s most crime-threatened neighborhoods by focusing on racial tensions. Solving police departments’ race problems, Bratton has declared, is “the issue of our times,” especially among citizens feeling “overpoliced and underprotected”—those citizens, in other words, at greatest risk of both imprisonment and victimization.

Susan Herman.
Susan Herman.

Photo by Michael Krinke

To execute what he clearly, if grandiosely, sees as his legacy in waiting, Bratton created an executive-level post, deputy commissioner for collaborative policing, and picked as its first occupant Susan Herman, a longtime advocate for crime victims with a progressive approach to policing. Bratton set an idealistic agenda for Herman to redefine both policing and the way the department treats crime victims.

Depending on your point of view, it’s either the least auspicious or most pressing moment to have undertaken this mission. Perhaps it’s both. Herman’s first day was in January 2014, just six months before the death of Eric Garner on Staten Island and seven months before the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, both at the hands of police officers. Those two events, in turn, appear to have motivated a gunman to kill two NYPD officers in December, further fraying an already tattered relationship between the city’s police force and its citizens.

Whether Herman can ultimately deliver on Bratton’s mission to replace brute crime suppression with racially sensitive crime prevention could well determine if there’s any realistic way out of the policing crisis in which the entire nation is now stuck.

* * *

The top floor of 1 Police Plaza in lower Manhattan buzzes with activity as NYPD brass in dress-blue uniforms dart between offices and huddle in hallways waiting for appointments. It’s Dec. 15, just 12 days after a Staten Island grand jury voted against indicting any officers in the chokehold death of Eric Garner, and the chorus of discontent has grown loud enough to reach the police commissioner’s suite. Through a window cracked open in Herman’s office come the jarring sounds of drums, chants, and a bullhorn from the plaza 14 stories below. I tease her about the sounds wafting up from the plaza—how’s that for community relations?—but Herman won’t bite. She normally speaks in full paragraphs, with an NPR-ready purr that can turn any question or challenge into a lucid restatement of her talking points. But, on this topic at this delicate moment in the department’s history, she offers only a clipped “Yup.”

By the end of the week, whatever political points the de Blasio administration had scored among the rank-and-file with his Bratton appointment disappeared, as officers turned their backs on the mayor at the funerals of the two slain patrol officers, further complicating the already formidable task before Herman. Yet the gears of change were already turning by the time she arrived. In 2013, the city council passed legislation to increase oversight and accountability for the NYPD. Also in 2013, a federal judge ruled that the department’s stop-and-frisk tactics were unconstitutional. Stop-and-frisk cases were down 75 percent in 2014 from the previous year, and just 7 percent of the levels seen at the tactic’s peak in 2011.

The reforms have continued on Herman’s watch. With input from her office, the NYPD has improved its approach to training. Gone is the practice of thrusting rookie cops into the toughest neighborhoods without veteran supervision. Meanwhile, the rest of the force has been put through a retraining program to teach officers how to avoid unnecessary confrontations and show greater respect for civilians. The department also budgeted for 1,300 cops for a new neighborhood policing initiative that emphasizes constructive, ongoing relationships with citizens, rather than simply responding to 911 calls.

Herman herself has focused on instituting policies that attempt to reduce the number of New Yorkers—especially minority New Yorkers—who get caught up in the criminal justice system. A policy to issue citations instead of making arrests for possession of minor amounts of marijuana has cut sharply into arrest numbers since it took effect last November. The racial impact of the policy, developed in discussions Herman’s office coordinated among police, district attorneys, and the mayor’s office, is likely to be huge: Blacks were up to 10 times likelier than whites to be arrested under the old policy.

Eric Garner protest
Protesters in Staten Island on July 17, 2015, the one-year anniversary of the death of Eric Garner.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Herman has also championed a court-diversion program called Project Reset, which she refers to as an “off ramp” from the traditional justice system. The project came to the NYPD at the suggestion of an innovative Brooklyn criminal court judge and longtime NYPD officer George Grasso. After months of discussions, the NYPD and the DAs in Manhattan and Brooklyn are now experimenting with alternative ways of handling nonviolent misdemeanor cases against 16- and 17-year-olds, who under New York State law are automatically charged as adults. Instead of gambling that a criminal court will give such offenders a chance to enter a treatment program—not at all a given—these teens, cited for such offenses as smoking marijuana, shoplifting, and spraying graffiti, will enroll in counseling programs at community justice centers run by the nonprofit Center for Court Innovation. Once they successfully complete a program in, say, conflict resolution or decision-making, the charge is dropped and the record sealed. “So they never have to go to court at all,” Herman says. As she sees it, both the city and defendants benefit: fewer law enforcement and court resources get consumed, and youth receive counseling aimed at preventing future arrests.

Herman has worked toward crime prevention as well. Last December, she introduced Operation Ceasefire, the violence-intervention program used for the past two decades in dozens of cities nationwide but never embraced by New York. David Kennedy, the John Jay College criminologist who designed it, never succeeded in getting NYPD’s endorsement. “It always in some fashion or other foundered and never happened,” Kennedy says. It found a receptive audience in Bratton, a longtime supporter of Kennedy’s work, and Herman, whose approach to police-community relations dovetails with Ceasefire’s. (It surely didn’t hurt that Jeremy Travis, Herman’s husband of 27 years, is president of John Jay.)

The idea behind Ceasefire sounds deceptively simple. A multiagency team of local and federal law enforcement identifies the gang members and drug crews responsible for a large share of an area’s gun violence. It summons them for a sit-down, where cops and prosecutors tell them to stop killing each other and warn of a swift and firm response if they don’t. Then law enforcement officials turn the program over to community groups and social services providers to offer the young men a way out of their violent, dangerous lifestyle. In place of blanket enforcement, it’s a surgical strike on the greatest threats, and one that offers a carrot along with a stick.

From the “Boston Miracle” of the 1990s through Ceasefire’s many iterations since, the program has a track record for immediately and dramatically lowering gun violence without resorting to heavy-handed police tactics. It’s no panacea—a number of cities have experienced marked spikes in violence while using Ceasefire tactics—but Kennedy blames those negative results on a lack of persistence or use of improvised tactics that strayed too far from the model.

When the program works, Kennedy says, it’s because the conventional wisdom—in his words, “these are terrible people doing terrible things in terribly dangerous places”—is wrong on all counts. Perpetrators of violence are neither sociopaths nor monsters, but act out of fear and self-preservation. “Most of those people don’t like what’s going on,” Kennedy says. “They are driven by objective risk. They are at astronomical likelihood of being killed or hurt themselves. They do things that they think will protect them.”

Most perpetrators in these neighborhoods are what Kennedy refers to as “complicated victims” who have been harmed by violence and trauma and need help to break the cycles of retaliation. The law-abiding majority in these neighborhoods need help, too, which Ceasefire seeks to deliver by establishing a relationship between police and policed that is based on trust and shared concerns rather than antagonism.

Residents of East New York, which has been plagued by gun violence in recent years, attend a town hall meeting organized by the city Department of Probation and the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice on June 3, 2015.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Kennedy says that the vast majority of police want to protect and serve the communities they work in. But they often default to aggression because of the trauma they experience on the beat, where they reap the ill will that their heavy-handed tactics have sown. “Focused deterrence” programs like Ceasefire take aim at breaking the cycle of recrimination and distrust between communities and cops.

“This is a fundamentally different way of policing,” Herman says. “Instead of unfocused, massive enforcement efforts, you have a focused effort that attacks the real problem.” By treating entire populations as the problem, she says, “you alienate all of the people who you’re interacting with unnecessarily.”

* * *

Herman’s embrace of Ceasefire is of a piece with her belief that repairing the NYPD’s relationships with the city will require winning back communities. That means not just dialing back heavy-handed police tactics, but using NYPD resources to help rebuild broken neighborhoods. Herman doesn’t see police work as limited to arresting criminals. She also wants to aid victims of crime, who the department has traditionally ignored unless they happened to have evidence that could help detectives close a case. Victims were at the heart of Herman’s long career in the nonprofit world, where she developed services for domestic-violence victims and otherwise advocated for victim’s rights, eventually as executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, a position she held for nearly eight years.

In 2005, she joined Pace University’s criminal justice faculty, where she turned her experience into a program she called parallel justice. She challenged police departments and social services agencies to make radical changes in how they help victims, urging a commitment equivalent in scope to the criminal justice system’s efforts to prosecute and punish the perpetrators of crime. Her 2010 book Parallel Justice for Victims of Crime argued that despite substantial gains made by the victims’ rights movement since the 1960s, treatment of crime victims remains a “national disgrace.”

Current programs fail in a variety of ways, according to Herman. The majority of aid is earmarked for adult victims of violent crime, which shortchanges young victims and victims of property crimes and other non-violent offenses. And most policies make eligibility for victim services dependent on victims’ usefulness as prosecution witnesses. That approach effectively excludes most victims from accessing the available aid. Victims who balk at informing on others, those with a criminal record, or those who police blame for bringing trouble on themselves usually get excluded from the outset. When police take initial crime reports, if they treat a victim’s reports as untrue or trivial, or if they believe a victim is a suspect, they are rendering that victim unlikely to receive any help from the system. This, in turn, breeds distrust, especially in the neighborhoods hardest hit by crime and in greatest need of good policing, a major reason why many crimes go unreported.

The numbers of victims falling into this gap are staggering. The latest study of crime victims by the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics found that fewer than half of victims of violence nationwide reported their crimes to police, and that just 12 percent of victims of violence ended up getting any help from a victim service agency.

“We’ve become a society that’s become much too focused on victims who have become the deserving victims,” Herman says. “I want to decouple ‘innocent victims of violent crime.’ Take out the ‘innocent’ and take out ‘violent’ and just say ‘victims of crime,’ and try and do as much as we can.”

Herman put her parallel justice program on hold to take the NYPD job last year. But its ideas lie at the heart of the victim programs she has started at NYPD. In what she touts as the largest and most comprehensive early-intervention victim services in the country, NYPD will place two victim advocates in each of nearly all of the city’s 86 NYPD and housing police precincts. Phased in over three years, the program at its peak will cost $14 million annually. This marks a vast expansion in what the city now provides in on-the-spot counseling for victims immediately after a crime occurs and represents “much better response to victims in the very early moments after a crime,” Herman says. “It’s going to really change how people experience the police and how helpful we can be to people.”

One of the great successes of the original victims’ rights movement in the 1970s was promoting laws to compensate victims for out-of-pocket costs they incur, such as medical and funeral bills. In New York and elsewhere, local victim advocates help victims and their families apply for reimbursements from the state, which funds the program from federal grants and fees charged to offenders.

After starting in her new post, Herman heard from victim advocates about months-long delays in processing victim compensation applications. She traced the problems to a kludgy paperwork process that wove its way through several agencies, with one NYPD bottleneck in particular to blame. Bringing all the bureaucratic players together to agree on a set of fixes—streamlining the forms and transmitting them electronically—means that victims now get reimbursed much more quickly. Her office took a similar approach to attack a backlog of applications for the visas granted to certain immigrant crime victims.

On other fronts, Herman’s office has worked out new rules for how police interact with victims and witnesses, often in response to complaints of oversights and slights that compound victims’ trauma or discourage them from seeking help from the police. Families of homicide victims are now given a private place to grieve when collecting loved ones’ belonging, and a pilot project is testing new rules for police designed to minimize the trauma children experience when their parents get arrested. Under the proposed protocol, police will avoid handcuffing parents in front of their children when possible. And in instances where the primary caregiver is being placed under arrest, police will arrange for child care, rather than dragging children to the police station, which has been the de facto policy in the past.

Victims advocate Susan Xenarios, who helped point out some of these issues to Herman in a series of meetings, says some of the particulars might strike outsiders as trivial. Speaking of a new protocol to give relatives of homicide survivors a designated contact among the detectives working their cases for better communication, Xenarios says, “You look at something like that and you say, ‘Oh, that’s not a big deal.’ But it really is.”

Solving those sorts of problems for victims is very much related to solving the bigger policing problems the NYPD faces, Herman contends. Police are usually a victim’s first, and sometimes only, contact with the criminal justice system. The approach patrol officers take when investigating crimes and putting victims in touch with needed services, Herman argues, will determine not only justice in the immediate case, but also longer-lasting trust in the police and faith in the system’s fairness. It also has practical, crime-solving effects. “If you respond appropriately and effectively to a victim,” she says, “not only are they more likely to stay and participate in a case, they’re more likely to give you information about future cases and report again next time. Because if you don’t, why would they?”

* * *

Bratton Deblasio
New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton (left) and New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio announce the city will not appeal a judge’s ruling that the police tactic stop-and-frisk is unconstitutional on Jan. 30, 2014.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

How would we know if the Bratton-Herman plan is working? One program, Ceasefire, lends itself to quantifying results. And there, the early returns look promising. Ceasefire’s trial run in 12 Brooklyn precincts since late 2014 has coincided with significant citywide increases in gun violence so far this year. While homicides in the test precincts for the first seven months of 2015 kept pace with the rest of the city, the numbers of shootings and shooting victims dropped by about 20 percent, far better than anywhere else in the city (where shootings and shooting victim numbers are up, not down). And the people called in by police are taking advantage of the services offered by Ceasefire, such as job training and substance abuse counseling. “We’re seeing what appears to be a change in behavior on the ground,” Herman says. Whether that change, after three sit-downs and three crackdowns in response to truce violations, continues to yield measureable drops in violence will help determine if the experiment will be rolled out to more neighborhoods in New York.

A verdict on the rest of the reform agenda depends on squishier measurements. The department introduced extensive public opinion polling to collect and slice data on police-community relations in new ways. “The surveys we’ve done have never been done before,” Herman says. These are not just snapshots of overall satisfaction levels with the police, she says, but a deeper look at police legitimacy and procedural justice. Herman wants to know whether citizens fundamentally trust the system to be fair. “Whether you’re a victim or not a victim, what kind of contact you had with the police, whether you would report again, how you feel about us in this situation or that situation—it’s a level of detail that we’ve never had,” she said.

West Side Highway December 3, 2014
Police watch protesters stand together on the West Side Highway on Dec. 3, 2014 after a grand jury decided to not indict officer Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner case.

Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images

Herman is quick to point out that her office’s success will be judged more by the volume and quality of the programs it introduces than by polls. But public opinion still matters greatly, and she sees the first round of surveying as laying a baseline against which future results can be compared. Not surprisingly, the initial survey last year found that negative opinions of the police grew in proportion with the number of times someone was stopped by law enforcement. It also found a wide gap between whites and other races when respondents were asked how well police explained why they were stopped, clear evidence of the racial animosity bred by stop-and-frisk. The survey further revealed that the residents who most live in fear of crime also had the poorest impression of the police.

Despite Herman’s efforts to reduce the number of interactions New Yorkers have with police, the department is still strictly enforcing quality-of-life offenses. Bratton made his name championing the broken-windows approach to policing, in which police target minor signs of disorder to head off more serious crime, and his continued support for this method has earned him the enmity of criminal-justice reformers.

“It’s a blatantly racist practice,” says Robert Gangi, a veteran corrections reform advocate who now heads the Police Reform Organizing Project. “It targets low income people of color from engaging in low level infractions, sometimes falsely. Cops makes bogus arrests and give out phony tickets because they’re under pressure from the quota system to hit their numbers.”

Alyssa Aguilera of VOCAL-NY, a member of the activist coalition Communities United for Police Reform, says that the broken windows philosophy gives police cover to continue to use stop-and-frisk tactics under a different name. Talk to people in the targeted neighborhoods or the people appearing in court, she says, and they report that “the police are still harassing them, they’re still stopping them, they’re still going into their pockets and searching them illegally.”

Herman, who generally avoids the spotlight, made a rare high-profile appearance as the city’s lead witness at the start of a March 3 City Council committee hearing on community policing. She smoothly fielded council members’ questions about her office’s work and showed a confidence and polish that left her mildly antagonist inquisitors flummoxed at times. Her message: Look at all we’re doing to mend relations. And look at the falling numbers of arrests.

The balance of the lengthy hearing, however, was devoted to a sustained attack on the NYPD by witnesses whose fundamental opposition to broken-windows tactics left no room for compromise. Broken windows, speaker after speaker proclaimed, must go before any progress is possible.

In an interview later that day, Herman’s tone bordered on frustration when I pointed out that critics believe her office’s mission and Bratton’s devotion to broken windows cannot coexist. “If you look at the numbers, though, if you look at marijuana arrests, the three months prior to our new policy and the three months post policy, have gone down 69 percent,” she says. “That’s a huge decrease. If you look at the number of ways we are trying to divert people out of the criminal justice process, I think you see that we’re talking about broken windows in a very different way.” Her goal, she says, is to train officers to solve problems without necessarily confronting and arresting—but that kind of cultural change needs time to take root.

To many NYPD critics—even the ones who appreciate what Herman is trying to do—the critical difference between true reform and merely tweaking the existing system pivots on questions of race.

Gabrielle Sayegh, New York policy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, questions when concrete action will match the NYPD’s talking points on making peace with the city’s most marginalized citizens. While the Bratton team has made positive steps, such as the marijuana-arrest policy, and while Herman in particular seems attuned to reformers’ frustrations, the only measure that really matters, Sayegh says, is whether arrest and imprisonment numbers overall remain so racially skewed. Says Sayegh, “I think they’re not going to end up dealing with the heart of the problem in the absence of a really robust plan to talk about race, to talk about the outcomes that are emerging, to identify instances of racial bias that go on within the system.”

* * *

One way to gauge Bratton’s seriousness about changing police culture and making peace with citizens in a racially divided city is to revisit what he accomplished at the Los Angeles Police Department. His experience there also hints at what Herman might accomplish in her role under Bratton.

Even Bratton’s enemies concede a major transformation took place at LAPD, although not everyone buys that it was all Bratton’s doing. A 2013 report for pro-reform research group Justice Strategies by Judith A. Greene and Patricia Allard conceded improvement under Bratton after “decades of racially biased, brutal, militarized policing brought international disgrace to the Los Angeles Police Department.” But the authors also described the department’s use-of-force practices as being designed more to evade detection than with an eye toward real reform. “Business as usual, wrapped in a bow,” they concluded.

Bratton LA
Bill Bratton in 2002, during his stint as LAPD chief of police.

Photo by Anacleto Rapping/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Connie Rice rejects that critique. Soon after Bratton’s appointment in New York by de Blasio, the L.A. civil rights lawyer wrote an op-ed column for the New York Times in which she described her transition from critic to reform-minded insider at Bratton’s LAPD. The chief made a “disastrous” department much better by, among other things, connecting with the black community in a deep and real way, she wrote.

Rice says her intended audience in that essay was her fellow reformers. “I just thought it was important that the advocacy community hear from a fellow advocate that, ‘Look, I know what he is, I know about broken windows, I know all that stuff. But let’s keep our eye on the real prize here, which is how do you get cops to change their hearts and their minds so that they love the community rather than terrorize it?’ ”

Rice doesn’t soft-pedal her criticism of broken windows, which she sees as leading inevitably to what she calls a “reign of terror in the community” when it’s enforced as most police departments enforce it. But she sought common ground with Bratton: finding new ways for police to interact with citizens. “Once I realized that his goal was similar to mine, I thought, ‘Well, you know what? If not now, when? And if not with him, with whom?’ So I threw in with him.”

To follow that path, she says, advocates for police reform in New York must take care not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. As Rice puts it, “You’re not gonna get everything you want, so you’d better get used to that idea. You can either decide that you like fighting better, and you like winning a case better, than changing the mindset of the cops. So you’ve gotta make a choice there.”

Apart from a briefing Rice gave to NYPD brass and some short phone conversations, Herman says she hasn’t looked closely at Rice’s experience as a template for her own role. When I tried to engage her in a conversation comparing Rice’s role and background to hers, she pulled back, leery of seeing her relationship with Bratton portrayed as a deal with the devil, or even as a victory of pragmatism over principle. “I don’t feel that I’m working despite my background or ignoring my background,” she says.

When I challenged her on the practicality of simultaneously making overtures to suspicious communities while also trying to fulfill the NYPD’s core mission of crime control, Herman’s usually studied calm cracked, her hand poking the table for emphasis and her sentences growing chopped. “I think you can do both,” she says. “I think you can be strategic in your enforcement. You can be creative in how you prevent and control crime. And you can be respectful and constitutional in how you police. All at the same time.”

With a nod to the protests that were still audible outside her window, Herman continued: “I think we are seeing demonstrations that reflect decades of pent up anger and dissatisfaction, ironically at a time when the police department is turning the battleship around in the harbor. And we just have to keep going and have to keep doing it. And eventually, I believe, by showing people in New York that we are doing things differently, that word will get out. But you can’t keep talking about it. You have to do it.”