In the final installment of our series following the NYPD’s newest class of cadets, The Crime Report looks at the challenges of American policing, the debate over whether less-aggressive strategies will make our cities safer, and whether new cops can learn to smile.
Daniel Bavuso, a rookie officer with the New York Police Department (NYPD), made his first arrest a few weeks ago. Responding to a domestic violence dispute between two men, he engaged both in conversation and stayed calm.
When he brought a suspect for booking into New York’s 10th precinct, covering the Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea and Clinton, he was still on friendly terms.
“We basically spent the entire time together just talking,” said Bavuso. “Bare bones, we’re all people and, despite what happened, he really wasn’t a bad guy.”
Bavuso’s low-key approach didn’t come about by accident.
Two months earlier, Bavuso was part of the Spring graduating class of the New York Police Academy, which was among the first to be exposed to NYPD’s new training model. The 645 graduates—men and women who successfully passed a grueling course that mixed standard weapons and police instructions with lessons in de-escalation and community policing—were meant to be the new face of America’s largest police force.
And, as they were told by NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill at the March 30 graduation ceremony at Madison Square Garden, that face had to be smiling.
“You gotta practice,” said O’Neill, as he looked out at the serious faces of the new graduates.
They were, he thought, too serious.
“When you’re out there on patrol, I don’t want the people you meet to see those faces.”
Though meant as an ice-breaker, O’Neill’s comments reflect the evolution of police culture occurring in New York and across the nation. Seeking to rethink the aggressive tactics exemplified by the controversial deaths of Freddie Gray and Eric Garner as a result of police actions, police departments in cities such as Miami, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh are rethinking the way they train officers to practice community policing.
The concept isn’t new of course, but while many law enforcement managers pay lip service to community policing, few have considered how to make it a self-sustaining strategy that is embedded in daily police practice.
Two years ago, when O’Neill was Chief of Department—the highest uniformed position in the NYPD—he tweaked the concept by encouraging cops on the beat to become problem-solvers. Called “Neighborhood Policing,” the pro-active strategy was meant to promote greater confidence and trust and—by implication—enlist neighborhood residents as partners in promoting public safety.
In a way, this was a throwback to more traditional views of the “neighborhood cop,” before police retreated behind patrol cars and bristling technology.
Translated into the new training philosophy of the NYPD, it required cops to see themselves not just as uniformed “enforcers” of the law, but as approachable, respectful human beings.
“What count more than anything are your character and your professionalism and how you’ll behave on the streets, in housing projects, and in the subway,” O’Neill told the graduating cadets.
Over the past year, The Crime Report was granted unprecedented access to a company of 25 recruits as they went through their six months of training under the new NYPD guidelines. We sat in on classes and reality-based training scenarios, and asked the new recruits, who were also among the most diverse entering class the NYPD has had, what they thought of it all.
The principles of de-escalation, conflict resolution and open communication with communities were integrated into every step of the process which turned raw recruits into rookie police officers, along with the traditional instructions in weapons training, law and police procedure.
Police veterans caution that no amount of training, no matter how advanced or precise, can fully prepare new cops for the realities of the job in a policing environment that is increasingly troubled.
“[Officers] definitely are under a lot more scrutiny than those of us that came on 25 years ago,” Tracie Keesee, the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner of Training, who previously served as a senior officer with the Denver Police Department, said in a recent interview.
Today, in a world where there is a camera on every phone, police are keenly aware that everything they do is subject to second-guessing. That awareness, according to some researchers and even former FBI chief James Comey, has led some cops to become over-cautious in going after criminals. Others argue the evidence to support that is inconclusive.
But in New York, the level of scrutiny and transparency is only set to increase following the implementation of the NYPD’s court-ordered body camera pilot program which began in April. New officers will have to navigate a now-hyper-exposed professional environment, even as they put into practice skills that were originally never seen as part of a police officer’s job.
“They have to learn how to balance and do a lot of things that weren’t necessarily in the policing realm decades ago,” said Keesee.
In dealing with mentally troubled individuals, for example, officers will need to learn how to step away from situations that might otherwise result in fatal use of force.
The challenge for the new recruits—and for the NYPD—is to ensure that the techniques and strategies learned during training will not be abandoned once they face the realities of the streets.
The NYPD’s Field Training Program, which pairs two new Police Academy graduates with an experienced field training officer for a further six months, is an attempt to make the lessons stick. Under the guidance of these veterans, the new officers will learn to navigate the real demands and dangers of a job that they have only just been exposed to and that, until now, had only been studied.
As recruits in the academy, they were told where to go, what to do, when to eat. Their lives were regimented and regulated around a curriculum that mirrored the experience of an everyday college. There were no life or death situations to face, no real conflicts, and no surprises.
As NYPD Lieutenant Robert Tilwitz, Squad Commander of the Recruit Training section of the academy, points out, the change they face upon graduation is definitely a culture shock.
“When you go from that environment to the street, your day changes in a half of a second,” said Tillwitz in a recent interview. “You have to make life and death situations without the support of an Academy staffer. It’s not easy.”
The Field Training Program introduces new officers into the actual day to day experience of policing before they are partnered up and assigned to their own precincts. During the process, the officers become familiar with the three basic “tours,” or shifts, that police have to work: Midnights (11:15 pm-7:50 am), day tours (6:30 am-3:00 pm), and a final tour (4:00 pm-12:00 am).
They spend two months on each shift.
For the 10th Precinct’s Daniel Bavuso, now working through his second stint of field training, the push for neighborhood policing practices is felt from the moment he starts out on patrol each day.
“De-escalation is 100 percent the most important thing,” said Bavuso. “You want to use everything you learned in the academy.”
When first approaching a scene, no matter what they’re coming into, Bavuso and his fellow rookie officers were taught to remember Rule #1: Don’t escalate. Their Field Training Officers remind them constantly that whether they have to make an arrest or not, every person must be treated with respect.
This sort of empathy is considered the key to both improved community relations and good police work.
“Sometimes bad things happen,” said Bavuso. “And, unfortunately, as a police officer you encounter people at the worst times of their life.
“But treat them with respect and they will treat you with respect.”
The non-confrontational way that Bavuso handled his first arrest is a testament to the training he received at the Police Academy. The challenge is whether he will continue to follow Rule #1 as he is exposed—and affected by—the cynicism and distrust that are the everyday experiences of cops on the beat.
The Best-Case Scenario
During their time at the academy, the officers were constantly told to pursue what was called the best-case scenario: talking someone into cuffs. The hope is that, if the same type of interaction could be repeated again and again by officers in every community, trusting relationships between police and those communities could be reestablished.
Whether making an arrest or not, how police officers are perceived by the public at large is key to reestablishing trust. At the NYPD, officers on patrol are now required to interact with their communities whenever and however possible. Under the models of policing that were once standard in New York and other cities, they may have simply driven around neighborhoods in their cruisers, or stood sentry on a corner; now, officers are encouraged to get out of their patrol cars, and engage in productive and respectful conversation with the public.
Frank Straub, Director of Strategic Studies for the Police Foundation, and a former police chief in Spokane and Indianapolis, says this is the foundation of all efforts to reform American policing in the 21st century.
“Each of those individual transactions between a police officer and a community member has the opportunity to move the pendulum in the right direction and build respectful relations,” he said.
A 31-year veteran of law enforcement, Straub believes that a focus on improving these one-to-one encounters will help shift law enforcement away from the aggressive and combative tactics of the past. And it begins with training.
“I think, not just in the NYPD, but in American policing in general, we got into this cycle of training that really focused on having to win every situation,” said Straub.
As Straub sees it, this aggressive and victory-oriented training cycle is a result of a “war” narrative that is prevalent throughout criminal justice and policing communities in this country.
Politicians and media sources alike constantly advertise the “war” on drugs, the “war” on crime, and the “war” on terrorism. But this military rhetoric, say police experts, only exacerbates the feeling of distrust for police among the most troubled communities.
It also creates an “us versus them” mentality among police themselves, who are inclined to view such troubled communities as a hostile camp. That’s partly because many young officers are exposed for the first time to conditions that are outside their comfort zone: neighborhoods afflicted by poverty, high violence, unemployment and urban underdevelopment.
“Officers graduating are going to go into those challenged neighborhoods and there is going to be this underlying tension,” said Straub.
This tension is further exacerbated by the fact that people of color too rarely see themselves represented among the ranks of officers on patrol throughout their neighborhoods. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, minority officers only represent 27.3% of the national police population, with smaller departments serving less than 2,500 being 84.4% white.
Acknowledging that they can’t police the people without also representing them, the NYPD is attempting to meet this challenge head on by recruiting men and women who reflect the diversity of the city.
Of the 645 officers that graduated in March, 21% were born outside the United States, representing 39 different countries, and speaking 53 different languages. In practicing neighborhood policing, these officers will ideally be better able to listen to, work with, give instruction to, and empathize with, the diverse population of New York than any group that has come before them.
Will It Make a Difference?
However, while many in the policing community are optimistic that the steps the NYPD and other departments across the country are taking to improve their policing methods will mend the rifts between police and their communities, skepticism is widespread.
“Community policing is one of the biggest vacuities you can think of,” said Eugene O’Donnell, a retired and decorated NYPD officer who now serves as professor of Law and Police Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
O’Donnell believes community policing has become little more than a slogan used as a political device, rather than an actual tool for constructive change. He goes even further by suggesting that community policing practices can make officers ineffective by promoting and insisting on a culture of conflict avoidance, and creating an environment where those officers must constantly fear punishment for simply doing their jobs.
“The whole policing conversation, especially at the NYPD, revolves around blame,” said O’Donnell in a recent interview with TCR.
“There’s no incentive for doing affirmative police work; there’s every incentive to avoid police work.”
According to O’Donnell, the deck is stacked against new officers who join the force because they are attracted to the notion of going into difficult situations and taking on problematic scenarios, often at risk to themselves. Today, he said, these officers often find that their biggest problems are within the organization itself.
In a 2016 poll conducted by New York’s Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, an overwhelming majority of the respondents said that they feel unsupported by their department, and worry that they might be demonized and condemned as “bad cops” for engaging in any sort of conflict whatsoever.
For O’Donnell, this means that officers are now choosing to be “present,” in the most technical sense, but are otherwise checked out when it comes to performance.
“They don’t want to be involved,” said O’Donnell. “They’re not going to take a risk.”
The uncertainty creates a palpable tension among officers both new and old alike. On patrol at the 10th precinct, Bavuso noticed that, among some of the experienced officers, there is a general hesitation to respond to situations where de-escalation just doesn’t work.
That hesitation is rooted in a fear of punishment.
“There are times where you want to deescalate, but you can’t,” said Bavuso. “There’s definitely a feeling that cops are afraid to confront that. There’s a sense of ‘oh my god, I might get in trouble for this.’”
In a job as hands-on as police work, hesitation could make the difference between life and death and, as O’Donnell points out, officers today are less likely to put themselves in harm’s way if they feel their department doesn’t have their backs.
However, for Straub, the solution to this problem is in the training itself.
While he admits that there is a general reluctance among police officers to engage in volatile situations, he also feels that this concern is largely based on some of the high-profile incidents that have occurred and the observed reactions to them. According to Straub, some of those incidents resulted simply from police misconduct and poor decision making—both the result of inadequate training.
“You look at the Walter Scott shooting, and the fact that (former South Carolina police officer) Michael Slager just pled guilty to federal civil rights violations,” said Straub. “That’s an admission that he didn’t follow policy and procedure, and use-of-force policy and procedure, in his interaction.”
Straub strongly believes that when officers stray from the policies and procedures taught during their training, and when they act disrespectfully, they put themselves in a situation where they aren’t protected.
“If you follow policy and procedure, if you act in a respectful manner, at the end of the day, complaint or no complaint, charge or no charge, you’re going to prevail,” said Straub.
Nevertheless, skeptics like O’Donnell argue that the de-escalation and conflict-resolution practices of community policing yield little in the way of concrete results, and may be even detrimental to good police work.
Many point to Chicago which, like New York, has focused on community policing. But the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), has had debatable success over the years, and exists today as little more than a patchwork of programs throughout the city, according to a 2016 examination by the Chicago Reader.
Last year alone, the city suffered 762 murders, the worst number in two decades.
“Community policing is essentially a political device,” said O’Donnell. “It’s all things to all people. But what is delivered?”
According to a 2016 article by The Intercept, many in New York are asking the same question.
They remain concerned that the NYPD’s Neighborhood Policing program is merely distracting from issues that require serious reform, such as last year’s blocking of the Right To Know Act and the easing of restrictions on the use of Tasers. At the same time, current and former members of the policing community, like O’Donnell, think the program is a waste of misplaced resources, especially when considering the amount of community interaction and dialogue that is required for its success.
“Devoting a lot of officers to just walking around is not a good use of resources,” said O’Donnell. “They’re not solving crimes.”
But something seems to be working. The New York Times recently reported that crime rates in New York City have continued their decades-long decline, and both Keesee and Straub maintain that community policing and solving crimes goes hand in hand.
“I don’t understand how community policing would distract or inhibit you from doing real police work,” said Keesee. “The community is a part of your real police work; you provide service to a community.”
Whether making arrests, identifying persons that threaten neighborhood safety and stability, doing targeted gang enforcement, or doing aggressive domestic violence enforcement, these activities are helped, rather than hindered, by doing this against the context of respect and community engagement, she argued.
Straub agrees. He cites as an example the police department in Evanston, Illinois where the stop- and-question techniques that have aroused controversy elsewhere are widely used with relatively little pushback from the community. The reason: officers have engaged the community to reach a consensus of who needs to be targeted by these techniques.
The community, in fact, helps the police identify those individuals that are carrying guns and engaged in drug dealing.
“With community involvement, they’re able to use aggressive policing techniques because the community and the police are co-producing public safety,” said Straub. “They’re using community policing, and they’re using it well.”
Incorporating that point into the training of a young officer at the beginning of his or her career will pay off for years to come, supporters maintain.
It will be another couple of decades before Bavuso qualifies for retirement, but his training has already helped him internalize the concept that earning trust among the people he protects is necessary to doing his job well.
“Some people like cops, some people don’t,” he says. “And there’s not much you can really do about that.
“But you can try to shape their experience—and maybe change that experience for the better.”
Isidoro Rodriguez is a staff writer for TCR. His most recent report in his series on NYPD training is available here. Readers’ comments are welcome.