If you’ve ever visited Times Square in New York City, you’ve probably seen tourists posing for snapshots with smiling New York Police Department officers. Many visitors to New York, remembering the heroic police response to the 9-11 attacks in 2001, want a souvenir of their encounter with the friendly cops who patrol midtown Manhattan.
But not everyone loves the NYPD, and smiles have been noticeably absent from some of the police photos recently posted on social media. The NYPD had a crisis on its hands in April when it asked New Yorkers to tweet photos of themselves with city cops. Hashtag #myNYPD, which was supposed to create a gallery of grins and handshakes, soon turned into a display of alleged police brutality. The pictures quickly went viral, creating embarrassment for the department and inflaming Big Apple residents who already harbored angry feelings about the police.
New York police commissioner William Bratton is no stranger to controversy—his background includes leadership positions in Los Angeles and Boston, and this is his second stint as New York’s police commissioner. During Bratton’s previous administration in NY, from 1994 to 1996, technology played a much smaller role in police operations than it does now, with today’s emphasis on data, CompStat, and intelligence-led policing.
Social media has added another whole layer of complications. In the not-so-distant past, print and broadcast reporting were big concerns for police departments. Today, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, any encounter with a citizen can end up online in a full-color photo or video.
Given the size and complexity of New York City, no one would be surprised if Bratton initiated an all-out, focus-on-the-numbers campaign while backing away from social media. Instead he’s encouraging officers to make use of Facebook and Twitter to communicate with New Yorkers. And he’s adding new emphasis on NYPD’s relationships with the community, starting in the Bronx—a borough of New York that’s often overlooked in media reporting, unless you’re a fan of a TV comedy called Car 54, Where Are You? That originally aired in the early 1960s.
Television fans may remember that the show featured two warm-hearted cops—Toody and Muldoon—who patrolled the 54th Precinct in the Bronx as if it was a small town. They knew every merchant by name, attended confirmations and Bar Mitzvahs, and brought a personal touch to the problems they encountered on their beat.
Bratton, who was appointed in January, wants to create a similar experience in New York City. His first step is revamping Operation Impact, a program floods troubled precincts with officers fresh from the training academy. In past years they were encouraged to write citations and make arrests. Now they’ll be paired with experienced officers and introduced to merchants and community leaders. About 450 of the 630 officers expected to graduate from the Police Academy in June will be stationed in nine Impact Zones across the city.
Bratton says he’s changing the program because he doesn’t think new officers should be pushed “into a program that was intended to encourage giving citations.” According to Bratton, the rookie officers need experience in “helping, responding, and spending more time being mentored once they get out on the street.” In a Daily News interview Bratton explained, “What I am really interested in is giving these young men and women a more broadly-based experience, one where they get to interact with the public.”
The project is one of several initiatives aimed at improving NYPD’s image with New Yorkers, who have been angry about overuse of stop-and-frisk searches—particularly of minorities— and widespread surveillance of Muslims. Bratton has cut back on the searches, which were already dropping because of a 2013 court order. Around 3,000 searches were reported for January 2014; if that average holds, there could be fewer than 40,000 this year. By comparison, in 2011 there were about 685,000 searches.
Bratton has also shut down the Muslim surveillance program, and he’s not backing away from social media, despite the recent Twitter fiasco. “Was that particular reaction from the some of the police adversaries anticipated? To be quite frank, it was not,” Bratton said. “But at the same time it’s not going to cause us to change any of our efforts to be very active on social media…It is what it is. It’s an open, transparent world.”
Community activists in the Bronx are looking forward to working with the rookie officers who will be participating in Operation Impact. “I think it’s not only good for the community, but it’s good for the cops,” said Father Richard Gorman, the chairman of Bronx Community Board 12. “Nothing compensates for hands-on, boots-on-the-ground experience, but the younger officers need to be supervised,” he said. “That wasn’t happening with Impact. It’s only common-sense to pair them with experienced officers.”
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Jean Reynolds, Ph.D. is Professor Emeritus of English at Polk State College, where she taught report writing and communication skills in the criminal justice program. She is the author of ten books, including Police Talk (Pearson), and she publishes a Police Writer Newsletter. Visit her website at www.YourPoliceWrite.com for free report writing resources. Go to www.Amazon.com for a free preview of her book Criminal Justice Report Writing. Dr. Reynolds is the police report writing expert for Law Enforcement Today.