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De Blasio’s neighborhood policing effort ‘more symbolism than reform,’ study suggests

October 16, 2020 Greg B. Smith, THE CITY
This story was originally published on Oct. 15 by THE CITY. Sign up here to get the latest stories from THE CITY delivered to you each morning.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s signature “neighborhood policing” program appears to have helped reduce the number of low-level arrests in most precincts — but has done little to slow crime or eliminate racial bias in who gets charged, a new study asserts.

The study, the first of its kind to examine the mayor’s now five-year-old police reform effort, comes as the NYPD repeatedly refuses to release a separate report from a consultant THE CITY revealed received $150,000 from the NYPD to assess why elements of the neighborhood policing initiative have stalled.

The program requires cops to cultivate relationships with the communities they patrol in a bid to restore trust that’s eroded over the years due to NYPD misconduct and general over-policing. That mistrust grew in the 2000s with the department’s rampant use of stop-and-frisk, targeting mostly Black and Hispanic New Yorkers.

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De Blasio contends that his program has largely worked.

NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea speaks in The Bronx as Mayor Bill de Blasio looks on, Dec. 5, 2019. Photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
“Safety comes from a bond between police and community,” he said in July amid ongoing anti-racism protests. “That’s what neighborhood policing has been about, and until the coronavirus, it was overwhelmingly successful.”

Sociology and statistics professors at the University of Colorado and University of Florida who authored the study said the strategy has “the potential to improve public safety and increase community trust.”

But, they wrote: “It is also possible the policy is more symbolism than reform, challenged as it is to address the underlying causes like poverty and police intransigence that prevent some communities from being heard by police.”

A Look at Years of Stats

The authors examined low-level misdemeanor arrests as well as “proactive” arrests, such as for trespassing and disorderly conduct, where cops have wide discretion.

The profs also looked at data for violent crime (including homicide, assault and robbery) and property crimes (including grand and petit larceny and auto theft), plus 311 call data for non-emergency crime complaints.

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The time period they analyzed is pre-COVID-19 pandemic, from 2009 through September of last year.

Neighborhood policing first went into effect at 10 precincts in 2015 and expanded to all 76 within three years. The authors assessed the program’s impact by comparing crime and arrest trends at precincts with neighborhood policing against those without over time.

The period encompasses the City Council’s passage of the Criminal Justice Reform Act, which went into effect in June 2017 and led to large drop in criminal court summonses, preventing minor offenses from leading to arrests. The study, though, looks at differences between precincts with and without neighborhood policing, and the reduction of quality of life crimes applies to all police station houses across the city.

Protesters speak with NYPD officers outside the Barclays Center, May 31, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY
The study estimated that in 54 of 76 precincts, the number of proactive arrests fell on average during the first three months of neighborhood policing compared to what would be expected, based on historic trends. In 39 precincts, the number of misdemeanor arrests also declined after neighborhood policing was implemented.

Within that universe, this was particularly true in precincts where the residents are predominantly Black and Hispanic and endured rates of high unemployment.

In West Harlem’s 30th Precinct, for instance, the number of arrests for misdemeanors after neighborhood policing arrived in 2017 fell by an average of 54 each month from the previous average, the study found. The same drop occurred for proactive discretionary busts during those three months.

The 30th Precinct, which includes Sugar Hill, West Harlem and Hamilton Heights, is 27 percent Black, 50 percent Hispanic and 15 percent non-Hispanic white. In 2019, it had an unemployment rate of 9.7 percent, compared to the then-8.7 percent citywide average.

At the 40th Precinct in the South Bronx, proactive arrests dropped by 56 per month in the first three months neighborhood policing went into effect there in 2016, while misdemeanors decreased by 116.

The 40th, which includes Mott Haven, is 28 percent Black, 68 percent Hispanic and 1 percent non-Hispanic white. It had an unemployment rate of 12.9 percent in 2019 — at the time, one of the highest in the city.

In the first month of neighborhood policing in the 30th, for instance, the precinct recorded 33 proactive arrests, far below the 71 that would be expected given past arrest rates. In the 40th, the same pattern emerged: 84 proactive arrests in the second month of the neighborhood initiative, rather than the expected 189.

Little Impact Seen

The program did little to reduce crime, according to authors Brenden Beck, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Colorado Denver, Joseph Antonelli, a statistics professor, and Gabriela Pineros, a sociology professor, both from the University of Florida.

“As precincts adopted neighborhood policing, neighborhood policing did not influence either property or violent crime at a statistically significant level at any time point,” they wrote. “Overall, our analyses suggest neighborhood policing did not influence crime.”

But the study did find a notable decline in what it described as proactive arrests for crimes where a cop is not responding to a complaint or a 911 call. In those cases, cops observe what could be criminal activity and have discretion on whether or not to slap on the handcuffs.

Patrolling the Lower East Side, Oct. 14, 2020. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

After neighborhood policing was implemented in some precincts, the number of proactive arrests fell overall, and particularly in a handful of poorer Black and Hispanic neighborhoods across Upper Manhattan, the South Bronx, Coney Island and East New York in Brooklyn, and Jamaica in Queens, the data shows.

That pattern relates to what the authors called a surprising finding: a significant drop in arrests for low-level crimes in precincts where unemployment is high.

In those high-unemployment precincts, the racial disparity in arrests also diminished, while precincts with low unemployment actually experienced an uptick in racial disparity with misdemeanor and proactive arrests.

Overall, however, the study’s authors found that on average the overall ratio of three arrests of Black New Yorkers for every one white New Yorker didn’t change significantly even after neighborhood policing went into effect.

“While neighborhood policing reduced the number of arrests officers made, it did not change the racial proportion of such arrests,” they wrote.

Authors Warn: ‘Be Wary’

The authors raised questions about the effectiveness of the program’s ability to transform neighborhoods.

“We find community policing is more effective at changing police behavior like arrest frequency than at changing behaviors outside the organization like crime rates,” the authors wrote. “Policy makers considering community policing should be wary of adopting it as a crime control tactic as it was not effective at reducing crime in the NYC case presented here.”

The study noted THE CITY’s story about the NYPD’s Guidehouse consultant report on neighborhood policing that the NYPD has yet to release.

Last year, the NYPD hired Guidehouse to look at elements of neighborhood policing that had “stalled,” and file its report by February. Since then the NYPD has declined THE CITY’s repeated requests to release the findings, even after de Blasio said the results should be made public.

On Thursday, THE CITY sent the NYPD and the mayor’s press secretary, Bill Neidhardt, the study.

The mayor’s spokesperson did not respond, while an NYPD spokesperson, Sgt. Jessica McRorie, emailed: “The NYPD hasn’t reviewed this document or the methodology used and it would be premature to make any comment.”

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