Mayor-elect Eric Adams’ plan to bring back beat cops to the New York City Police Department is being welcomed by street-outreach workers and cops alike as a plan that could help mend deeply fractured community-police relations, particularly among the city’s troubled youth.
In order for the strategy to succeed, experts say it must be carefully executed, starting with pilot programs in the city’s most troubled neighborhoods and deploying the right cops, not necessarily more, who are familiar with the cultures of the beats they’ll be walking.
“You don’t have to deploy any more police, especially in neighborhoods that are Black and brown, because that unfortunately only breeds frustration and leads to harassment and things of that nature,” Andre Mitchell, founder and executive director of the Brooklyn-based street outreach nonprofit Man Up! Inc., told City & State. “It needs to be officers that are more respectful of the neighborhoods that they are going to police. They need to understand the cultures of the people. They need to talk – not to, but with – the community on all levels.”
Adams, himself a former NYPD captain, gave few details when he announced his plans this week to return neighborhood-based foot patrols to the force.
“We can show people that these officers are human beings just like them. They have children. They have families. They have spouses. They want to go home safe, and they want you to go home safe,” he told the Daily News.
Almost immediately, questions were raised about whether the term “beat cop” is simply a familiar, albeit friendly, label on an existing mechanism. But while officers are currently assigned to specific precincts, divided into 77 citywide, the true beat cop faded from the force during former Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s tenure, largely due to a shift toward counterterrorism efforts among police departments nationwide in the wake of 9/11, according to John Jay College of Criminal Justice Adjunct Assistant Professor and retired NYPD homicide detective Alfred Titus Jr.
“Although we have officers assigned to steady areas, a lot of times both officers are patrolling in vehicles . . . a beat cop is going to be out on the street, on a particular corner, or have a particular two-block radius he’s going to continuously walk. That brings a whole other dynamic to policing and community interaction. And I think that is very important right now,” said Titus, who joined the department under former Mayor David Dinkins during a beat-cop hiring campaign.
In an effort to repair the NYPD’s image in the wake of high-profile incidents of police brutality both here and nationally, including the 2014 police-killing of Eric Garner on Staten Island, the city in 2015 introduced Neighborhood Coordination Officers, but the movement has done little to solve the problems it set out to address, according to Iesha Sekou, an activist and CEO of the Harlem-based nonprofit Street Corner Resources.
“In most areas, people don't know who their NCO is,” Sekou said, noting that the current NYPD deployment strategy is often a reactionary one.
“The beat cop is different from how cops are put on corners right now. And that's usually because there's been a shooting, maybe the day before. So the next day you see two cops pop up that you've never seen before. No one knows them. They're uncomfortable. The community's uncomfortable. Who are they and why are they there?” she said.
The benefits of consistently having the same foot-patrol officers returning to high-crime communities are far-reaching, Titus said. Their visible presence could not only aid in crime prevention, but beat cops can act as information-gathering liaisons between detectives working cases and tipsters.
“Once I became a detective, I had several suspects tell me specifically that ‘we leave our guns home, because the police are everywhere.’ That whole mentality has changed. Now they walk around with a gun because there are no police,” he said.
On the crime-solving side,Titus explained that beat cops can build sources in ways detectives can’t.
“A lot of times the community and members of the community are hesitant to talk to law enforcement, especially immediately after an incident when the detectives are out canvassing the community,” he said. “However, a day or two later, a resident may be walking to the store and stop and talk to the beat officer and give information, because they have built some kind of a relationship.”
Council members expressed tempered enthusiasm for the plan, dependent on the details.
“Rebuilding trust between police officers and the communities they serve is key to public safety. Community policing is a vital strategy that will help strengthen that relationship. Along with increased transparency and accountability, we must continue to enact reforms while also keeping all New Yorkers safe,” Council Member Adrienne Adams, who chairs the body’s public safety committee, said in a statement to City & State.
Council Member Keith Powers, who chairs the criminal justice committee, warned the strategy “only works if you do it correctly and commit to it.”
“We’re at a critical moment in the city where we have to uphold confidence in both the city and policing,” he said in a text message to City & State.
For the community’s Crisis Management System partners – made up of street outreach workers, former gang members and experts who operate community hubs, counsel gun violence victims at hospitals in an effort to prevent retaliation and steer youth away from criminal activity, among other efforts – Adams’ announcement was seen as a positive move, but one that may take time for residents to warm up to.
“Are people going to trust it right off? Absolutely not. The police have not had the best reputation. And in communities of color, particularly where many officers do not live, they don't have the status,” Sekou said.
Adams will take the helm at a time when crime has climbed over the past two years both here and nationally, and as illegal firearms are more often falling into the hands of the city’s youth. Currently 10% of arrests of people 18 and under are for firearm possession, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said this month, up from less than 2% a year ago.
Adams on Tuesday announced a new police commissioner, Nassau County Chief of Detectives Keechant Sewell, who will be charged with deploying the beat cop plan and renewing the city’s plainclothes anti-crime unit, the latter of which is widely seen among reformists as counterproductive to community policing, but favored by police.
“In New York City, we need the plainclothes officers out there. They are the only ones that can infiltrate the gangs and the guns, because for uniformed officers, they just aren’t enough to stop that kind of crime. You need undercover work,” Titus said.
Sekou expressed a different viewpoint: “If (Adams is) bringing them back, someone needs to provide direct oversight, because left up to themselves, they are just as bad as gangs. They become goons,” she said of the unit, of which the officer who fatally choked Garner, Daniel Pantaleo, was a member.