WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — The NYPD's incoming commissioner James O'Neill is the perfect person for the job because he helped develop the city's expanding neighborhood policing program, where officers spend more time getting to know the communities they patrol, Mayor Bill de Blasio said when announcing O'Neill's promotion last week.
"Chief O’Neill has been the architect of it here. He’s been the guy who’s actually had to develop neighborhood policing, precinct by precinct, in this city — figuring out how we choose and train the officers, how we help the community understand the best way to work with the police, and share information and create that partnership," de Blasio said on WNYC's Brian Lehrer show last week.
But for many who have been pushing for reform of the NYPD, it's unclear what neighborhood policing is or how it can change the troubled relationship between police and the community.
"I'm not going to say it's terrible or isn't going to work because I don't know what it actually is," said Mark Winston Griffith, executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center in Bedford-Stuyvesant.
With O'Neill's installation as commissioner, de Blasio announced that neighborhood policing, launched in May 2015 in four trial precincts in Queens and Upper Manhattan, will expand to 12 more precincts and encompass 51 percent of precincts in the city.
"You’re going to know the officers on your beat. You’re going to see them. They’re not going to be in their squad cars. They’re going to be on the street, walking around, talking to you. And you’re going to see the responsiveness that that causes," de Blasio said in a response to a caller on the Brian Lehrer show.
According to a framework of the Neighborhood Policing Plan laid out last year in a paper by outgoing Commissioner Bill Bratton:
► Each precinct is divided into four to five sectors that are fully staffed and correspond to neighborhood boundaries.
► A two-officer patrol car is assigned to each sector on a permanent basis and is not sent outside to respond to emergencies. Previously, there were up to eight sectors that were not fully staffed and officers were frequently sent outside of their sectors. Each sector will have three shifts of officers providing 24-hour coverage.
► In addition to responding to calls, officers are expected to follow up on past crimes and meet with community members in an effort to be "active problem solvers in their assigned sectors," Bratton wrote.
► Officers are expected to spend 33 percent of their time on tour, or 2 hours and 20 minutes, "gathering information, identifying problems and jointly planning local measures to address crime and other issues," Bratton added.
► In addition, there is a neighborhood coordinating officer in each sector to identify and manage problems. The plan is one of the reasons de Blasio says he finally agreed with the City Council and Bratton's plan to hire 1,300 additional officers.
Yul-san Liem, co-director of the Justice Committee, a police reform group that sends volunteers out to record the NYPD's interactions with the public, said neighborhood policing wasn't discussed with her group or any of the 60 other who make up Communities United for Police Reform, a coalition that supported de Blasio after he made reforming stop-and-frisk a pillar part of his campaign.
"Anything we've heard from city officials about what neighborhood policing is has been pretty vague," Liem said. "It's contradictory to talk about a plan to help community and police relations when it was not developed in conversation with people who are bearing the brunt of abusive police practices."
The NYPD has seen the strategy be successful in the 113th Precinct in South Jamaica, one of the neighborhood policing pilot precincts, which has seen a crime drop.
The commanding officer there said a working group of community residents funneled information to police that helped solve a non-fatal shooting.
O'Neill said homicides and robberies are both down 6 percent in precincts with neighborhood policing, and shootings are down 20 percent.
"So, by the numbers we are doing well, and anecdotally talking to the cops we’re doing well, and in talking to people in the community I know we’re doing very well also," O'Neill said at a press conference last week. "And again, this is a program that has just begun so we have a long way to go."
But Liem said she's heard complaints from store owners in Jackson Heights, another of the pilot precincts, that community policing officers seem to be more interested in gaining access to their video cameras.
One bodega owner in Jackson Heights complained that the officers assigned to his sector did not speak Spanish so any effort at improving relationships with them was difficult.
The 34th Precinct in Washington Heights was also a trial precinct. But Aftab Hussain, owner of the Exxon gas station next door to the 34th Precinct on 182nd Street and Broadway, said he had no idea the officers were doing anything different.
"You mean the police are trying to be more friendly?" Hussain asked when asked if he had noticed anything different. "They are right next door but they only come in to buy cigarettes."
Hussain, who has owned the station for three years, said his store is a fixture in the area and he would love to get to know police better.
"When the police are more friendly, when you know them, people are going to be more open," Hussain said. "And the people get more support."
Instead of neighborhood policing, reform activists have called for the city to stop relying on "Broken Windows" policing, where police focus on smaller crimes to prevent larger ones. Statistics show that blacks, Latinos and the poor tend to be more affected by this type of policing.
Advocates also want the City Council to pass the Right to Know Act, which would require police to tell people they can refuse a search where there is no probable cause or a warrant. The legislation would have also required officers to identify themselves and explain why the individual is being stopped or questioned.
Certain aspects of the legislation were added to the NYPD's administrative rules under an agreement between Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Bratton. The move has been criticized as an inadequate "back-door deal" and sponsors of the act have said they plan to bring the legislation to a vote.
"If you have a broad mandate around 'Broken Windows' policing, neighborhood policing is just another way to implement it," Griffith said.
Both de Blasio and Bratton have said Broken Windows is here to stay and can be adjusted based on the level of crime in the city. Most experts don't expect O'Neill to deviate far from Bratton's style of policing.
De Blasio, O'Neill and Bratton said they are also going to provide hard evidence that neighborhood policing is working. O'Neill said police expect to examine response time and the number of 311 and 911 calls, which should fall if community policing is working.
Bratton said the department is also going to unveil a vast polling effort of 20,000 people at a time down to the precinct block level to see each month how the effort is working.
De Blasio said the community policing plan will increase the "assumption that everyone’s on the same team."
Activists like Liem and Griffith remain unconvinced.
"If that's what community policing looks like, it's problematic and doesn't represent real change," Liem said. "The NYPD uses rhetoric and public relations campaigns to deflect from the real issues."