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Cops Count, Police Matter: Of Tactics and Strategy

By William Bratton, Former Chief of the New York City Transit Police; Former Boston Police Commissioner; Former New York City Police Commissioner; and Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (Ret.); Chairman, Kroll Advisory Solutions, New York, New York; George L. Kelling, Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University; Professor Emeritus, Northeastern University; and Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute, New York, New York

In a democracy, the first and most important obligation of government to its people is to ensure freedom from fear, crime, and disorder. Without this freedom, all the pillars that support our society—education, health, freedom of speech and religion, tolerance, and equal rights—cannot be guaranteed. Police are essential to that obligation. Police count. Police matter.

In the 1990s, after almost three decades of steadily increasing crime and violence the police led the way in tipping the crime epidemic. Police designed and implemented a new strategy: community policing. Community policing emphasizes partnerships with the community and other government agencies; problem solving and prioritization; and, most importantly, a return to an emphasis on prevention and a new focus on accountability. Society came to understand that the causes of crime were not poverty, demographics, or the economy as many academics, criminologists, and politicians postulated. Such factors can influence crime, sometimes significantly, but the real cause of crime is criminals who consciously decide to break the law or people who, in moments of passion, confusion, or ignorance violate the law. The role of police in our democracy is to control and influence behavior in order to prevent crime, but, when it occurs, to be able to find, apprehend, and assist in the prosecution of the offenders. Society also has come to understand the importance of transparency and inclusion, rather than secrecy and exclusion that had been the hallmarks of police for most of U.S. history of policing.

Three Takeaways

  1. Tactics cannot drive strategy.
  2. Police matter in crime prevention.
  3. Police need citizen support and partnerships.

It has been almost two decades since the revolution in U.S. policing took hold in New York City and many other U.S. communities during the early 1990s. To be sure, thinking about policing had been going through substantial changes from the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the ideas that framed this revolution finally coalesced during the 1990s. Two of the most successful initiatives—and among the most widely reported about—occurred in New York City: first in its subways starting in 1990 and then throughout the city starting in 1994. (Both authors were involved in these turnarounds).

In many respects, New York City experienced the “perfect storm”:

  • strong public demand that order be restored and crime controlled;
  • the addition of 6,000 new police officers;
  • the subway as a successful pretest of ideas developed during the previous decades—problem solving and broken windows;
  • a mayor elected on the basis of the demand for order;
  • a theory of action, broken windows, that was shared by subway officials, the newly elected mayor, his appointed police commissioner, and powerful business improvement district leadership;
  • the creation of the Midtown Community Court—also initiated by powerful private sector leadership—dedicated to dealing with disorder and minor offenses in the heart of Manhattan; a “quick win” dealing with squeegeemen; and
  • within the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the development of an interactive system, CompStat, that fostered both problem solving and accountability.

The results have been spectacular: over 20 straight years of uninterrupted crime decline; the rebirth of previously abandoned neighborhoods; the growth in tourism to over 50 million tourists a year; and, a growing city population. The investment in public safety continues to pay huge dividends.

Beyond the New York experience, in 1990, the United States had one of its highest reported crime rates in history. Looking back, it is possible to identify what went wrong with policing that helped things get so far out of hand during the 1970s and 1980s. A caveat: certainly more than the failure of a police strategy contributed to the crime wave that surged across the country during the 1965 to 1985 era. It is not hard to argue that social policies that ranged from deinstitutionalization to decriminalization to school bussing (regardless of their intent) weakened the capacity of families, neighborhoods, and communities to control potential miscreants, especially youthful males. But, police did play their part, and, while many lessons were learned, in this article, we discuss three: first, tactics must not drive strategy; second, police do matter in crime control; and third, police need partners to accomplish their goals.

Tactics and Strategy
Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles
  1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.
  2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.
  3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.
  4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.
  5. Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.
  6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be insufficient.
  7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
  8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.
  9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.
Source: (accessed October 19, 2012).

More than anything else, from the 1950s to the 1970s, police tactics drove strategy. All of this, of course was relatively inadvertent. Police tactics in the United States had their origins in Anglo-Saxon policing—most specifically in the model of policing developed during the early 19th century in England by Sir Robert Peel (see sidebar “Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles”). Peel put forward a model of policing that reconciled it with urbanization, industrialization, and democratization. Conspicuous police were to meld into the population and by their presence and persuasion were to prevent crime and maintain order. Police were to be evaluated by the absence of crime and disorder, not by activities that responded to crime, for example, arrests. Eventually this model was adopted throughout the United States. The strategy was to prevent crime; the tactic, or the means by which it was to be accomplished, was patrol.

During the early 20th century, the automobile was introduced into policing for transporting prisoners, drunks, and the injured; for supervision; and, often, for transporting police to their beats. But, over the first half of the century, the idea developed that putting beat officers into cars could be a more efficient way to police their beats: They could cover more territory and do it more rapidly. The elites of policing picked up on this idea, especially O.W. Wilson, and began to argue that preventive patrol could best be conducted by automobile. And, with the advent of the telephone and two-way radio, it seemed obvious that police in cars could respond quickly to emergencies and crime in action, creating a nice fit between the free time that resulted from patrolling in cars and the availability of these cars to respond rapidly to calls for service.

All of this is well understood, and the authors have no need to dwell on it here. What was not well understood was that the introduction of the car as the means of patrol substantially altered preventive patrol and, by doing so, introduced an alternative strategy of policing: police primarily as law enforcers—a shift from proactive prevention to after-the-fact reaction. One can argue for the merit of such an alternate strategy for local police: law enforcement is a crucial police tactic; perhaps a less intrusive policing model, one that stands back until something happens and then responds, is more consistent with policing a democracy; and so on. The concern here, however, was that capacity drove strategy without debate, acknowledgement, or even awareness that police were substantially shifting strategy by changing tactics—a classic example of Abraham Kaplan's Law of the Instrument: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.”1 Law enforcement became the sine qua non of policing.

Remember, during the 1970s and 1980s full-service policing meant responding to all calls for service as rapidly as possible even though this increasingly required officers to leave their assigned patrol areas. A vicious cycle developed: the absence of police in assigned neighborhoods created a vacuum that citizens filled by calling 9-1-1; as police struggled to respond to this demand, they actually spent less time in their assigned neighborhoods; as they spent less time in neighborhoods, the more citizens used 9-1-1; and so the cycle went—ultimately depolicing (removing police officers from) city streets and public places.

Police Matter

If the first thing we learned was that tactics drove strategy, the second was that police matter in crime control. It is now pretty well understood—at least by police—that the ideas promulgated by President Johnson’s 1965 Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Criminal Justice (Commission) that so dominated criminal justice thinking were seriously flawed. For the Commission, poverty, the economy, demographics, racism, and social injustice caused crime—these structural features of society were crime’s “root causes.” Logically derived from this belief, is the idea that given these circumstances police can do little about crime except respond after it occurs. Crime can be prevented only when these root causes are rectified.

For the most part, police and local politicians succumbed to these ideas. And, if anything, the Commission’s beliefs were strengthened by 1970s research into policing’s law enforcement strategy. Nothing worked. Preventive patrol by automobile didn't prevent anything, and rapid response to calls for service made little difference. Ergo, the best police could do was respond and attempt to arrest offenders. Police officers could and did try to arrest their way out of the crime problem. Crime prevention in policing was most often relegated to a small special unit (often staffed by the “empty holster crowd”—officers deemed for one reason or another as being not real cops) who would lecture to community groups about locks, dogs, and other security measures individual households could implement. It is interesting to note that as the police moved away from prevention as a goal, the public and the private security sector increasingly embraced crime prevention strategies and tools (locks, alarms, guards, fences, cameras) to make up for the ineffectiveness of police strategies and tactics.

The Commission’s ideas and policing’s inability to stem the tide of crime that characterized this era, gave us “Community Policing I.” (Labeling the shift as “Community Policing I” is not meant in a pejorative sense; as is seen below, it was an important but limited development.) Initially, community policing grew out of the recognition that the relationship between police and communities, or neighborhoods was spotty at best. President Johnson’s Crime Commission properly alerted police to the reality and consequences of policing’s antagonistic relationship to African American communities and proposed the adoption of community relations programs. While the intent and content of such programs ranged from attempts to “sell” communities already failing and other unpopular tactics to genuine attempts to restructure the relationship between police and minorities, they had marginal impacts at best. They did, however, develop within police departments’ personnel and units skill in reaching out and working with minority groups—competence of which was to become a necessary skill in all police departments as policing was confronted by civil rights movements.

Moreover, by the 1980s a new generation of police, many educated under the Law Enforcement Education Program (LEEP), were moving into policing. This generation was both confronted by the inability of policing to control crime through the law enforcement strategy and was aware of policing’s uncomfortable and often hostile relationship with minorities. Their shifts—outreach to community, attempting to deal with community problems, and less reliance on law enforcement—were the first tentative moves to establish community policing, initially as a program, but increasingly as an alternative strategy to what has been referred to in the literature as the professional, reform, or law enforcement strategy. The inchoate community policing movement, referred to here as Community Policing I, enjoyed broad community and political support.

As positive as these movements were, they still largely put aside crime prevention. Most of the early community policing advocates strongly adhered to the “root causes” theory of crime and crime control: police could do little to prevent crime. Consequently Community Policing I, although strongly supported by community groups, some police leaders, and most politicians, was unacceptable to the majority of practicing rank-and-file police officers; they wanted to fight crime.

The breakthrough, or at least the breakthrough that initially received the most attention, was in the New York City subway starting in 1990. Its seemingly intractable problems of disorderly behavior and its increasing mix of minor crime (especially farebeating) and more serious crimes (especially robbery) gave way to problem solving; broken windows policing; and, in general, assertive, targeted policing. For the first time in three decades, crime went down and has gone down every year since. With continuity of leadership, the lessons learned in the subway were subsequently applied in New York City itself by the recently enlarged NYPD, resulting in the now well-known crime reductions. Between these two efforts community policing matured: good policing not only sought the approval and cooperation of neighborhoods and communities to define and solve problems, good policing also prevented crime by changing the behavior of a substantial number of would-be miscreants. To be sure, partners were required. In the subway, for example, partners included maintenance staff, station managers, and business improvement districts (BIDS), in the last case to reclaim Grand Central Station and its immediate environment.

Moreover it became clear that good policing was an investment in a community. Good policing generated wealth through improving the conditions under which other organizations, public and private, operated. The private sector (property values, asset protection, places of worship, conduct of commerce, etc.) and the public sector (schools, transportation, recreation, etc.) simply cannot function adequately without basic levels of order and safety. Even other forms of community protection—for example, firefighting—cannot function without order and safety. Police matter—a lot.

Partnerships Matter

Finally, we learned that partnerships matter, especially in Peelian policing. It is to be remembered that Peelian policing was built on a model of self-policing. It has its roots in the democratic conviction that citizens can govern themselves. And, if citizens can govern themselves, it follows that they can police themselves.

How this plays itself out in an agrarian society where reputations and activities are widely known, is quite different from how this plays in an urban, industrial society of strangers. And this was the problem that Sir Robert Peel confronted that led to the creation of London’s Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard). Experience since, especially in the United States where custom has kept police as local as possible (with more than 17,000 police agencies), has demonstrated that this is not just a normative issue—in a democracy, police should not do for citizens what they can do for themselves, it is also a utilitarian issue—in a democracy, effective police are reliant on citizen cooperation at minimum and citizen partnerships at best. Citizen partnerships refer to everything from individual vigilance to neighborhood watches to the activities of BIDS and corporations.

The police mistake of the past reform era was to arrogate crime control unto itself and, in doing so, negate both the utilitarian and normative values inherent in Peelian policing. Speaking metaphorically, the approach of “Stay on your porches, this is police business,” failed in every conceivable way: it did not prevent crime; it did not solve crimes; and it lost the consent of the public—especially, but not limited to, the minority public.

Where Are We? The Good News

So where are we? First, local U.S. police have been the most innovative in the world. Every major development in policing has had its start in a local police department—neighborhood and community policing, problem solving, broken windows, CompStat, and so on. Moreover, local police have been leaders in governance. No segment of government has been as innovative as local police, and, in fact, many other segments of government are adapting the same approaches for their own use.

Second, police have proactively wrestled with the race issue and many cities have developed strong ties between its minority citizens and the police. In Los Angeles, California, after years of wrangling between minorities and police, when a white chief (Charles Beck) followed a white chief (William Bratton, a co-author of this paper) the shift was met without complaint or resistance by the city’s minority majority population—an unthinkable response in Los Angeles not more than a decade ago. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the presence of special units in neighborhoods predominately populated by African Americans and aggressive traffic enforcement, once major irritants to citizens, are now regularly responded to with thumbs up or applause. Most importantly, many police departments have learned how to talk with the African American community about, and deal with, the crime problem— both the disproportionate level of victimization and the disproportionate level of crimes committed—especially violent crimes.

Third, police have welcomed research into their departments, and a cadre of researchers is now conducting valuable policy and practice research. Police can probably favorably compete with any other public enterprise in the welcome they have provided to research since the 1970s and their willingness to integrate it into their strategies and tactics. The only current constraint on policy research in policing is the lack of funds. Policing, perhaps more than any other public profession has come to embrace and support the importance of transparency as an essential tool both in developing problem-solving tactics and trust in their communities.

Fourth, police are now more highly educated than at any time in history. What was once anathema—getting or having a college degree—is now the norm rather than the exception. Cops with master’s degrees are not unusual. Ones with PhDs are not unheard of.

Fifth, U.S. police are now more restrained in their use of force, including but not limited to deadly force, than at any other time in history and would compare favorably with police in any other country.

Finally, anecdotal evidence suggests that the number of police do matter. Research has found little correlation between the number of police and levels of crime and disorder. But most of this research was conducted during the 1960s and 1970s when police did not understand what they were doing. At that time, policing tactics were largely one size fits all—preventive patrol by car and rapid response to calls for service, regardless of the nature of the problem. In New York City, when Bratton was commissioner and problem analysis and solving was available, if crime spiked in a neighborhood, he could throw a thousand cops at it with tactics planned in advance; in Los Angeles—historically a badly under-policed city—tactics were laid out, but it took months, and a new class of recruits, to put together 50 cops to manage Skid Row. Numbers are important, but, even more important, is how police leaders have learned to use them.

So, during the past two decades, U.S. police have been innovative; have wrestled with the race problem, often successfully; have exposed themselves to, and participated in, research into their core capacities; have become a highly educated profession; are relying less on use of force; and have demonstrated in their order maintenance and crime prevention tactics that they really are important in the life of cities. But there is bad news as well.

Where Are We? The Challenges

First, more than anything else, the U.S. financial collapse in 2008 has created a new and worrisome world for police. States and cities, with rare exceptions, are financially strapped in ways that haven’t been seen since the great depression and are reluctantly withdrawing financial support for police. Moreover, little help can be expected from federal sources given the depth of their financial problems (and the political impasses that have affected federal and state governments). Cities like San Bernardino, California, and Camden, New Jersey, that have declared bankruptcy are the extreme. Only slightly better off are cities that have teetered on the edge of insolvency like Detroit, Michigan. But, it is not just cities in crisis that are experiencing cuts; cuts are hitting a broad swath of U.S. cities. In the Police Executive Research Forum survey of police departments conducted in 2010, for example, 51 percent had their budgets reduced by an average of 7 percent from 2009. Of this 51 percent, 59 percent reported that they anticipated further cuts in 2011. Thirty-six percent reduced their staffing levels through attrition; 22 percent laid off employees.2

The fact that the majority of police departments are experiencing cuts is a problem in itself. As discussed above, the numbers of police in a city count. Locating the tipping point, when reduction in the numbers of police in a city will impact crime and disorder levels, is not readily discernible and probably varies by city. But the problem of cutbacks is worsened by the distressing tendency of many chiefs who want to “get back to basics.” For many, this means returning to preventive patrol by automobile and rapid response to calls for service— in other words, returning to failed reactive law enforcement strategy. Tactics once again threaten to drive strategy and reduce our positive influence and impact.

Second, despite the development of environmental criminology, including situational crime prevention, routine activities theory, and place theory—all of which are relevant to police—a good share of criminology and criminal justice is still stuck in mid-20th century crime control ideology. It is not at all unusual for such criminologists to pontificate about police practices and the causes of crime reduction without ever having observed police practices in a city in question, especially in New York City and Los Angeles, two cities where the authors have extensive on-the-ground experience. Also, it is not unusual, for criminologists to take aggregate crime data, say traffic stops, compare them to aggregate population data and allege police racial profiling. Local media picks this up, and soon these charges get amplified to the point that the U.S. Department of Justice feels obliged to conduct an investigation. Yet, it is forgotten that from the beginning these conclusions were drawn from aggregate data by pundits who don’t bother to “go to the ground” to interpret appropriately what these data mean. This doesn’t mean that responsible academics or media shouldn’t watchdog police departments; they should. It means, however, that rigorous on-the-ground activities are required to understand aggregate data. Not to do so not only is irresponsible research or reporting; it also threatens the safety and security of neighborhoods when it undermines public confidence in police. Cutbacks in research funding can only worsen this problem.

Third, a new discussion has to begin about the problem that handguns and assault weapons create in the United States. Clearly the old arguments for gun control are no longer relevant. The National Rifle Association has won the legal and political arguments. The U.S. Supreme Court has taken its position, and there is little reason to believe that either the legal or political situations will change in the near future. Consequently, there is no reason to believe that the proliferation of handguns and assault weapons is suddenly going to stop. Even if it did, the availability of weapons is so great that it would take generations for it to have a street impact. Yet, despite this reality, police will continue to have to face the problems that guns create on the street, especially in minority communities. Even saying this does not begin to deal with the problem of domestic terrorism like the shootings in the theater in Aurora, Colorado, or in the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. In each of these cases, the weapons used were bought legally, and, while it can be hoped that we could somehow identify the unstable persons and copycats who would commit such acts, the likelihood is that only a small percentage of such potential assailants can be identified in time to prevent them from acting out.

There have been successful attempts to reduce gun violence, especially in minority communities. Despite spikes from time to time New York City stands out, primarily because the declines have persisted for almost two decades. Use of a broken windows approach, that gives police access to potential illegal gun carriers through assertive stop, question-an-frisk initiatives for quality-of-life minor crimes, probably accounts for a good share of the decline. It is simply too risky for potential gun carriers to do so. But aggressive stop-and-frisk policies in New York have recently begun to create significant public and media opposition—a dispute that is yet to be resolved. Boston also developed a successful approach, Ceasefire, however the difficulty with such approaches is that it is hard to sustain the necessary collaborations over time. The purpose in this article, however, is not to propose or evaluate solutions, but to make clear that the problem of gun violence in minority communities is going to be a factor affecting policing for decades.

Fourth, policing, like most occupations, if not carefully steered, drifts toward seemingly desirous activities and functions. In policing, this expresses itself in two ways: (1) to find the newest “flavor of the day”; and, (2) the movement to specialization.

From its inception, community policing had its detractors:

  • “It is too soft.”
  • “What is community anyways?”
  • “It is merely nostalgia for an era that never existed.”
  • “Line police won’t accept it,” and so on.

The search for different titles for community policing or alternatives has existed since the earliest days of its development. Many preferred “strategic policing” because it sounded less soft than community policing. Academics have come up with proposed alternative titles or approaches: problem-solving policing, data-based policing, third-party policing, intelligence-
based policing, evidence-based policing, predictive policing, hot-spot policing, even broken windows policing. All of these approaches have considerable value and ought to be in the portfolio of every police department. Like a doctor and his medicine bag, police chiefs have many “medicines” with which to work. Their challenge is to pick the right ones and apply them in appropriate doses. The problem is that all of these approaches are tactics rather than strategies, and, once again—unless police are guided by a clear strategy, they risk losing their way. The genius of community policing is that it takes us back to our roots: Peelian policing in a democratic society in which citizens are as responsible as police for public safety and security.

Additionally, policing has become increasingly specialized. Detectives were the first and are the most prestigious specialty.
Others followed: vice, drugs, intelligence, special weapons and tactics (SWAT), juvenile, and others. For many of these specialties, there is additional pay and overtime. Assignment or promotion to them is considered a “perk” They are desirable and capture public attention. Some units, SWAT for example, get special uniforms and weapons, frequently making them almost indistinguishable from the military. Often specialized units work regular hours with weekends off (including detectives, regardless of crime patterns).

The consequences of such specialization are several. The perceived prestige - and the incentives offered to special units, often demeans patrol. The characterization of patrol as “the backbone of policing” is belied by the fact that it is frequently staffed by rookies and junior officers since many, if not most, special units are centrally controlled and work to their own agendas, they reduce the extent to which area/district/precinct commanders can be held accountable for problems in their jurisdiction; they skim the best and brightest talent; and, often, enter areas to police as unfamiliar strangers.

Recognizing that specialized units present problems, however, does not mean that they do not fill important needs in police departments. We do need investigation and preparation for court (detectives); terrorism demands that we have a skilled response capacity (SWAT); young children need special handling (juvenile units); and so on. The important future issue is how these units are managed. Such units need to be carefully trained and monitored; they must be integrated into an overall department and unit (districts/precincts) tactics; they must reinforce geographic units and priorities; and they should undergo periodic review to determine the extent to which they are fulfilling their mission within the context of a geographically based community policing strategy.

Fifth, police have over-relied on criminal law to attempt to deal with disorder and crime. Their “medicine bag” is easily expanded to include civil law: city rules and ordinances. City ordinances allow police to intervene in minor problems that often have an impact on more serious crimes. Public rules and regulations—in parks or public transportation—are important tools to intervene with troublesome youths. Civil law injunctions have been essential for managing gangs in many communities.

Looking Forward

The central issues of the future then include adjusting to the current and likely future economic realities; overcoming an often hostile academic and media climate; the proliferation of guns and the need to do something about gun violence; increasing police use of city ordinances and civil law; and, developing and maintaining an enhanced patrol function.

If one were to step back to the 1970s and look forward, it would have been hard to imagine that by the end of the millennium, U.S. police would be the leaders in police innovation, criminal justice reform, and public governance. U.S. police were isolated, locked into a failed strategy, and resistant to change. All this has changed. We can be justifiably proud of how policing has reformed itself and what has been accomplished. New and persistent challenges, however, are ahead for police. The central challenge is to remain in the traditions of the Peelian principles citizens policing themselves with the help of fellow citizens; official police, who have the special and awesome responsibility of serving and protecting others. ♦

1Abraham Kaplan, The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2004), 28.
2Police Executive Research Forum, Critical Issues in Policing Series: Is the Economic Downturn Fundamentally Changing How We Police? (Washington, D.C., December 2010), 1, (accessed November 16, 2011).

Please cite as:

William Bratton and George L. Kelling, "Cops Count, Police Matter: Of Tactics and Strategy," The Police Chief 79 (December 2012): 54–59.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXIX, no. 12, December 2012. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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