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Starting a new job can be nerve-racking for anyone, but few jobs come with the built-in stressors of being a police officer, whose split-second decisions can alter lives, end them or bring about legal proceedings over discrimination or excessive force.
The question of how best to expose rookie police officers’ feet to the fires of high-crime areas has revealed itself as a contentious battle over policing practices unfolds in New York City. In January new Police Commissioner William J. Bratton told fellow officers in a private meeting that he wanted to change the way rookies are exposed to crime hot spots, according to The New York Times. And internal discussions in new Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration have made some wonder why rookie cops were policing these areas in the first place.
Last summer a rookie officer shot and killed 14-year-old Shaaliver Douse in the Bronx while Douse was reportedly chasing and shooting at another teen. The officer had been on the force barely a month, and the teenager was the youngest person then–Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly could recall being shot by the NYPD. Douse’s neighbors likened the gravity of the incident to the killing of Trayvon Martin, according to reports in the Times. Last month rookie officer James Li was shot in the legs while pursuing a suspect in Brooklyn. Li joined the force in December, the Times reported. The NYPD has said the officers reacted properly in both cases.
“Bratton is reviewing Operation Impact and exploring modifications, such as expanding the program with seasoned officers and possibly teaming veteran officers up with those coming out of the academy,” said a representative for the department in an email, referring to the initiative, which was launched under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2003.
One year after Operation Impact’s introduction, the NYPD credited it with reducing violent crimes by 33 percent in what the department refers to as impact zones. These zones, or targeted high-crime areas, were often flooded with rookies who had limited supervision from superior officers.
“This review is being conducted for the efficacy of the department and the community alike,” the representative said.
Experts, officers, politicians and civil rights activists have taken unique stances on the issue since de Blasio announced in January that the city will seek to settle a federal court case on the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactics, which were implemented under Operation Impact. The settlement put forth by the city last month has yet to be accepted, but the police department has acknowledged that changes to Operation Impact are being considered regardless of the court outcome.
Bratton, who on Jan. 2 returned to the post he resigned from in April 1996, has publicly discussed some potential changes but stopped short of ceasing Operation Impact.
“Operation Impact is not going away,” he told reporters in January, according to The Daily News. “I would hope to potentially expand it using seasoned officers or these young kids teamed up with a seasoned officer.”
A group of police unions is objecting to the proposed stop-and-frisk settlement, but have expressed support for the new administration’s potential training changes.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, one of New York’s police unions, would not respond to comment but referred Al Jazeera to a Jan. 31 press release.
“It is important to have experienced police officers sharing their knowledge with our newer officers,” the PBA’s president, Patrick J. Lynch, said in the release. “Using rookies to meet numbered targets under the former system resulted in many of the problems we are now in the process of solving.”
One of a kind
With 34,500 uniformed officers, New York City has the nation’s largest police force. Officers straight out of the academy can be placed in dangerous zones patrolling on foot, at times without the direct supervision of a more experienced officer.
But New York is different from most U.S. cities.
“I don’t know of any other departments that have a routine practice of assigning officers fresh out of the academy to work together in high-crime areas,” said Darrel Stephens, executive director of the Major Cities Chiefs Association. “Most police departments have a structured field-training program where new officers are assigned to a senior officer instructor for three or four months for continued instruction and evaluation to build on their academy experience.”
An Al Jazeera survey of representatives for police departments in major cities such as Miami, Detroit, Boston, Los Angeles and Houston revealed differences in how rookie officers are exposed to high-crime areas and in how they are supervised at various agencies.
“When a rookie officer is placed into a precinct, he is placed into whichever precinct needs the manpower, regardless of how high or low the crime in that particular precinct is,” a representative for the Detroit Police Department wrote in an email. Detroit’s roughly 2,300 officers generally work in patrol cars and are assigned to a supervisor who oversees no more than 10 officers.
“In this job, we teach them to be careful anywhere,” said Jorge Gomez, assistant chief of police for Miami, where rookie officers are assigned to their locations at random and are rotated into each of the city’s three divisions while under supervision of a field training officer. “You could receive the worst call of your life anywhere.”
Rookies are also randomly — not on the basis of an area’s crime levels — assigned to locations in Los Angeles and are placed where needed when they graduate from the academy in Houston and Boston.
“There is no seniority-based approach to assigning officers,” Sgt. Mike McCarthy of the Boston Police Department said in an email.
“There is a 1-to-1 ratio of rookie to field training officer,” said Officer Norma Eisenman of the LAPD, which has approximately 10,000 officers. The officers work in two-man unit patrol cars. “They marry each other, is what we call it.”
Tendency to escalate
Sal LaBarbera, an LAPD detective supervisor who worked under Bratton when he served as L.A.’s chief of police, said he had faith in Bratton’s vision for New York.
“He’s been very successful fighting crime,” LaBarbera said. “He holds his staff accountable for what occurs in their division — that they’re doing the right thing for the right reasons.”
LaBarbera credited Bratton with what he considered successful integration of rookie officers in Los Angeles.
“Our rookie officers are always assigned to a senior officer during their one-year probation,” LaBarbera said. “It wouldn’t be fair to put two rookie officers together. It wouldn’t be fair to the community, to either officer or the department.”
Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center in New York, also supports changes and hopes they come fast.
“The problem with sending rookie officers into what may be considered the most dangerous neighborhoods is that it’s a very difficult job to police those areas,” he said. “You’re sending people in who have virtually no experience on the ground. They’ll come with a greater level of anxiety and insecurity.”
Retired New York City Detective Erik Pistek worked under Bratton during his first tenure as commissioner in 1994 and described him as a “no-nonsense guy.” Pistek expressed confidence in Bratton’s approach and agreed that younger officers need as much supervision as possible.
“Young cops,” Pistek said, “they tend to escalate situations instead of de-escalate.”