Camilo José Vergara

Brass Tacks: Bill Bratton, Joseph Zayas and others propose policies and programs that could make a difference now

A Survey

September 27, 2023

Six ways New York can spare more people from shootings today

Six ways New York can spare more people from shootings today

Point Police Where Violence Happens

By William J. Bratton

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Bruen case last summer, overturning New York State’s Sullivan Law, has established a new landscape in the efforts to control gun violence. This is not so simply because the decision has made concealed carry of firearms far more likely in New York City. The decision also set a new standard for constitutional gun regulation, ruling that any current gun regulation can only be legitimized by identifying an analogous regulation dating from the era of the Second Amendment, in 1791. There being very few gun crimes and even fewer gun murders at that time, analogous regulations from 1791 are few and far between. So, as a direct consequence of this new standard, there are now more than 80 cases in federal courts across the nation challenging gun laws of every stripe because they lack analogous forerunners in the 18th century.

From the policing perspective, all this probably means that help will not be coming in the form of legislation or court decisions that tighten gun laws and that we will probably face a progressive loosening of these laws in the near term. So it falls to police departments to intensify their precision-focused preventive and investigative efforts under current law. New York City already has an extraordinary multiagency program in place called the Gun Violence Strategy Partners (GVSP), under the direction of Deputy Police Commissioner Chauncey Parker, which conducts daily meetings tracking gun crime and gun criminals to keep investigative and prosecutorial resources focused sharply on gun violence.

I would emphasize the importance of two other tactical methods that served us well in the 1990s, when shootings and murders hit peaks, and in the mid-2010s, when we drove shooting and murders down to historical lows: first, intensive uniformed presence at shooting hotspots, closing down such flashpoints as dice games, unlicensed bottle clubs and spontaneous parties where many shootings occur; and second, spearheading long-term investigations into gang organizations to build violence-conspiracy cases against multiple members of violence-prone gangs, removing these violent actors for extended sentences. The hiring of 3,000 more NYPD police officers to pre-pandemic levels and further criminal justice reform efforts would also be of significant benefit.

William J. Bratton, former two-time commissioner of the New York Police Department and former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, is executive chairman of risk advisory at Teneo.


Close More Cases

By John Pfaff

One thing the New York Police Department could do to address gun violence and homicides would be to push up its clearance rates for these offenses, especially in Black communities. For example, a recent examination of NYPD crime statistics from 2020 found that while the NYPD made arrests in 62% of all murders (itself a low number), that rate fell to 53% for Black victims, and it was 61% for Hispanic victims — compared to 84% for white ones. Official clearance rates for homicides have climbed since then, but it is likely that the racial disparities persist. Official clearance rates for nonhomicide shooting crimes remain even lower, at 40% for 2022, and surely are racially disparate as well.

Low clearance rates unsurprisingly lead to more violence. A recent study by Innovating Justice asked high-risk youth in New York City why they carry guns, and a common answer was a fear of being victimized themselves, due in no small part to the sense of impunity that comes with low clearance rates. Furthermore, those same youth said watching officers arrest people for low-level crimes while homicides and shootings grew cold only increased their resentment toward the police, which in turn reduced cooperation and trust, and, thus, clearance rates. It’s true that such enforcement may also be a way to target more serious crimes, but evidence suggests that the “hit rates” for finding things like guns are low, and so the resentment costs may not be worth the benefits.

Ideally, police departments like the NYPD should focus on redeploying officers away from targeting low-level offenses toward crimes like homicide and gun violence. As Jill Leovy eloquently demonstrated several years back, high-crime communities suffer less from overpolicing than from mispolicing. To be clear, restructuring is not easy to do. Departments cannot simply take junior officers making street-level drug busts, put them in suits, and say “now go clear murders.” Detective work takes training and experience, and the skills that work as a beat cop do not always transfer over to investigation work. It will require changes in how police are recruited, trained and paid; this is not an overnight fix.

John Pfaff is a professor of law at the Fordham University School of Law.


Clear the Backlogs

By Joseph A. Zayas

There was a period of time in New York City, not all that long ago, when it would not have been unrealistic to think that, year after year, crime rates would head inexorably in one direction: down. In 1990, there were 2,245 murders in the city, a record. Five years later, that number had been cut in half. And it kept falling during the 2000s, eventually dipping beneath 300 in 2017. Violent crime rates fell during the administrations of Republican, independent and Democratic mayors alike, and with different police department leadership.

As it would turn out, this positive trajectory was not irreversible. In 2020, the number of shootings in the city doubled from the previous year and stayed at that elevated level in 2021. The underlying causes of this unsettling spike in violence continue to be debated. But the unprecedented societal disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic were surely a significant factor. During that long period of social distancing, self-isolation, closed schools and restrictions on gatherings, the courts remained operational by transitioning to mostly virtual proceedings. But our core functions on the criminal side — grand jury proceedings, hearings and jury trials — were severely curtailed, and our backlog of cases grew as a result. Languishing criminal cases are problematic for many reasons, but it’s worth emphasizing what has long been considered conventional wisdom: “The deterrent efficacy of criminal sanctions is presumably diluted when their application is postponed and consequently made less certain.”

An analysis court administrators undertook during the summer of 2021 revealed that prosecutions where the most serious offense charged was second-degree criminal possession of a weapon made up a disproportionate number of our pending cases, nearly 30%. Consequently, we decided to launch a special initiative to try to address this backlog. Why gun cases? First, as mentioned, they made up a large proportion of our inventory. Plus, gun possession cases are often relatively straightforward: They rarely involve civilian witnesses, and many times the suppression hearings can be dispositive. Moreover, while these cases may not be the most serious that come into the courts, guns are involved in many types of violent crimes.

We launched our gun initiative in August 2021. The key features of the program were dedicated, specially trained judges presiding over every stage of the cases, and policies designed with an eye toward efficiency, including short adjournments between court dates, intense conferencing and expedited hearings and trials. It worked: In two years, we reduced our total inventory of gun cases by more than half, from 4,200 to 2,000.

How much can initiatives like this help address the increase in gun violence that we’ve experienced in New York City over the past few years? I’m not in a position to answer that question. But I can say that the efficient resolution of criminal cases, for many reasons, remains a top priority.

Joseph A. Zayas is chief administrative judge of the New York State Unified Court System.


Hire More Women

By Tanya Meisenholder

Research shows women officers use less force and less excessive force, are named in fewer complaints and lawsuits, are perceived by communities as being more honest and compassionate, see better outcomes for crime victims, especially in sexual assault cases, and make fewer discretionary arrests.

The underrepresentation of women in policing undermines public safety. Findings suggest that communities served by a police agency with greater gender diversity are more likely to report crimes and engage in the criminal justice process. This is critical and can assist with the investigation and clearance of violent crime in New York City.

To do this, agencies must carefully assess barriers to recruiting, promoting and retaining women. They should actively ensure representation in units that come into contact with victims and investigate crimes. Agencies should also conduct their research to determine if the outcomes vary by the gender of an officer in their municipality.

In the NYPD, 20% of the approximately 33,000 sworn officers are women. About 11% of executives and 16% of detectives are women. Though this is above the national average and recent recruit classes indicate a positive trend in hiring women, more work must be done.

Focusing on increasing representation and ensuring women have opportunities will positively impact public safety.

Tanya Meisenholder currently serves as the director of gender equity at the Policing Project at NYU School of Law. In this role, she oversees the 30x30 Initiative to advance women in policing. Before joining NYU, she spent nearly 20 years at the NYPD and is the former deputy commissioner of equity and inclusion.


Serve the Survivors

By Caterina Roman

To do more to reduce shootings and homicides, New York City should widen the lens through which street violence is addressed, increasing focus on and support for survivors of gun violence. Despite New York’s framework of established statutory victims’ rights, a stark disparity exists wherein individuals who are known to the police or have been involved in violence are less likely to be afforded their basic rights as crime victims. Respecting and supporting all victims, regardless of their involvement in previous crimes, would decrease the harms from untreated trauma and exposure to violence and help limit the cycle of gun violence — reducing the likelihood of retaliation and further lives lost.

Policymakers must recognize and address the imbalance exacerbated by government-funded service exclusions for victim services. My research shows that many written and unwritten policies penalize victims due to their historical or current interaction with the criminal legal system and noncooperation with police. Racism and entrenched biases shape postinjury interactions between Black survivors of violence and law enforcement, further compounding barriers to services and support and limiting access to basic medical and psychological services, legal advocacy and compensation for losses they have experienced. In addition to increasing access to a wide range of social and health services, true support would mean that housing relocation services are amply funded, allowing street-involved individuals, their siblings and family members to be relocated — temporarily or permanently — to reduce that cycle of violence.

A promising initiative to redress these disparities lies in the Make It Happen program, started by the Center for Justice Innovation. This program operates through a culturally competent framework, extending mentorship, intensive case management, clinical interventions and supportive workshops to young men aged 16 to 24 who have experienced violence. In a nutshell, this program offers connection, purpose and security to young people, potentially replacing the need to obtain these from the street.

In summary, dismantling discriminatory policies, challenging ingrained biases and ensuring equal access to support for all victims of street violence will go far in both supporting basic human rights and decreasing gun violence.

Caterina Roman is a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Temple University.


Stop Aggressive Stop-and-Frisk

By Chris Dunn

A valuable part of identifying strategies to reduce gun violence is to debunk strategies falsely claimed to accomplish this goal. In New York, perhaps the most notable example of such a strategy is stop-and-frisk.

During the three-term mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg, stop-and-frisk soared from under 100,000 reported stops in 2002 to nearly 700,000 in 2011. As public debate about the tactic grew more critical, city officials — led by Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly — aggressively defended the practice, arguing it was a key tool in seizing guns and thus stemming gun violence. Fast forward to now, with the administration of Eric Adams making similar claims, particularly to justify last year’s resumption of the so-called Neighborhood Safety Teams, the successors to the Anti-Crime Squads the intervening de Blasio administration abolished.

Through litigation, the NYCLU has extensive data about NYPD stop-and-frisk and gun recovery since 2002. At its peak in 2011, the NYPD recorded 685,724 stops, an increase of 524,873 stops from 2003. That surge produced just 174 guns above those recovered in 2003, or one more gun for every 3,000 additional people stopped. And the nearly 5 million stops between 2003 and 2013 yielded just 7,778 guns, about 15 guns for every 10,000 stops.

The lesson is clear: Stop-and-frisk does not recover guns. As policymakers move forward with innovative gun-reduction strategies, we can take aggressive stop-and-frisk off the table.

Chris Dunn is the legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which is the New York State affiliate of the ACLU.