It’s 4 a.m. at an unmarked and unremarkable building in an industrial stretch of Brooklyn, in New York City. Inside a hive of more than 60 NYPD officers and detectives are gearing up to make a series of major arrests that reflect the department’s new approach to crime.
Deputy Chief Michael Kemper, in a navy suit and slicked back hair, addresses the teams that will soon be kicking in doors and tearing open closets in search of saleable quantities of drugs. He tells them, “We're putting you in a very, very dangerous position.”
Undercover detectives have spent nearly a year collecting evidence and identifying the suspects. A grand jury has heard the evidence, and 12 people who will be arrested today are already under indictment.
Four squadrons of unmarked vans, cars, and SUVs snake through the pre-dawn streets to four separate locations, and by the time police yell their first “Hands up!” the drone of the NYPD’s Bell helicopters can be heard overhead.
Eleven minutes later the suspects have been cuffed, and the police have seized heroin, crack, thousands in cash and eight cell phones full of communications between alleged drug dealers. Months of police work have disrupted a major drug operation — all without stopping and frisking random members of the public on city streets, the controversial “stop-and-frisk” tactic that sparked mass protests before the NYPD had to scrap it.
It’s what the nation’s largest local police force calls Precision Policing — a fresh take on law enforcement that replaces confrontation with more community engagement and more transparency.
New York is the nation’s safest big city. During the past 25 years the crime rate has fallen from historic highs to lows not seen since the early 1960s.
But despite that drop in crime, friction between the NYPD and the residents of New York’s tougher neighborhoods, especially teen males, only seemed to get worse. Part of the problem was tactics like “stop and frisk,” which allowed officers to search anyone they believed might commit a crime.
“A lot of people don’t do anything wrong,” said Brooklyn resident Shanasia Maddox, “and they still get harassed by the cops.”
“I mean pulled over, stop and frisk, being patted down, anything the cops would do to stop you.”
Sometimes, she said, it’s “just you looking at them the wrong way.”
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The NYPD is trying to change its relationship with the public with a reinvented version of neighborhood policing, as envisioned by the two men who put the program together, Commissioner James O’Neill and Chief of Department Terrence Monahan.
Monahan, who oversees 36,000 uniformed cops, said, “I've asked my cops, 'Reach out to the people in the community that don't like you.' ”
Monahan says the crisis of trust between the police and the people they serve had already taken a hit around 2011 because of stop and frisk. That year saw the highest number of stops of civilians by the NYPD, nearly 700,000.
But things got worse in 2014 after the police shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Missouri, and the unrest that followed, and then the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, who died after a chokehold by an NYPD officer.
“It all culminated,” said Monahan, “in the assassinations of [Wenjian] Liu and [Rafael] Ramos, two of our police officers sitting in a radio car.” The officers were shot and killed on Dec. 20, 2014, two weeks after a grand jury declined to indict the officer who had held Garner in a chokehold. According to Monahan, a “deranged” man decided to murder Liu and Ramos “only because they wore this blue uniform.”
Monahan said the murders were a turning point. “We had to change the way we policed. Crime had been going down but cop morale was low, communities didn't have trust in us. We had to come up with a new system of policing to try and change that dynamic.”
Precision Policing — investigations that target the small percentage of offenders who do most of the crime in the city — results in cases that take crime off the street with fewer stops of non-offenders.
Random police stops have plummeted — down 98 percent from their peak.
The overhaul has also included removing cops who cause problems. The NYPD told NBC News that 89 uniformed officers were terminated in 2017 and a total of 216 have been terminated or forced out since 2014.
In the once crime-ridden upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, NBC News did a ride-along to see Monahan’s vision of neighborhood policing play out.
Neighborhood Coordination Officers or NCO's Natalie Lebron and Amber Guzman visited a local playground filled with kids after school and interacted with them.
Said Lebron, “We want them to know that if something does come up or if there's ever an emergency, they can feel comfortable to call us and contact us. It's not just a stranger who's going to show up to their door.”
She says she and her partner Officer Guzman made it a point to meet every business owner along 11 blocks of Broadway in their assigned stretch of the local precinct.
The relationships are important, said Lebron. “People feel a little more at ease. Like, ‘Okay, I can file a report,’ or, ‘I'll file the report, because things are gonna get done.’
“We drive by and they say hi. So it kind of feels natural for everyone to be seen with us, talking.”
City Council Member Donovan Richards, who was born and raised in the Queens neighborhood he represents, says the NCO program is a start.
“You can really start to see the change now, but there's still a whole lot more work that has to be done,” said Richards.
Richards chairs the council’s Committee on Public Safety and had some tough interactions with the police when he was stopped as a 13-year-old.
He said, “At that time I had no idea that you shouldn't go into your pockets, because weapons were drawn on us. And that is an experience I will never forget.”
Richards says he’s not sure some relationships can be repaired but he says you have to try.
“I think these one-on-one daily interactions with the community are going a long way in repairing a lot of the damage that was done by the NYPD in our communities under prior administrations.”
Chief Monahan says the NYPD is committed to making it work.
“It's been said many times, it's hard to hate up close. You may hate just a blue uniform, but when you know that person, know them as a human, it's different.“