Has de Blasio Launched a New Era of Law Enforcement?

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New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio speaks at a news conference about street fatalities on January 16, 2014 in New York City. In the wake of a series of recent pedestrian fatalities, the mayor announced today the "Vision Zero" plan which aims to eliminate all fatalities to drivers, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians on New York's streets within 10 years.
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Banker misbehavior is buying the NYPD a major technology upgrade. In June, BNP Paribas pled guilty to money laundering charges and paid a $8.9 billion penalty. This morning, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr., and police commissioner Bill Bratton unveiled how they’ll spend a chunk of the settlement cash.

The $160 million worth of new tablets, smartphones, and fiber optics won’t just deepen and speed police access to everything from criminal histories to surveillance-camera video — it could cut response times to common crimes and prove invaluable in heading off a terror attack.

But today’s announcement also hints at something farther-reaching: A rethinking of how the city’s law enforcement apparatus handles low-level quality-of-life crimes.

The mayor takes credit for “ending” stop-and-frisk, though its use was already in drastic decline when he took office. And Bratton promised to retrain the entire department on chokehold policy after the death of Eric Garner. But plans for the harder work of reforming the NYPD to reflect de Blasio’s rhetoric about improving community-police relations have been slower to emerge. The new “Mobility Initiative” could be seen as the real start of the de Blasio era of law enforcement.

One puzzle piece is Bratton’s growing collaboration with the Manhattan DA. They’ve been teaming up for months to fight street gangs in housing projects, for instance. Today’s alliance is also a canny bureaucratic move in a time of tight budgets. The partnership gives the NYPD access to a new pile of money: The DA’s office is contributing $90 million of its share of the BNP settlement to the pot for the NYPD’s tech enhancement.

The policy implications, though, are more intriguing. Next year, the NYPD plans to add fingerprint scanning to the new mobile platform. That raises some tricky civil-liberties issues, but it could reduce the number of people arrested and sent to court in part because they lack identification. Cops could establish whether an individual has any outstanding warrants and, if not, issue an on-site summons for, say, public drinking and send the accused on his way, instead of making an arrest and sending the suspect to be arraigned.

Vance is also exploring ways to divert as many as 17,000 low-level cases a year away from the courts and into community service and counseling programs. “We’ve been thinking about this for a long time in the DA’s office,” Vance tells me. “I’m a genuine fan of Ray Kelly. But Bill Bratton believes this can be a better way to go. If you improve the relationship between the community and law enforcement, you are going to enhance public safety. And it’s definitely fairer. It speaks to what we all want to figure out: How do we move from a system that is so heavily weighted toward prosecuting certain people and do a better job at interventions with kids from those communities the first or second time they come through?”

That kind of sweeping change, expanded to the other four boroughs, would require more than millions of dollars in handheld gadgets. If it works, though, de Blasio and Bratton will need to come up with a catchy name — something as memorable as Broken Windows or Compstat — for their innovation.