Can This ‘Smart Policing’ Program Teach the NYPD How to Listen?

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Environmental Activists Hold Rally And March In Lower Manhattan
A NYPD officer stands guard as people take part in a global climate march on November 29.Photo: Kena Betancur/2015 Getty Images

Deputy police commissioner Michael Julian likes to begin his training sessions with New York’s police officers by showing screenshots from the latest cop show, brought to you by your local smartphone. In four images taken from viral videos shot by private citizens and enhanced with Batman-style graphics (“punch!” “kick!”), officers are shown assaulting defenseless civilians. Julian lets the assembled cops linger on the images before breaking the silence. Cameras are nothing to fear, he says, if an officer always seeks to defuse a confrontation. 

Julian walked his first patrol beat in 1970, and he was living happily in retirement in Australia when, shortly after the death of Eric Garner, New York’s police commissioner, William Bratton, recruited him to aid in reforming the department. The program Julian helped devise with a small team is part of a three-day course designed to emphasize the civil in cop-civilian relations. The course’s curriculum combines both the science and art of policing. Officers learn new physical-control techniques, designed to avoid the neck and head, and ways to work as a team to subdue a resisting civilian. For Julian’s portion of the training, a one-day seminar called Smart Policing, he emphasizes the way a cop’s own mental and physical well-being is essential to keeping a cool head.

The course is coupled with a 2016 recruitment campaign that seeks to change the composition of the NYPD by discouraging “thrill-seekers” and “adrenaline junkies,” as Julian calls them. An early draft of a subway ad for new recruits lists reasons not to join the NYPD including “if you prefer people like yourself” and “if you have to be right all the time.” In a video I watched of a six-hour pilot version of the Smart Policing training given to 57 sergeants at the Police Academy in College Point, Queens, Julian used real police reports as the basis for role-playing scenarios. To say there was reluctance in the room is an understatement. The sergeants — all but ten of them men, most of them white — held back when Julian asked for volunteers. Looking for a starting point, Julian asked questions. “Tell me about your precincts,” he said, injecting a bit of energy into the room. “Tell me what’s going on.” As they vented about bureaucratic headaches and personnel moves, Julian listened intently, asking follow-up questions and demonstrating the active listening he hoped they would cultivate. Eventually, he’d built enough of a rapport to persuade them to get on their feet and do a little acting.

One of the role-playing scenarios involved three teenagers sitting in a stairwell, playing music loud enough to elicit complaints from neighbors. Imagine, Julian said, the teenagers turn down the music, but one of them yells out disrespectfully as the officers walk away. The cops circle back, escalating the confrontation. “Why?” Julian asked. “What was the objective? To get them to turn down the music. They did. So walk away.” Stage presences aside, the sergeants recognized the situation: a routine moment when a small incident fails to stay small. Julian differentiated between two takes on respect—the respect that acknowledges power and the respect that acknowledges a human being. The former, he said: “That’s all ego.” The new training course rolled out in January, and by February 2016, it will have reached the entire NYPD. Already, civilian complaints in October were down 11 percent from the same time last year. Julian acknowledged that three days of training alone will not change the nature of the NYPD. The program needs to be reinforced throughout the department, in both officers’ guidelines and in recruitment. “I am only the vehicle,” he said. “The driver of this training is Bill Bratton.”

*A version of this article appears in the December 14, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.