Government Accountability in Action: The New York City Police Department

Some people have claimed that accountability in the public sector is even more difficult than the private sector because of the degree of bureaucracy involved. This is the primary reason that many are pushing for increased privatization of government services.

History has shown that there are limits to the degree of privatization that society will accept, so we need to address the urgency of introducing accountability into government. Fortunately, there are examples of such implementation, and the Police Department of New York City is an excellent demonstration of intolerance of the FreePasser mentality.

NYPD in the 1970’s and 1980’s: Bureaucracy in Action

Crime in New York during the 1970’s and 1980’s was rampant. People were discouraged and the malaise hanging over the city was accepted as a normal part of life. Subways were unsafe to travel at night and “muggings” were a part of every nightly newscast. We saw anger at this situation arising in period movies such as “Death Wish.”

When anyone tried to deal with the situation, their efforts disappeared into the huge city bureaucracy - classic FreePassers.

A New Approach to Crime: The Bratton Era

In 1994, Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed William Bratton as Commissioner of the NYPD. With an iron hand, Bratton brought a new approach to the NYPD:

  • The CompuStat system of tracking crimes was introduced and allowed police resources to be directed quickly to high crime areas.
  • Better educated police officers were recruited.
  • By decentralizing the bureaucracy, decisions were made at the precinct level, and local leaders were rewarded and penalized accordingly.
  • Petty crimes which had previously been ignored now became a focus. The backlog of unserved warrants was cleared.

The Impossible Happens: A Dramatic Reduction in Crime in New York

These initiatives, among others, resulted in a dramatic reduction in crime in New York City during the 1990’s. This continued even after Commissioner Bratton left, and Michael Bloomberg became Mayor. The system proved to be able to outlast its developers.

Similar Results in Other Locations

Some people claim that this was a situation specific to New York. However, Commissioner Bratton subsequently became Police Chief of Los Angeles and effected decreases in crime using the same system of accountability. He also achieved similar results in other locations as a principal with Kroll Associates, a private security consulting firm.

The underlying principle in the Bratton strategy was accountability - results mattered and those in charge bore direct responsibility for their successes and failures.  Under-performing members of the command structure were replaced, resources were directed to where they were needed most, and the status quo was unacceptable. The “Civil Service” mentality that fostered doing the least in the short term to ensure a comfortable pension was scrapped in favor of a demand for performance.  The demise of the FreePasser in the NYPD offers hope to those of us who are urging similar changes in government institutions large and small.

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