Does the NYPD Have a Morale Problem?

+ Brandon Fuller

Chris Smith’s article in New York Magazine raises the potentially important issue of unhappiness in the NYPD. It’s an engaging read but ultimately unconvincing. Here’s the thrust of the piece:

The department [Commissioner Ray Kelly] rebuilt has two striking characteristics: its effectiveness and its unhappiness.

Smith offers a series of officer anecdotes, many focused on the pressures of CompStat. He also revisits recent police controversies, major and minor, like the ticket fixing scandal, the rule banning officers from wearing unlicensed NYPD gear, stop-and-frisk, and the Ramarley Graham tragedy. He makes the case that Kelly’s management style, as effective as it’s been in reducing crime, is turning the rank and file against him.

The issue of how morale effects police performance is an important one, but Smith’s piece doesn’t present any real evidence that there’s a serious underlying problem. He spoke with lots of officers who expressed stress and unhappiness but it’s not clear what fraction of the force Smith’s interviewees represent or whether the intensity of their views is representative.

Policing is a tough job and it’s not surprising that the stress makes some cops unhappy. But unhappy compared to what? Was the force happier in the days before the Bratton/Kelly managerial shifts, when it was less effective and more corrupt? Is it less happy than forces elsewhere in the United States, in the world?

Smith also raises the spectre that the pressures of CompStat lead cops to fudge the numbers. This possibility is certainly something to keep an eye on, particularly in a managerial system where performance evaluation is based on the numbers. But the historical evidence seems at odds with the notion that fudging is a systemic problem. In The City that Became Safe, Frank Zimring notes that independent victims surveys are consistent with police reported declines in crime during the CompStat era.

Toward the end of the piece, Smith recounts his conversation with Kelly, who offers a strong rebuttal to Smith’s hypothesis that numbers-driven accountability is compromising the department. Here’s an excerpt:

“We have metrics, like the rest of the world has metrics,” Kelly says firmly. “We want cops to do what we want them to do. We don’t want them to do what they like doing. It’s the way every business runs. I don’t see that, and I think it would manifest itself in people leaving. You vote with your feet, and you can retire at an early age here, and the retirement numbers are going down. So to me, that doesn’t necessarily support that theory. I wish everybody was happy, but that’s not what I’m paid for.”

In a follow-up piece it would be interesting to hear what Smith thinks could be done to address the emergent morale problem that he perceives. Not holding cops accountable for things like ticket-fixing or wearing inappropriate t-shirts with NYPD insignia seems like a step in the wrong direction.

Whether one agrees that there is a morale problem or not, perhaps an independent survey that monitors police sentiment could be useful. Much as the FAA gleans valuable safety recommendations from NTSB reports, the NYPD might be able to adjust in response to independent reports on the morale of the rank and file – not so much to keep sub-par cops happy as to keep exceptional cops in the fold.

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