Give the NYPD a chance to reform itself

Critics fail to realize that legislating police policy is not as effective

The most recent criticism thrown at the New York Police Department is not about a crime spike, an allegation of excessive force or an internal scandal. Strangely, the barbs came after the NYPD took steps to improve its relationship with New Yorkers.

It began in 2012 when City Council members moved to mandate policing reforms following a controversial period during which there were well over 600,000 annual stop-and-frisks, largely of young men of color. Council members added to the package of bills in 2014, calling the legislation the Right to Know Act.

If enacted, the laws would require that officers provide a contact card to civilians they interact with, explain the reason for a stop or search, and obtain explicit consent when requesting to search a person or property.

The act would also compel officers to explain the civilian’s Fourth Amendment right to refuse a search before one is conducted, and to obtain objective proof that an individual gave voluntary and informed consent to a search.

The NYPD pushed back hard, calling the proposals “part of the continuing effort to bridle the police in the city of New York.” Mayor Bill de Blasio sided with the police.

Then something unexpected happened. Last month, rather than holding a vote on the Right to Know Act, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and the de Blasio administration reached an agreement with outgoing Commissioner Bill Bratton. The Police Department adopted most of the council’s planned reforms. Officers will soon hand out business cards when asked, and will be trained to request consent for searches. If they’re denied, they’ll walk away.

The compromise was met with a torrent of anger. The controversy was not about what police agreed to do—it’s whether they should be legally required to do it. But one might ask, does it really matter?

The surprising answer is that yes, it does. It matters a lot. Voluntary change is always far more effective than when it is forced.

Read more from Richard Aborn at Crain’s New York Business. Mr Aborn is the president of the Citizens Crime Commission of New York City, a nonpartisan organization working to reduce crime and improve the criminal-justice system.