The Last Neighborhood Cops: The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in New York Public Housing

The Last Neighborhood Cops: The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in New York Public Housing

The Last Neighborhood Cops: The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in New York Public Housing

The Last Neighborhood Cops: The Rise and Fall of Community Policing in New York Public Housing

Synopsis

In recent years, community policing has transformed American law enforcement by promising to build trust between citizens and officers. Today, three-quarters of American police departments claim to embrace the strategy. But decades before the phrase was coined, the New York City Housing Authority Police Department (HAPD) had pioneered community-based crime-fighting strategies.

The Last Neighborhood Cops reveals the forgotten history of the residents and cops who forged community policing in the public housing complexes of New York City during the second half of the twentieth century. Through a combination of poignant storytelling and historical analysis, Fritz Umbach draws on buried and confidential police records and voices of retired officers and older residents to help explore the rise and fall of the HAPD's community-based strategy, while questioning its tactical effectiveness. The result is a unique perspective on contemporary debates of community policing and historical developments chronicling the influence of poor and working-class populations on public policy making.

Excerpt

Mary Alfson paused, hunting for the right phrase. She was trying to capture for her grandson, Nicholas, how she and her neighbors in her South Bronx public housing development had viewed the police at the explosive close of the 1960s. Recalling the Housing Police who had patrolled the projects in those years, she settled on a simile to express her emotions, still forceful after four decades, about law enforcement in a neighborhood that had once epitomized bleak urban realities. “The officers,” she pronounced, leaning in for emphasis, “were like family.”

This nostalgia may surprise many today, particularly against the backdrop of countless popular and scholarly depictions of hostility between nonwhite residents and the police as a fact of big city life. But memories such as Mary Alfson’s resonate broadly with those who still recall the New York City Housing Authority Police Department (HAPD), an autonomous police force that, between 1952 and 1995, served the roughly one out of ten New Yorkers who made public housing their home. At a time when black and Latino communities elsewhere in United States increasingly saw the police as oppressive, those living in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complexes not only consistently supported their police but also, from the 1950s onward, regularly called for more, not fewer, officers. Ask older NYCHA residents and former Housing officers to explain this seeming exception to received urban truths and you will likely get an earful about the HAPD’s thirty-year experiment with crime-fighting strategies that would later be called “community policing.”

Although the Housing Authority Police Department’s remarkable history of innovations is little known outside of New York’s public housing complexes, the idea of community policing itself, and the publicity it has received, have changed the way Americans now talk about law enforcement. Indeed, few developments in police science loom larger in both the public imagination and . . .

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