Exiting John Jay, Travis Weighs In On Enforcement Changes, Bail and Rikers

Jeremy Travis was talking crime and punishment, the drop of enforcement actions by the NYPD of one million compared to five years ago and the “profound change in enforcement strategy” that accounted for it, when he was asked July 11 about a Brooklyn judge’s decision two days earlier to release without bail a man who had entered the 83rd Precinct stationhouse in Brooklyn, tried to wrest a Police Officer’s gun from her holster, and when finally subdued, stated that he had come there to kill cops.

Acting Supreme Court Justice Loren Baily-Schiffman was already facing withering criticism from police-union leaders and editorial writers for her decision, and on this occasion, the President of John Jay College—who is generally slower to criticize than those groups—admitted he was baffled by her ruling.

‘Hard to Understand’

Referring to Kurdel Emmanuel, the emotionally-disturbed man who had been released despite a prosecutor’s request that he be held on $250,000 bail, Mr. Travis said, “I find it hard to understand that this person would be released with no bail, given the behavior and the history of mental illness. We have people on the street who are mentally ill and just don’t show it, and it’s difficult to predict when somebody is going to snap. I think the hope is that in these cases there is a full discussion before a decision [on bail] is made.”

What had made the judge’s decision particularly puzzling, as well as infuriating, was that four days before Mr. Emmanuel’s bizarre conduct and statements in Brooklyn, another mentally-ill man—this one in The Bronx and with a criminal record that included violence against the police—had walked up to an NYPD command vehicle in which Police Officer Miosotis Familia was sitting and fired his gun, killing her. That having occurred so close to the incident at the 83rd Pre­cinct—and before her funeral was held—would have figured to leave the judge in the Brooklyn case determined to err on the side of caution, if only to avoid triggering the firestorm of criticism that ensued when she freed Mr. Emmanuel.

Part of the problem, Mr. Travis said, is that the stat­ute governing bail in New York State does not require that judges consider the dangerousness of the individuals before them in setting it. That is not the case in many other states, he noted, and is also “disingenuous in the extreme. Judges [in the state] every day consider dangerousness [and] we would be much better off if we allowed judges to explicitly consider” it in making bail decisions, and “whether there’s too great a risk to let that defendant go. You would then let that defendant challenge that decision.”

Altered School’s Make-Up

His ruminations on the subject were reflective of the man who over the past 13 years has upgraded John Jay’s academic standing and altered its make-up from a school once known as a training ground for cops and other law-enforcement officials to what he calls “a very traditional college,” even while expanding its working relationships with not only the NYPD but also the Fire and Correction departments.

He will be saying goodbye to all that at the end of this month, when he will be succeeded by Karol V. Mason, a former U.S. Assistant Attorney General under President Obama who in that job specialized in juvenile-justice issues, bail reform and helping individuals leaving prison re-integrate productively in the outside world.

When he announced a year ago that he would be stepping down, Mr. Travis had said he would be accepting a five-year appointment as a Professor at the City University of New York Graduate Center. But earlier this month, he accepted a position as senior vice president of criminal justice at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, which in less than a decade, he said, had gained a reputation for “supporting disruptive ideas” in the field and “made enormous impact. It is now the largest funder of criminal-justice research in the nation,” focusing on bail reform, policing issues and a “data-driven justice initiative” aimed at helping both the police and doctors to deal with emotionally-disturbed persons.

A Recurring Dilemma

It’s a subject that has had increasing resonance for police officers and the city because of a series of controversial cases over the past nine months, including the murder of Officer Familia and the killing of Emergency Medical Technician Yadira Arroyo when she was struck by her own ambulance after it was commandeered by a schizophrenic man with a long rap sheet who had been released by a Bronx judge less than a month earlier after committing a robbery and then kicking out the window of a police van when he was taken into custody.

On the other side of the ledger, there had been the fatal shooting by NYPD Sgt. Hugh Barry last October of Deborah Danner, a 66-year-old woman who struggled with schizophrenia for decades, whom he said he had been able to calm sufficiently for her to drop a scissors she had been wielding, only to then grab a baseball bat and swing it in his direction. To defend himself, Sergeant Barry fired two shots and killed her; he found himself quickly criticized by Mayor de Blasio and then indicted in late May, with the biggest shock being the murder charge lodged against him by the Bronx District Attorney’s Office.

The police unions, particularly the Sergeants Benevolent Association, have been furious about both the Mayor’s criticism of Mr. Barry (and to a lesser extent, remarks by Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill that the department had “failed” Ms. Danner) and the decision to bring a top charge against the Sergeant that had not been presented against a city cop since the four officers charged—and ultimately acquitted—in the fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in The Bronx in 1999.

‘Failures Dumped on Them’

SBA President Edward D. Mullins had countered Mr. O’Neill’s remark by saying that it was the city’s mental-health system that had failed Ms. Danner, and Mr. Travis said this was reflective of the complaint “you’re hearing from front-line cops: that society’s failures are dumped on them” in areas that also include the education system in poorer city neighborhoods and homelessness and social-service shortcomings.

He credited the Mayor’s wife, Chirlane McCray, for using her platform to raise public consciousness about the need for expanded services and improved treatment of the mentally ill, and said that what city and state government should also be doing is “rethink the response to crime by asking who else besides the police should be responsible for thinking about that.”

While conservative critics have questioned many of the criminal-justice changes made by the Mayor, Mr. Travis argued that the more-traditional “tough-on-crime” approach of his two predecessors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloom­berg, had run its course, and by the latter part of Mr. Bloom­berg’s 12-year tenure was having an increasingly negative impact on relations with minority communities, without the positive results that might have made it tenable.

‘Stop’ Drops Made Case

One key factor in the sharp decline in enforcement actions, he said was the product of decriminalizing quality-of-life offenses at the prodding of the City Council in tandem with Mr. de Blasio and his not-always-thrilled Police Commissioners. But while stop-and-frisks have trailed off to be almost negligible under the current Mayor, a far-greater reduction came in the final two years of the Bloomberg administration, as they fell from a record 685,000 in 2011 to 191,000 in 2013. The fact that crime, including murders, continued dropping steadily made clear, Mr. Travis said, that the overuse of the stops had not nearly been worth the trouble it created in police/community relations in minority neighborhoods.

The decline to that degree in the likelihood that a young man of color “would be stopped, frisked and arrested” was “absolutely breathtaking,” Mr. Travis said, and a positive development from “a profound change in enforcement strategy.”

Regarding the higher volume of police confrontations with minority youth that preceded the decline in stops during the past five years, he remarked of the heavier enforcement activity, “Was it necessary in a different time? Perhaps. I came of age during the crack era, when it was all hands on deck. But we’re in a different era, when it isn’t necessary to have such stringent enforcement” and the “negative consequences” that came with it.

Cites ‘Risks Officers Take’

He was speaking less than a week before the third anniversary of the death of Eric Garner in a struggle with police after he resisted being arrested for allegedly selling loose cigarettes on Staten Island near the ferry terminal. Asked about the fact that no disciplinary charges have been brought against Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who applied what appeared to be an NYPD-banned chokehold that was a contributing factor in Mr. Garner’s death, Mr. Travis sidestepped that issue by referring to the murder of Officer Familia and saying that it was “a reminder of the risks officers have to take every day.”

It is also a misconception, he continued, to believe that nothing has happened in the NYPD as officials await a decision by the U.S. Justice Department on whether to charge Officer Pantaleo with violating Mr. Garner’s civil rights. Rather, Mr. Travis said, the incident brought about “a significant and really profound retooling of training—tactics training, de-escalation, arrest protocols, keeping the department up to date on the latest techniques and methodologies. It’s all an indication of the further professionalization, and a way of telling officers, ‘You’re always in a training mode.’”

Generally, said Mr. Travis, who was Special Counsel to Police Commissioner Ben Ward during the Koch administration and created the NYPD Cadet Program in that role, then served as the NYPD’s Deputy Commissioner for Legal Matters under Mayor David Dinkins, “training gets short shrift” in police departments. He credited Mr. de Blasio’s first Police Commissioner, Bill Bratton for stressing training after the Garner incident and introducing “just a fundamentally different approach for preparation.”

A Belated ‘Peace Dividend’

Mr. Bratton, who was also Rudy Giuliani’s first Police Commissioner, lamented at the turn of the century that his old boss had never taken his foot off the accelerator after looking to reclaim the streets from roving gangs and open-air drug-dealers upon taking office in 1994 in order to take advantage of the “peace dividend” the major drop in crime had offered. The current administration, Mr. Travis said, has been cognizant of that, beginning with Mr. Bratton’s welcoming a neighborhood-policing initiative that he and Mr. Giuliani had mocked when it was tried during the latter years of the Dinkins administration, and its being expanded by Mr. O’Neill, who before becoming Commissioner was heavily involved in its development.

It’s evolved into an overall strategy that goes beyond the NYPD, said Mr. Travis, whose wife, Susan A. Herman, is Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing. “It’s seen in different responses to drug use, to homelessness, to young people,” he said. Rather than prosecute someone for heroin possession, he said, “the better response is to get them into a treatment facility.”

He served on the Lippman Commission, which was tapped by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to study problems in the city jail system and wound up recommending in early spring that the city move to shut down Rikers Island.

“Rikers is not good for officers; it’s not good for inmates,” Mr. Travis said.

COBA Skeptical

The head of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association, Elias Husamudeen, has asserted that the report, which prompted Mr. de Blasio to pledge to have Rikers closed within a decade providing that the inmate population could be reduced by roughly 40 percent from the current 9,300, presented a “fantasy” that allowed the city to evade dealing with the real problems that exist at Rikers. Some of those, the union leader said, were due to administration policies curbing punitive segregation that he claimed have made the jails more dangerous for officers, civilian staff and the inmates themselves.

Mr. Husamudeen has also scoffed at the chances that the city would get approval in city neighborhoods for either new jail facilities or the expansion of existing ones to house the inmates if Rikers were closed.

The Bronx, which has only a jail barge since the closing of the Bronx House of Detention, “would need a new facility,” Mr. Travis said. And Staten Island, which Mr. de Blasio quickly ruled out as a spot for a new jail in what some viewed as a political declaration meant to eliminate an election-year headache, “is a case unto itself.”

But he noted that the community board in which the Manhattan Detention Center is located had already given approval for a potential expansion, adding, “I look at the [Federal] Metropolitan Correction Center right next to Police Plaza—who even knows it’s there?”

‘Not Hurting Development’

Regarding what used to be known as the Brooklyn House of Detention—which former wardens’ union President Sidney Schwartzbaum predicted would become a maelstrom of protest if wealthy residents who mov­ed nearby were suddenly confronted by the pros­pect of a significant boost in inmate population—Mr. Travis said, “Ask any real-estate people if downtown Brooklyn’s growth is slowing down because the Brooklyn Detention Center is there.”

He added, “Jails can be good neighbors. It will allow for smoother court-processing [of inmates]. It’s a reasoned, humane plan.”

These are the kind of issues he will be focusing on intensely in his new job. Although the Arnold Foundation has its main headquarters in Houston, Mr. Travis will be working in an office not far from John Jay’s campus near Columbus Circle, with responsibility for the foundation’s New York staff and a smaller contingent based in Washington, D.C.

He is leaving behind a school where new programs have been blossoming just over the past two years, among them the Academic Preparation Program for Law Enforcement, which has recruited high-school students who move through either community colleges or John Jay into the Cadet Corps, with the long-term goal to produce 500 Police Academy candidates annually. Known as the APPLE Corps, Mr. Travis said it has already been “a great success beyond our initial projections,” with a retention rate significantly higher among the John Jay enrollees than for other incoming freshmen at the school, with grade-point-averages also exceeding the norm. Sixty percent of that initial class two years ago have already applied for the NYPD Cadet Corps,” he said.

A certificate program has been developed with the Fire Department leading to a baccalaureate degree, which is the criteria for promotion into higher ranks for both Firefighters and members of the Emergency Medical Service, with a similar initiative for the Probation Department also being designed. John Jay has also developed the nation’s first executive master’s program for the NYPD, with 20 Captains and Deputy Inspectors now enrolled for coursework devised specifically for them. Designed by Mr. Travis and First Deputy Commissioner Benjamin Tucker, the John Jay President said it “recognizes that we can be a critical element in [NYPD] talent strategies, promotion strategies,” with between 40 and 50 superior officers due to enter the program this fall.

‘A Different Institution’

Asked whether the intent was to develop an alternative to the department sending top officers to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard or the FBI Academy to polish their academic skills, Mr. Travis said the NYPD still uses those avenues. What’s different about the John Jay initiative, he said, is that “it’s a degree program specific to them” in the same vein as the Police Management Institute at Columbia University.

“John Jay is a different institution than it was 13 years ago,” he said, alluding as well to the greater diversity of the student body—60 percent of which is female—and the enhancement of its liberal-arts curriculum. “Our admission standards are much more rigorous. John Jay is now in the top tier of CUNY academically.”

Pointing to both the master’s program he has been able to build in the school and an online course of study that has allowed students as far away as Russia and Britain to gain degrees, Mr. Travis said, “That’s a legacy I’m very proud of.”