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Filed 5:00 a.m.
10.16.2015

America’s Rock Star Cops

Meet the elite chiefs who revolutionized policing nationwide, for better and for worse. Now they want to do it again.

New York Police Commissioner William Bratton at One Police Plaza in New York in February 2015. Ben Baker/Redux Pictures for Politico Magazine

I t was dinnertime in Baltimore, five weeks after riots had erupted in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, and some of the nation’s most notable police executives were gathered in a downtown hotel for a kind of group therapy session.

They were there to advise their colleague, Anthony W. Batts, a California native in his third year at the head of the Baltimore Police Department, who outlined his troubles as waiters passed out plates of chicken, meatballs, rice and asparagus: The city was boiling in anger over the death of a black man, Freddie Gray, in police custody. The murder rate had spiked. The police union attacked him as he forced out dozens of officers for misconduct. His force of 3,100 sworn officers had all but stopped making arrests. The city’s political leaders did not have his back. And reporters from across the country were impugning his management skills.

This story was produced in collaboration with POLITICO Magazine.

And so Batts reached out for some comfort and counsel from the only people who could understand what he was going through. Police leaders from New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Denver and Washington D.C., who had quietly revamped their busy schedules and traveled, unannounced, to Baltimore, offered advice, including rebuilding the trust of his troops by being more transparent.

“There are certain things that you can talk to normal people about, and then there are certain things that you can only talk to chiefs about,” Batts said later in an interview.

The men — and one woman — who assembled at the Hyatt Regency that evening were part of an elite, close-knit network of law enforcement stars who describe themselves as reformers or “change agents.”

It is no exaggeration to say that this network has revolutionized modern policing over recent decades. This experimentation with policing philosophies and techniques sometimes went awry, especially in minority neighborhoods throughout the nation - an outcome that in the last year or so has burst into public view in places like Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland and, of course, Baltimore.

Now this elite network is out to revolutionize policing again.

In recent months, challenged by a growing protest movement after the deaths of several African-Americans at the hands of police, the network has been feverishly exchanging ideas on a next wave of reforms. (They are also teaming up with progressive prosecutors to push for measures that would keep many mentally ill, addicted and non-violent offenders from jail.) The aim is to steer the profession towards a more community-friendly mentality — to cast themselves, in the new jargon, as “guardians” rather than as “warriors.”

The response so far has fallen short of universal acclaim.

“I don’t think this is necessarily a change of heart,” said Robert Sampson, a Harvard sociologist who has written extensively on the challenges of urban crime and its control. Sampson is leery of the kinder, gentler turn in some of the network’s thinking, warning that it may be unsustainable.“The emphasis on de-escalation only came about because of resistance on the part of the public.”

The City of Baltimore is skeptical, too. Six weeks after his support group got up from the dinner table, Police Commissioner Batts was summoned to the mayor’s office and fired.

Who is the Network?

T here is no universal playbook, no uniform set of standards and little federal oversight to guide the million-plus workforce of the nation’s 18,000 state and local law enforcement agencies.

But over the past five decades a fellowship of big-city police leaders has sought to fill the void by devising and applying policing strategies that are rooted in modern social science and driven by data. These leaders are, as a rule, well-educated, articulate, media-savvy, and not self-effacing.

“The most creative minds in American policing, we all happen to be friends with each other,” said New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton (who subtitled his 1998 memoir “How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic.”) “We’re the entity that is leading American policing in the 21st century.”

The network has a supportive infrastructure of lobbyists, consulting firms and think tanks that provide research, proselytize for the latest strategies, and help place their proteges in key policing jobs. It is bound together by two influential national bodies. One is the Major City Chiefs Association, which is open only to the heads of departments in the 67 largest cities or counties in the country, less than half of 1 percent of law enforcement leaders. The other is the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a Washington-based research organization that maps out policy proposals, organizes brain-storming sessions with commanders and has a consulting arm that helps cities recruit police chiefs and advises on reform plans.

Like Major City Chiefs, PERF caters to a select group. It asks that its members have four-year college degrees, something only 1 percent of local police departments require of their recruits, according to Justice Department statistics.

The senior members of the network — men like Bratton, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, former Houston chief Lee P. Brown and the late Patrick V. Murphy, who ran several agencies — have spawned a clan of disciples. These second-generation police executives are now running, or have recently led, departments in Chicago, Baltimore, New Haven, Conn., Seattle, Washington, D.C., and Camden, N.J., among other cities.

They are remarkably mobile. It’s not unusual for a police chief who belongs to the network to have run three or more major police forces, with occasional detours into lucrative consulting work. They also spend time at universities, where several members have earned Ph.D.s or law degrees, and have worked on research teams. They have direct lines to the White House, the Justice Department and Capitol Hill.

“What keeps Chuck Ramsey up at night, or Bill Bratton up at night, is fundamentally different than what keeps a chief up at night in an agency of, let’s say, 20 officers,” said Chuck Wexler, PERF’s longtime executive director. (It was Wexler who organized the Baltimore intervention for Batts.) “It’s not this little good-ole-boy network of people who are chummy. These are people who committed themselves to professional policing,” Wexler said.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey attends an event in Camden, N.J. in May.

Ramsey and Bratton have served in the top positions at both PERF and Major City Chiefs — roles that further increased their stature and helped make them influential voices of modern policing. They have testified before Congress and met with the attorney general. President Barack Obama picked Ramsey as the co-chair of his task force on 21st century policing late last year along with Laurie O. Robinson, a former assistant attorney general and criminology professor.

The network brought to America’s cities such innovations as CompStat (a management tool that identifies spikes in crime), Broken Windows (a philosophy that targets minor, quality-of-life offenses like graffiti and public drinking, on the theory that they can lead to a breakdown of social order), and hot-spot policing (concentrating police attention on the corners where crime is most common). These tactics appear to have helped bring down crime rates, but at a cost. In some urban neighborhoods aggressive enforcement, including stopping and frisking young black men on the slightest of pretexts, has alienated communities and made them less likely to cooperate with police.

Some mayors, union officials, rank-and-file officers and residents have come to regard the celebrity police executives as detached intellectuals, carpetbaggers without roots in the communities they police, too concerned with their national prestige. In turn, some network chiefs complain (usually among themselves) that their critics are too hidebound and parochial to embrace the wisdom of the well-traveled reformers.

“You have a guy who is not part of this city come from the outside and say, ‘These are the issues’. And they say, ‘We don’t believe you’,’” Batts said, in a lengthy, sometimes bitter reminiscence following his ouster as Baltimore’s commissioner.

“When I came here, I started talking about mental illness,” Batts said. “I talked about putting police officers in housing projects. I talked about dealing with prostitution in a different way than we had before. These different, progressive things. And you know what I was told? ‘Stay in your lane.’”

Obama’s task force report, which recommends 59 reforms for police departments to adopt, is essentially a network instruction manual for policing in the 21st century. Ideas range from the obvious (equipping officers with bulletproof vests), to the logical (creating state laws that govern police body camera policies) to the possibly quixotic (teaching officers about their department’s history of abuse and discrimination). But the overall theme was the urgent need to build trust and collaboration between police and the communities they serve.

Another nexus of the network is Harvard. Since the 1980s, the Justice Department has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on convening groups of VIPs — heads of police forces, a few mid-career commanders, academics and directors of police professional organizations — on the Cambridge campus to discuss the theoretical underpinnings of community policing, Broken Windows, and other strategies. Nearly everyone mentioned in this article has been part of the Harvard cohort.

Christine Cole, the former executive director of the Harvard program, said that in soliciting topics for the course of study, the leaders were asked, “If you could imagine yourself as the board of directors for policing, what would be the things that you would be thinking about?”

White Collar Cops

T he network was engendered in part by the agitation of the 1960s and 1970s — the battle for civil rights and the white backlash, urban riots, assassinations, drugs, angry politics — which gave birth to a law-and-order mood that would fill America’s prisons to overflowing. But it also inspired a rethinking of how to police big, restive cities.

President Johnson ordered a commission to study the gulf between predominantly black urban neighborhoods and the mostly white police who patrolled them. The commission concluded, among other priorities, that it was essential to raise the level of professionalism. The Justice Department distributed grants to fund college and graduate degrees for police officers, and created a federal agency — later renamed the National Institute for Justice — devoted to research. The Ford Foundation established a law enforcement arm, the Police Foundation, in 1970, and six years later PERF was created as a think-tank for urban police chiefs.

City street cops did not warm immediately to the emphasis on education and social science. Kathleen M. O’Toole, a Boston native who joined that city’s police department in 1979 , said she refrained from telling her fellow officers that she was taking night courses at the New England School of Law.

“In those days, a college education wasn’t necessarily valued,” O’Toole said in an interview. “I kept it fairly quiet.” She later became Boston’s first female police commissioner, and now holds the same distinction as chief of the Seattle Police Department.

William Bratton, like O’Toole, was a young cop in Boston during that era, and described a climate that was reactive and defeatist. Officers were told that there wasn’t much they could do to prevent crime: It was too intrinsically tied to America’s entrenched struggles with skin color and poverty.

“The country embraced a belief that the issue of crime, the issue of race, could not be effectively addressed by the police, “ Bratton said. “So the focus of police needed to be on improving our professionalism, improving our response to crime, rather than, focusing on the prevention of crime.”

The Boston police department was one of the most enthusiastic about the call for professionalism, hiring “whiz kids” from outside the department to guide reforms. Robert Wasserman, a 31-year-old hired to run the police academy, became an influential advisor to the commissioner. He took an interest in a boyish, ambitious young sergeant — Bratton — and told him to read academic theorists and to take police management classes.

Wasserman, now 73, has travelled with Bratton throughout his career: New York City during the 1990s, Los Angeles during the aughts, and currently he has a windowless office a few feet from Bratton’s desk at One Police Plaza in lower Manhattan.

“I am the guy who has been associated with the people who are pretty good thinkers in the business, and I am reasonably creative myself, ” Wasserman said.

Besides Bratton, Wasserman has shadowed the policing elite as they commanded departments in Houston (Lee Brown), Chicago (Garry McCarthy), Milwaukee (Edward Flynn) and Baltimore (Anthony Batts). Wasserman’s influence is also cemented in Washington, D.C. He helped to create the network’s research engine, PERF, by writing its grant proposal four decades ago. His former intern at the Boston police academy, a doctoral student from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is PERF’s executive director, Chuck Wexler.

Wexler, who is now in his 23rd year at the forum, and his team publish glossy packets that feature policy proposals and guidelines on an array of topics, which range from reducing use of force to limiting the police role in immigration enforcement. He has also steered the organization into the recruitment business and has worked on several of the nation’s most talked-about police executive hires, including Bratton for Los Angeles and Batts for Baltimore.

PERF grooms its own roster of job candidates, charging police departments $9,150 apiece to send officers through its Senior Management Institute for Police training — a three-week course held at Boston University where the likes of Bratton, Ramsey and university academics tutor 270 police officials each summer.

Celebrity police bosses and their entourage of advisors, unsurprisingly, have attracted vocal skeptics within their profession. James Pasco, executive director of the national office of the Fraternal Order of Police, complained of the network being a “closed shop.”

“People who have new and innovative ideas and think a different way, who aren’t known to that little cabal, aren’t going to be competitive for a given position,” Pasco said.

The Birth of Broken Windows

T he fusion of assertive academic thinkers with ambitious police commanders and federal money produced a new approach to law enforcement — a departure from simply waiting for crime to happen. Community policing, as it was called, was a version of old-fashioned neighborhood-cop-on-the-beat policing, updated for a time of racial tension.

Supervisors organized community relations units, and assigned officers to walking beats with the goal of cultivating relationships with small business owners, church pastors and neighborhood busybodies.

Police departments, meanwhile, recruited — and began to promote — African-Americans, hoping to overcome the us-versus-them mentality.

Baltimore City Police Commissioner Anthony Batts speaks at a news conference about the death of Baltimore resident Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Md., on April 24, 2015.

In addition to a softer touch, police were encouraged not to simply react to 911 calls but to identify the causes of crime and look for ways to address them. Herman Goldstein, an influential professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison, called this “problem-oriented policing,” and advocated that officers come up with “tailor made responses” to issues in a neighborhood. If a particular street corner, for example, attracts a group of drug dealers, cops should ask nearby property owners to place large potted plants on the sidewalk to deter loitering.

Lee P. Brown, Houston’s first black police chief, a network star with a Ph.D. in criminology, eagerly adopted community policing, calling it “neighborhood-oriented policing,” as his city’s strategy. Brown combined the ideas of Goldstein’s problem-solving mission with the notion that cops should have a visable, but friendly, street presence.

Advised by Robert Wasserman, Brown redrew the boundaries of patrol districts to better match city neighborhood maps. Mid-level commanders were given more authority and were told to make decisions without approval from police headquarters. The force set out to recruit and train officers with a different mindset.

“You have to change the culture of the police department,” Brown said. “With community policing you hire in the spirit of service, not the spirit of adventure.”

Around the same time, the Police Foundation embedded a criminologist named George Kelling with beat cops in Newark, N.J. to study how officers on foot patrol, versus those in squad cars, influence neighborhood crime.

Kelling concluded that the regular sight of officers out on foot didn’t necessarily reduce illegal activity, but their presence still made residents feel safer. James Q. Wilson, a professor of government at Harvard, read Kelling’s results and asked the researcher to co-write a magazine piece on the findings. “Broken Windows” ran in the March 1982 issue of the Atlantic.

The brilliance of the piece, at least when Kelling explains it, is that it boiled down a lot of wonky social science to a simple metaphor: “If a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.”

“I was eager to make sure that Broken Windows was seen as part of community policing, community policing being an overall strategy and Broken Windows being one tactic of community policing,” Kelling said. “One of the things that police do, instead of riding around in cars, is to maintain order.”

In the mid 1980s, Harvard invited the new thinkers of law enforcement to join an “executive session” in hopes of influencing local and national policing policies. Theorists — Herman Goldstein, George Kelling, James Wilson and Robert Wasserman — sat in brainstorming sessions on the Cambridge campus with big city police bosses. Bratton was there, along with Lee Brown and their counterparts from New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and London. President Ronald Reagan sent his attorney general, Edwin Meese.

The gathering was, in a sense, the intellectual consolidation of the network.

New York City became a testing ground for the conclusions of the Harvard cohort, as two individual career paths converged — on, and literally below ground. Brown, the champion of feet-on-the-beat community policing, was appointed NYPD commissioner and Bratton, a champion of the quality-of-life-oriented Broken Windows, was hired to run the city’s transit police department. Kelling and Wasserman were already working for the transit authority as paid consultants, advising transit officials on how to reduce subway crime.

“Think of it as two physicians operating in the same city,” Bratton said — two physicians with different therapies to emphasize.

Brown pressed city officials to hire more officers — about 6,000 were approved — put them on foot patrols and told them to engage in “problem-solving.” Bratton, meanwhile, believing that the biggest problem in his underground realm was not major crime but pervasive disorder, told his rank-and-file cops to target fare beaters and vandals and other low-level miscreants.

On his watch, felony crimes down in the subways dropped 15 percent while ridership increased, and the image of the gang-infested, graffiti-covered subway system began to recede.

Above ground, Brown’s playbook couldn’t deliver comparable results.

“The crime began to go down, 2 percent, 2 percent, 2 percent,” Bratton said of Brown’s tenure, “but the quality of life was not seen as improving.” Part of the reason Brown’s community policing strategy was not more successful, Bratton says, is “they forgot one of the audiences they had to sell it to, and that was the cops. They were selling it to the public, and they were selling it to the public as this different way of policing, a softer way of policing, but the way it was heard by the cops was that you want to make social workers out of us.”

(Brown, in response, said that if his approach had continued the city would not have descended into the policing excesses that alienated many black New Yorkers. “You can’t have community policing unless the head of the organization understands and implements the concept.”)

The backlash against Brown’s approach helped elect a new mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican who promised to be “tough on crime.” Explaining his choice of a new police commissioner to a Time magazine reporter, Giuliani said: “I chose Bill Bratton because he agreed with the Broken Windows theory.”

For Better Or Worse

I n his new above-ground role, Bratton did not abandon community policing, but he gave his officers an added mission, to target “disorder:” Squeegee men — aggressive entrepreneurs who accosted drivers at stoplights, demanding money for cleaning their windshields — public drunks and graffiti taggers were stopped and at least cautioned. Misdemeanor arrests soared, violent crime began to decline more dramatically, and Bratton’s formula of community policing plus quality-of-life enforcement seemed to have tamed the country’s biggest city.

The notion that police could prevent illegal activity, not just respond to it, also invigorated the debate over crime reduction within the hallways of Congress and in the White House. The year Bratton became commissioner, President Bill Clinton signed the 1994 crime bill, which, among other things, sent local police forces money for tens of thousands of new police officers and helped Clinton to a second term.

But it was Bratton, not Clinton, who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in January 1996 cover, with a headline proclaiming: “FINALLY, WE’RE WINNING THE WAR AGAINST CRIME.” (A framed copy of the cover hangs on the back wall of Bratton’s office in New York’s police headquarters).

Indeed, urban murder rates dropped precipitously as the century came to a close, and, although there was (and still is) no clear evidence of how much new policing strategies contributed to safer cities, Bratton’s quality-of-life approach was adopted in places such as Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago.

But as Broken Windows spread, it evolved into something its creators say they never intended, an invasive, zero-tolerance philosophy that left many black neighborhoods feeling they were targets of indiscriminate suspicion.

The most divisive of the proactive policing tactics was dubbed “Stop, Question and Frisk”— stop-and-frisk in the popular vernacular — which became a pretext for accosting and patting down mostly young black and Hispanic men, without explanation, in search of guns or drugs. In 2011, New York police made nearly 700,000 stops; Philadelphia, at its peak in 2009, exceeded 252,000. Critics said the tactic had become self-defeating because it alienated communities that were unlikely to cooperate with officers whom they saw as an occupying force.

“When I would see some chief in some city say — I just read ‘Broken Windows,’ and tomorrow I am going to implement a Broken Windows program, my response was always ‘Oh shit,’” said George Kelling. “You need training. Officers haven’t been on the street. They need to be advised legally. They need to work with the community before they even start.”

“The fact that many chiefs in the late 1980s and 1990s said they were implementing community policing or Broken Windows, I didn’t take it all that seriously,” Kelling added. “It walked like a duck, and it quacked like a duck. It was duck. It was still the old style policing. They weren’t doing anything different except it felt that they had a licence to harass youths.”

The courts and the Justice Department seem to agree.

Federal courts have ordered the police in Philadelphia and in New York to scale back their use of stop-and-frisk, and the Justice Department has investigated dozens of police forces for civil rights abuses of various kinds.

In Baltimore, where drug roundups became the main occupation of the police before Anthony Batts arrived, cops at one point had locked up nearly one-fifth of the city’s black males between the ages of 20 and 30.

In Milwaukee, as of August, 71 people had joined lawsuits against police officers accused of performing unjustified rectal and strip searches, according to the city attorney’s office. The Justice Department was also reviewing the death in 2011 of a black robbery suspect who passed out in a squad car. Activists from the black community and officials of the police union alike have called for Chief Edward Flynn to be fired.

Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn, pictured here in his office, was set on becoming a history professor until reading a 1967 Johnson Administration report entitled “The Challenge of Crime in a Free Society.” It opened his eyes to the “critical importance of police in a democratic society," he says.

“I hit the daily double, didn’t I?” joked Flynn, a combative veteran of departments in four states who also serves as legislative liaison for the Major City Chiefs. Flynn, 67, has little patience with critics.

In Philadelphia, Charles Ramsey is in the fifth year of a federal consent decree to restrain the excessive use of stop-and-frisk without reasonable suspicion. Rank-and-file officers complain that he is an absentee boss who spends too much time on the elite policing circuit.

“They don’t always understand,” Ramsey said. “Philly is not an island. You have to be out there. You have to understand what is going on elsewhere.”

(Ramsey announced Wednesday that he would be leaving his Philadelphia post; he hinted that this was not the last stop in his peripatetic career.)

Ramsey seems politically unscathed, in part because the city’s homicide count — the most closely watched measurement of a police department’s performance — has dropped 25 percent during his tenure. When he was being recruited to become Chicago’s police superintendent in 2011, Ramsey got a raise to stay put. He is now Philadelphia’s highest paid employee, earning more than $270,000.

In Seattle, police have been under federal oversight since local officials signed a consent decree with the Justice Department in July 2012. Investigators had found that officers were disproportionately aggressive towards minorities and the mentally ill. In response, the Seattle department agreed to train its force in de-escalation of conflict.

And all of that was before the deaths of unarmed blacks made household names of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray and others, and gave birth to a movement called Black Lives Matter.

“Right now, community trust in many places is shaken, and the police are going to have to work hard to restore it,” said Kathleen O’Toole, who once served as a deputy to Bratton in Boston, and considers herself a “reform chief.”

Even Bratton, returning for a second round as NYPD commissioner after a largely triumphant tour in Los Angeles, was welcomed back with some apprehension, from activists who associate Bratton with the Giuliani-era surge in aggressive policing, and from the city’s five police unions, which complain that his vision of law enforcement is too much like social work. He does seem to have the unwavering support of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

What now?

B ratton says he wants to make New York, once again, a “laboratory” for modern policing.

“We are learning from the mistakes of the last 20 years,” he said. “We had the unintended consequence of incarcerating too many people, and particularly people of color during that period of time.”

His answer to the estrangement of police and communities begins with the familiar ingredients, but mixed in a different formula. Stop-and-frisk is to continue, but sharply scaled back — from close to 700,000 in its peak year to perhaps 25,000 — and with a lighter touch. Those stopped are supposed to get written explanations of the reason. And Bratton has pledged to hold abusive officers accountable.

Broken Windows also survives, but restored to its original notion — less reactive, less invasive and less about piling up arrests.

“You call, we come,” Bratton said. “The challenge for us is when we come, to deal with the complaint appropriately...Everything doesn’t require an arrest, everything doesn’t require a summons. Some of these may just need an admonition.”

One early indicator is encouraging. The number of citizen complaints fielded by the Civilian Complaint Review Board dropped to a 12-year low in his first year back on the job. Board officials attribute that decline to the steep reduction in stop-and-frisks, which began before Bratton’s return to New York. (The review board’s chairman Richard Emery, a civil rights attorney, is close to the commissioner and has served as his personal lawyer.)

The national political pendulum, having swung too far toward containment, is now swinging back “strongly to the left,” Bratton noted, and the policing elite is swinging right along with it.

He proudly showed off colorful new NYPD recruitment fliers, which feature a multicultural cast of smiling officers. “‘Does this describe you?,’” the commissioner read from the text. “‘Compassionate, courageous, have the ability to listen, have strength to defend what is right.’” “The idea is that we are now looking for the guardian rather than the warrior,” he explained. “Because the crime situation is so much less now. Eighty percent less than what it was in 1990. I don’t need warriors now.”

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy held a press conference to announce the arrests of four men in a shooting at Chicago's Cornell Square Park in September, 2013.

Using police officers as “guardians” is integral to the new gospel of the network. The first recommendation of President Obama’s policing task force, citing the classical Greek philosopher Plato as its inspiration, details the “guardian mindset” and states: “Law enforcement cannot build community trust if it is seen as an occupying force.”

The Justice Department has funded anger management and de-escalation training classes for officers in the NYPD, Chicago and other big cities. Bratton has sent members of his ranks to Seattle to watch how cops there are being taught to diffuse tense situations with residents.

Whether the new new policing will make urban neighborhoods feel safer and less estranged remains to be seen. The Chicago Police Department, led by Garry McCarthy, whose network credentials include stints in New York and Newark, has embraced much of the reformist textbook, including classes on mental wellness and how to make arrests less confrontational. But the city is suffering an epidemic of gun violence.

For now, at least, progressive police executives, even in smaller cities, are trying to inch their departments towards a healthier relationship with the citizenry. New Haven Police Chief Dean M. Esserman has assigned cops to foot beats, given them cell phones and has even invited outsiders to attend the usually closed-door CompStat meetings.

(Esserman, a lawyer, who started his career as a policeman at the assistant chief level, worked as Bratton’s general counsel in the New York transit police department, and credited his former boss when asked about New Haven’s reforms. Esserman’s office is hung with numerous framed photographs of him with his mentor.)

In Camden, N.J., Police Chief Scott Thomson, 43, says of the network, “It’s empowered me, and it has educated me.” Thompson, a protege of Charles Ramsey, is the current president of PERF.

His formula, he said, is an amalgam of policies imported from his older peers: “Chuck Ramsey’s community policing to regain trust. Garry McCarthy’s targeted deterrence of violent offenders to reduce shootings and murders, and Bill Bratton’s Broken Windows policing to enhance people’s quality of life without being polarizing.”

A major impediment to change was removed when Camden’s four rival police unions dissolved after the county government took over the Camden Police Department in 2013. Thomson now has only one labor organization to contend with whenever he wants to introduce a reform.

Thomson’s answer to skeptics is a tangible success story in his city. Camden’s homicide rate has dropped 54 percent over two years. And there are relatively congenial relations between the city’s police and urban neighborhoods.

“We are not utopia,” he said. “This is not success. It’s progress.”

Whether the next wave of progressive policing amounts to profound change or a cosmetic makeover, depends on whether it is absorbed into the culture of the rank and file, said Jonathan M. Smith, who was until April, a chief lawyer in the civil rights division of the Justice Department. He led investigations of alleged police misconduct in Cleveland, Ferguson, Albuquerque and Seattle.

“Street officers see each new approach as the passing fad of the day that can be waited out,” Smith said. “New ideas are not necessary. What is needed is the kind of leadership that penetrates the command structure to the beat officer, creates awards and incentives for behaviors that build community trust and ensures transparency.”

The network is working on it. Will they get it right this time?