Police Officer Chukwuemekanoso Okuzu was standing at his post in one of Brooklyn’s busiest business districts.
Okuzu said he has no illusions about how dangerous his beat can be. He walks and drives the sometimes-mean streets of East Flatbush and Brownsville as a cop in New York City’s 67th Precinct. It's one of the toughest assignments on the force. And while he may not be a battle-scarred NYPD veteran, after 2 1/2 years on the force, he knows this -- doing his job right means thinking first, taking his time, slowing it down, remembering to see everything -- not just the dangers, the crimes and the criminals.
It’s a message that was taught to him as a recruit and it’s now being hammered home again to cops on the beat, with nearly 7,900 cops who in the last three months have gone through an unprecedented protocol of retraining the entire NYPD.
“Sometimes we need to get reset,” Okuzu, 31, told ABC World News Tonight Anchor David Muir. “How you interact with people. How you speak to them. Maybe your first initial interaction with them. How you perceive things.”
Police-community tension is simmering in New York City, as it is around the country, in the wake of recent officer-caused deaths of a man on Staten Island and another inside a Brooklyn housing project.
And now, America’s biggest police force is trying to make its cops smarter in order to make them and their city both safer and less violent.
The NYPD’s intensive three-day program is aimed at doing everything from getting cops to stop using abusive and foul language to training them to use non-violent hostage-negotiation techniques on people who refuse to comply. And, if words fail, the cops are being drilled on a series of “takedown” maneuvers that, while effective, are less likely to injure either arresting officers or suspects being taken in.
NYPD brass insists the program was always going to be a centerpiece initiative for the department’s new commissioner, Bill Bratton. But they also acknowledge that it became critical -- and was sped up -- after last summer’s death of Eric Garner, an unarmed African-American man who died because of an apparent choke hold used by a cop trying to arrest him for selling loose cigarettes.
"There was no question that all of the concern that it raised made the police department aware of the fact that we need to really take a good look out of our training,” said NYPD Deputy Commissioner Steve Davis. “Early on, we identified the fact that, after police officers -- after the [NYPD's] Police Academy -- never get any physical training, tactical training.”
“You can do 20 years, 30 years, 40 years in the police department,” Davis said, “and never have any physical tactical training, other than firearms training, which is mandated by law.”
New York police officials are well aware that hostility toward cops is bubbling over from Cleveland to St. Louis to Los Angeles. To show off the steps they are taking, NYPD leaders allowed ABC News a rare and exclusive look inside their marquee police-retraining program at the massive new NYPD Academy in Queens. It’s running 24/7 in order to get all 35,000 cops retrained quickly. And it’s dedicated to the notion of “voluntary compliance,” as opposed to the traditional model of “arrest and summons.”
“The No. 1 issue on policing in our nation right now (is) earning the trust of the people back,” said Lt. Bob Shepherd, one of the officials running the NYPD retraining effort. "This is a different type of training than most of the officers have ever seen in their careers. It’s more about the training of the heart and mind. Most of our training is about skill set -- how to fire a weapon, how to use a baton, how to drive a police vehicle. This is more about the individual officer.”
And it’s about safety for both those being arrested and those doing the arresting.
“Safety,” Shepherd said, "is paramount in everything we do.”
Over the course of three days, police begin by revisiting many of the lessons they originally learned as recruits: the value of public service, the foundations of law enforcement, the need to respect those who are policed. From there, the lessons veer toward the new and unusual: ego control, breathing and relaxation, communicating without profanity and the importance of emphasizing with people in the public -- even those who may be about to be arrested for heinous crimes.
There are critics of the program. Sgt. Ed Mullins, president of the NYPD sergeants union, said he thinks the retraining program is nowhere near the type of overhaul the force needs.
"In three days, we’re going to change everything, that’s what you’re saying?” Mullins told ABC News. “Looks, it got to be top to bottom. They’re just scrambling and trying to put a plug in the leak. And the people I talk to, no one believes in the retraining.”
Mullins said Bratton ought to take a page out of his own playbook, and instill changes throughout the NYPD – the way Bratton did during his first tour as commissioner 20 years ago.
“He did it way back when,” Mullins said. “We’re talking about a massive change, but it has to start some place. The problem with this retraining is the cops don’t believe in it.”
The NYPD, however, does believe in it. To reinforce the lessons, instructors show videos -- examples both of what to do and what not to do. What to do: the scene from the movie “Road House” where Patrick Swayze explains how to get unruly patrons out of his bar. What not to do: a YouTube clip from 2008 in which a Baltimore cop manhandles a teen and berates him and his friends because they were skateboarding in the wrong place.
“We want to show the world how to police with compassion and respect while still maintaining this historic reduction in crime that we’ve accomplished,” Shepherd said. “We have to earn that respect from the public in every interaction, every radio run we go to, every service call we get. We have to earn that respect one officer at a time, one interaction at a time.”
Look at it like a peace dividend, they say. With crime rates dropping to record lows across the city, the NYPD is in better position to focus on repairing, and building, community relations. Commanders at the 67th Precinct told ABC News that they are already recording noteworthy results.
“I already saw this year, a tremendous drop in civilian complaints based on discourtesy and abusive language,” said Deputy Insp. Joseph Gulotta, commander of the 67th Precinct, one of the biggest in the city and one of the first to have all of its cops complete the full three-day retraining.
And on the street, the difference is also obvious to many.
“Recently, I was stopped by a cop. The way the cop treated me, I was impressed,” neighborhood optician Karl Aris told ABC News. “So I could see some changes taking place. ... They should change their tactics."