For better or for worse, the NYPD has always been a bellwether for how policing gets done in the United States. So last week’s big announcement that NYPD is improving its use of force policies — in particular the way officers collect use of force information — is legitimately good news.

But there’s also an interesting political lesson behind NYPD Commissioner Bratton’s announcement that illustrates how better policing policies can get co-opted by politicians. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton announces new guidelines for reporting use of force.

Commissioner Bratton squeezes OIG’s lemons into lemonade (Photo credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

Shortly before Bratton’s announcement, the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD released a scathing 88-page report. The report criticizes NYPD for historically failing to discipline cops who used excessive force. The report focused on 179 cases between 2010 and 2014 where the city’s Civilian Complaint Review Board had substantiated a civilian’s excessive force allegation.

Considering that we’re talking about police department with 35-thousand uniformed officers serving a population of over 8 million people during a five year period — 179 substantiated excessive force cases seems incredibly low. But I’ll set aside that curious statistic for now, because the OIG’s analysis of these 179 cases revealed some disturbing stuff. Most notably, the department failed to impose any discipline in about 36% of these substantiated cases. The NYPD also downgraded the review board’s discipline recommendations about 67% of the time.

One particularly infamous case highlighted in the report involved a confrontation between a bicyclist and 4 NYPD cops that was caught on video. When the bicyclist refused to show his ID, one cop reacted by punching the man in the face four times. But it wasn’t until the cop wrestled the man to the ground and punched him a fifth and six time that one of the other officers finally intervened. The CCRB substantiated the excessive force allegation against the aggressive officer. At the time of the report, none of the officers involved had been disciplined.

During the OIG’s press conference releasing their report, Inspector General Philip Eure described NYPD’s use of force policies as “something out of the Dark Ages.”

Never one to be outmaneuvered by a watchdog agency, Chief Bratton responded to Phil Eure’s accusation by announcing his own brand-new “sweeping” reforms to NYPD’s use of force policies. The substance of his policies co-opted every important recommendation presented in the OIG report released three hours earlier. While Bratton might have outmaneuvered the OIG, this is sometimes how policy change happens.

Meanwhile, the media has more or less ignored the OIG report while praising Bratton’s reforms — which to Bratton’s credit do seem to address most of problems described in the report.

For example, the OIG report slammed NYPD for having a “vague and imprecise use-for-force policy.” The current NYPD Patrol Guide states in all-caps language that “EXCESSIVE FORCE WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.” However, the Patrol Guide fails to define what is meant by “excessive force.” In fact, it doesn’t define what is meant by “appropriate force” or even “force” itself!

In the recent announcement, NYPD admits to having unclear or absent definitions and promises clearer definitions. They also promise comprehensive rules governing how each of the newly-defined levels of force will be investigated, based on the level of force and the type of injury sustained by a civilian.

The OIG report also hit NYPD for its failure to track use of force incidents in a reliable way. Individual officers could hardly be blamed for this. Because in addition to the vague and imprecise definitions of use of force, the guidelines for how and when officers are required to report use of force were also unclear. Therefore, it’s no surprise that the data that’s been collected under these ambiguous definitions and guidelines are inaccurate and unreliable.

Under the new guidelines, officers will now be required to report all use of force incidents. Officers will use a new, simplified Force Incident Report that will collect detailed information regarding the type of contact that was involved. This now includes use of any physical force without a weapon — such as control holds or punches. The report will also require officers to document any use of weapons — including pepper spray, taser, use of firearms.

The new policies will also emphasize conflict de-escalation training. Moreover, officers will now be required to intervene and report excessive force they witness from a fellow officer. These policies are specifically designed to prevent and address cases like the one mentioned above where officers failed to intervene.

While NYPD’s new use of force guidelines seem to be a political ploy by Chief Bratton to keep ahead of the watchdogs, they represent an important policing reform. These policy changes will improve how police use of force is deployed and measured in New York City and, consequently, across the United States.