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NYPD's task -- learn to avoid force

Police stand guard in Times Square in New

Police stand guard in Times Square in New York City. (July 10, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty Images

What can the NYPD do to avoid more horrors like the one that unfolded last week when cops confronted Eric Garner on a rap of selling untaxed cigarettes, scuffled with him, then wound up standing idly by as he lay dying?

Facing citywide outrage, Commissioner Bill Bratton has ordered retraining in the use of force for all 35,000 NYPD officers. That's a strong idea, but success depends on the program's quality and on the NYPD's dedication to making the training stick -- on every beat in every precinct.

We hope the trainers focus especially on ways to defuse tensions in fraught situations like takedowns. The goal should always be to bring a suspect into custody without escalating tempers and dangers.

Experts say it's often better to wait out a raging suspect than force a fight by wrestling the subject into handcuffs. It's also important to make sure a suspect -- as well as bystanders -- grasp exactly why cops are making an arrest.

Clarity and reason often work better than brute force.

Exhibit A: The NYPD's Emergency Service Unit, which has been praised over the years for the way it has learned to dial down the drama and routinely bring emotionally disturbed people into custody safely.

Exhibit B: The effort to reduce injuries from NYPD firearms discharges. NYPD officers in 1971 shot and killed 93 subjects and wounded 221, according to departmental records. NYPD officers in 2012 shot and killed 16 subjects and wounded 14. What changed? The brass demanded more firearms safety training and made it happen.

There's no reason why Bratton, with a major sustained push for training, can't reduce use-of-force incidents on the street and keep the public and officers safe.

By handling force better, the NYPD will be in a stronger position to defend its unyielding stance against quality-of-life crimes. Bratton believes tolerance of small crimes allows criminal behavior to escalate. He has plenty of evidence on his side. But why use force to arrest a man like Garner merely on charges of selling untaxed smokes? There are better ways to handle such situations. The NYPD needs to find them.

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