Police masterclass: From Brooklyn’s ‘mean streets’ to the Steel City

Ex New York Police Commissioner Anthony Schembri and visting Professor in The Department of Law & Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University.  Picture by Bruce Rollinson
Ex New York Police Commissioner Anthony Schembri and visting Professor in The Department of Law & Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University. Picture by Bruce Rollinson
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Anthony Schembri is a former New York police commissioner who is in Yorkshire to talk to students and police officers about leadership and policing. He talks to Chris Bond.

Dressed in a smart charcoal suit and with an unmistakable New York drawl, Anthony Schembri looks and sounds like he’s stepped straight out of an American crime drama.

So it comes as no great surprise to learn that he was the inspiration behind The Commish – a US TV series based around the story of a New York police commissioner. But while he perhaps comes across as an archetypal hard-nosed New York cop, there is much more to him than such a thin caricature might suggest.

During a career spanning six decades Schembri has been a detective on the mean streets of Brooklyn, served as a police commissioner in New York, helped run Florida’s juvenile justice system and spent five years representing the International Association Chiefs of Police at the UN. Not only that but he’s been praised by such notable figures as former US President Jimmy Carter and Florida Governor Jeb Bush and what Schembri doesn’t know about policing probably isn’t worth knowing.

Now he’s bringing his talents to Yorkshire until the end of the year, teaching students at Sheffield Hallam University about criminology and police science. While here he’s also giving a leadership seminar to senior police officers from across Yorkshire.

These are skills he has honed over the years. “I’ve had two careers at the same time. I’ve been a policeman and had this career in criminal justice but I’ve always taught and I love being in the classroom,” he says.

Schembri likes to pepper his conversations with stories and he begins by telling me about an incident while he was working as a young detective in Brooklyn back in the early 1970s. “I was alone and a guy comes into my office and says ‘How do you get to the top of the building?’ I asked him why and he said, ‘Because I want to jump off.’ I said, ‘Do you have a permit to jump off the building?’ This is an Academy award performance that I’m doing,” he says, smiling. “He said ‘no’ and I said ‘well you can get in trouble for jumping off a city building without a permit.’

“He asked me very calmly how he could get one and I said there was a doctor in charge of buildings and jumpers and I wrote him a note saying ‘issue one roof jumping permit to bearer’ and I gave it to him and said after the doctor had seen him he could come back. He said ‘Well, how do I get there?’ and I said, ‘I could save you a bus fare. Do you mind sitting in the back of a police car?’ He said, ‘How nice.’ Now isn’t that better than me jumping on him and him jumping on me and us ending up hurting one another?”

It’s a story he’s told before to students at police academies in the US as an example of how to defuse a potentially dangerous situation. But can you teach people to be more intuitive? Schembri believes you can and points to himself as an example.

“When I was 13 or 14 I went down to the police station one day to pick up something and I watched these detectives typing with one finger. I said ‘Is that the way you type? Even I’m better than that’. So this detective asked me to come in and type up a report and I said ‘Sure.’”

He started doing a few hours here and there and was able to watch the detectives at work. “I watched them interview people, they all had their tricks and although most of them couldn’t write a sentence they were masters of human behaviour. They had PhDs in people. They could tell if people were lying from a hundred feet away.”

However, the world is a far different place today and Schembri says the role of police officers has had to change with it. “The DNA of policing is changing. We were once a police force, now we’re a police service. We fought crime now we protect and serve. We once had to be tough enough to use force, now we have to be smart enough not to use force,” he says.

“Ninety-five per cent of what police officers do is not crime related, what we do is regulate human behaviour but we can’t get that name on the badge so we call ourselves ‘the police.’”

He says police chiefs today need to be skilled in the art of leadership, man management and persuasion on top of everything else. His own skills were put to the test when, in 1994, New York’s then mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed him Corrections Commissioner, putting him in charge of 12,000 uniformed officers and 20,000 inmates at 19 jails.

This brought him into contact with some of the most notorious gangs in America including members of the Bloods, Crips, and the Almighty Latin Kings.

“I ran the largest jail system in the world and one of the reasons why the mayor appointed me was to reduce gang violence,” he says. “These places are tradition-bound and they don’t like their way of doing things challenged but I do that by nature, I’m a fixer.”

One of the first things he did was call the gang leaders into his office. “They were fighting over a block of phones and a food cart stuff like that. So I sent my chief of staff to the UN and we got a copy of a peace treaty and we signed it. We inflated the egos of these big gangsters and we reduced violence by 24 per cent in a month.”

Another subject he’s closely involved with is the treatment of crime victims, which he has co-written a book about. “I teach police officers now about how the offender takes power away from the victim.” He points to the growing importance placed on restorative justice as an example of how policing has adapted.

“We are paying more attention to the needs of victims now. In the past there was a sense that victims contributed to themselves becoming a victim of crime. So one of the things we tell a police officer is ‘never blame a victim’ because this can make a big difference.”

Schembri says there are many challenges facing police forces today especially around the treatment of ethnic minorities and the use of force. “If I was running a police department today I would be taking the long view, anticipating trends before they become trends because we have to change the way our systems that deal with crime are organised.”

Even though his career as a frontline policeman is behind him, he has accrued a wealth of experience over the years that he’s eager to pass on, both to students and police officers. “I want to share with them some ideas that have worked for me because I used have used every technique you can think of.

“I tell the students that the number one skill they need is the ability to think on their feet. That’s more important than a degree,” he says.

“People don’t want theories of management they want to be able to use what they have learned, and that’s what I’m here for.”

Anthony Schembri’s leadership seminar is on December 9, at Sheffield Hallam University from 10am. For more details go to www.shu.ac.uk or call 0114 225 5555.