Bill Bratton and the NYPD: Dancing Partners For How Long?


Bill Bratton's announcement last week that he won't be sticking around for a second term as Police Commissioner of New York seemed to surprise a lot of people—but not long-time Bratton watchers.

And given his history, it almost surely has nothing to do with the relationship between him and Mayor Bill de Blasio who, following the announcement, made abundantly clear he would like Bratton to stay another term.

Responding to the 67-year-old Bratton's comment that he'd be “70-some-odd years old” by the time a second term ended, de Blasio pointedly said he had just returned from a meeting with the septuagenarian Pope Francis I in Rome, who showed no evidence of flagging.

But advancing age may not be Bratton's real consideration. The fact is, ever since he first left the Boston Police Department, he's always thought of himself, and billed himself as, a “change agent”: an in-and-out reformer leaving on his own timetable—except, of course, for his first term as New York's Police Commissioner from 1994-96, when he was infamously and unceremoniously forced to resign by then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

But that was the only time he was so dismissed. In just the 13-year span from 1983 to 1996, Bratton would head the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Police, the New York City Transit Police, the Boston Police Department and then the New York Police Department (NYPD)—and in all but that one NYPD exception – he'd left on his own terms.

In Boston, for example, he resigned as Commission of the Boston PD after serving less than seven months in office, seeking and then getting the biggest job in American policing: the commissioner of the NYPD.

He also danced to his own tune in Los Angeles, where he served as police chief from late 2002 to mid-2009. After campaigning hard for a second five-year term and easily winning it, he startled many in Los Angeles and within the LAPD by declaring in the second year of that second five-year term that he was leaving.

As he told the Los Angeles Times in 2008: “I never wanted to go and just maintain something;” he wanted instead “to be able to fix something.” And in his mind the LAPD was fixed.

He would have left even sooner if a tough federal consent decree enforced by an equally tough federal judge named Gary Feess had only cooperated. But Feess wasn't cooperating. There was still more progress to be made, Feess felt.

This was a problem for Bratton, because he had always pointed to the lifting of the consent decree as the officially declared benchmark of his reform of the LAPD—indisputable evidence that he, Bill Bratton, the renowned police reformer, was still at the top of his reform game.

So when Feess appeared not to be budging on the issue, Bratton launched a campaign to change his mind. To buttress his crusade, he decided to use money from an LAPD booster organization to commission a report that would be called “Policing Los Angeles Under a Consent Decree: The Dynamics of Change at the LAPD.” And he would go to the very top to get the authors he wanted to conduct the study – —straight out of the Harvard Kennedy School, and its groundbreaking Criminal Justice Policy and Management Program, a program with which Bratton had had a long-fruitful relationship going back two decades.

Released in May 2009, the report was a generally favorable evaluation of the department. It pointed out how “serious crime” had dropped by almost 35 percent from 2003 through 2008. It also noted a 30-percent drop in officer-involved shootings and the use of chokeholds and strikes to the heads of suspects with a baton or flashlight; and that that the number of Angelenos who thought that the LAPD treated “all racial and ethnic groups fairly” had risen from 39 percent to 51 percent over the past four years: and that pedestrian and vehicle stops had risen by almost 50 percent between 2002 and 2008.

The report's authors also wrote, however, that they “saw a lot of force displayed in what seemed to be routine enforcement situations.”

Overall, declared the report, “We're talking about a department that has been able to reduce crime, increase satisfaction with the community, while increasing law enforcement activity.”

The report was presented to Judge Feess' monitor, Michael G. Cherkasky, who, in turn, presented it to Frees. In August 2009, Frees agreed to lift the decree, and approve a transitional plan that allowed the Los Angeles Police Commission to continue to oversee the last of the decree's provisions; thereby allowing Bratton to herald his reform triumph, officially stamped by the decree enforcer.

The LAPD became a far, far better police department under Bratton’s leadership than it was before. But the LAPD circa 2015 is still shooting and killing people whom the Los Angeles Police Commission and many observers think should have been shot. The department, in other words, still has a long way to go before it’s “reformed.”

Michael G. Cherkasky, who had been the Independent Monitor overseeing compliance with every aspect of the consent decree, then presented the report to Judge Feess. Prior to becoming the decree's monitor, Cherkasky had been an executive at the New York-based private security firm Kroll, Inc. during the 1990s. He was named the decree's Independent Monitor when the firm was awarded the job in 2001.

Shortly after taking the helm, he named Bratton as one of his monitors.

And now, Cherkasky, who had recently become the Chief Executive of Kroll's global parent company Altegrity, Inc. was hiring Bratton away from the LAPD to become Chairman of Kroll.

What the story of his leaving LA illustrates is not just that Bill Bratton dances to his own tune, but that he also knows when and how to change partners.

Joe Domanick is West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report, and Associate Director of the John Jay Center on Media, Crime and Justice. His forthcoming book, Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing will be released by Simon & Schuster on August 11. Domanick welcomes comments from readers.

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