In a climate marked by nationwide racial tensions and fear of societal change, successful policing reforms must come from new leadership in law enforcement agencies around the country, New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said yesterday as he began his final week at the helm of the country’s largest police department.
Bratton, 68, who is retiring this month after two and a half years as NYPD Commissioner—his second stint in the post—said today’s atmosphere reminded him of the turmoil in the country when he was a young police officer in Boston in the 1970s, with outside voices again clamoring for changes in police culture and procedures.
While those voices offer useful ideas, effective reform “will never happen without leadership from within,” Bratton said at a session sponsored by New York’s Citizens Crime Commission.
Bratton cited his own New York experience as an example, saying his efforts to upgrade police procedures and training had helped make the NYPD among the most effective forces in the country in areas ranging from neighborhood policing and counter-terrorism efforts to widening diversity.
NYPD now boasted more than 1,000 Muslim officers, increased its hiring of “openly gay” officers, and would soon introduce a beefed-up system of bicycle patrols, he said.
Bratton, who will be succeeded by department veteran James O’Neill, a close confidante, said he hoped other police agencies in America would follow the same path.
“This is a time of great opportunity,” Bratton said. “If you want to see change in American policing, it has to begin with leadership in policing.”
Bratton has been called the “father” of modern American policing, in part because many of the changes he instituted during his career, such as Compstat, have been widely imitated—but also because many middle managers who served with him have gone on to lead other departments across the country, where they have put in place similar strategies.
Editor’s Note: For an assessment of Bratton, see TCR West Coast Bureau Chief Joe Domanick’s commentary, “The Complicated Bratton Legacy.”
But he has also been criticized by some academics and community advocates for his controversial pursuit of strategies targeted at “quality of life” offenses, which they say unfairly single out minorities and poor neighborhoods.
Bratton claimed his approach, known as “broken windows” policing, was responsible for the dramatic decline in crime rates in New York. A recent report by the independent NYPD Inspector General’s Department sharply criticized this approach, but Bratton has claimed the report distorted the record.
In his remarks yesterday, Bratton offered an emotional defense of policing as a profession.
Over the past several decades, he said, the practice of law enforcement has evolved into a “profession of highly educated officers.”
“We have [improved ourselves] more than any other entity in society,” he said.
“I love the profession of policing,” Bratton continued, underscoring his commitment to principles of policing that go back to 1800s England. “I love what it means to be a cop first and foremost.”
Bratton said that the police department needs leadership that understands police officers and is committed to supporting their needs—enabling them to better support the people they serve. He said O’Neill will provide transparent leadership.
“He will fight for [police officers] when they’re right,” Bratton said of O’Neill, who was in the audience for the commissioner’s remarks. “And he will acknowledge when they’re wrong.”
Bratton said a big part of the challenge faced by O’Neill and other emerging police leaders is to maintain order in large urban settings where “each neighborhood is different, each person is different.”
It’s an environment that calls for “the right amount of policing,” he said, which he defined as “precision policing.”
Bratton, who also headed the Boston and Los Angeles Police Departments, will work as a private consultant in New York.
Although there have been rumors that he might be recruited to serve in a senior security-related post in a Hillary Clinton administration, Bratton insisted that he was looking forward to “watching from the sidelines” as an ordinary citizen of New York.
Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.