Bratton: The Making of a Police Visionary


New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's decision to appoint William J. Bratton as the City's next Police Commissioner is both an astounding personal triumph for Bratton, and an indication of how carefully de Blasio intends to tread in attempting to fulfill his populist agenda.

Instead of an announcement of dramatic change to a police department whose stop-and-frisk and community policing policies he'd strongly criticized, de Blasio has chosen in Bratton a man who is a hero to much of the New York Police Department (NYPD), and to the institutional organizations within and surrounding the department, such as its rank-and-file union, its command officers association, and the fraternal police organizations that collectively comprise the on-going soul of the NYPD.

One thing is clear: with his choice, de Blasio has selected the perfect instrument to shield him from the type of reflexive bitching, passive resistance and subtle sabotage that comes from hidebound law enforcement institutions like the NYPD when they feel threatened by progressive changes involving the respecting of the public's right and civil liberties.

And make no mistake, Bratton will skillfully counter that kind of internal resistance, not only because of the respect he earned during his previous tenure as New York City's Police Commissioner (1994-1996), but because it's in his own deep personal and professional interest to work smoothly with dei Blasio as he carries out the new mayor's reforms while maintaining officer morale and overall department efficiency and public safety.

For Bratton, his new appointment is not only the sweetest of vindications; it's also either the capstone —or a highly significant way-station—in a career that has made him the most significant, game-changing big-city police executive of the past half century.

Police Reformer

In just one remarkable 13- year span from 1983 to 1996, for example, he both headed and introduced significant reforms to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Police and the Boston Police Department, and led major transformative changes to the New York City Transit Police, and to the NYPD.

When Bratton became chief of the New York City Transit Police in 1990, big-city policing was a tired, anemic world mired in a corrupt, racist past—proudly scornful of social science and data-driven policy, and convinced that law enforcement's only job was to “catch bad guys” after the fact, and without end.

Bratton had new ideas. He He recognized that new crime prevention strategies were desperately needed by police departments across an urban America then besieged by rising street crime, record homicide rates, and seething class and racial animosity.

Nowhere was this truer than the New City Transit Police Department, then a “mini-me” version of the NYPD.

At the time, it was an independent police agency, whose primary mission was to protect the three-and-a-half million daily riders of New York's heavily-traveled subway system—a mission in which it was notoriously failing. Transit crimes had risen by 25 percent a year for the past three years – twice the rate of New York City as a whole; and robberies were growing at two-and-a-half times the rate of the city — which itself was experiencing record-high crime numbers.

The department's 3,500 officers, moreover, were demoralized, slothful and ill-equipped. And they were ill-used by an old, tired, leadership cadre whose ideas and policies focused on doing things the way they'd always been done, and reacting to crimes after they occurred, as opposed to trying to logically and systematically reduce or prevent crime.

Thousands of homeless people were living in foul-smelling cardboard packing-box bedrooms on the far ends of subway platforms, or in hovels they'd made in crawl-spaces, and hundreds were dying after being bitten by rats, bitten by frost, or killed by speeding trains. About 170,000 times a day subway riders were jumping over turn style subway entrances, or otherwise evading paying their fares. Fare-evasions and small-time hustles were minor crimes, but it was also emblematic of a sense of out-of-control malevolence that enveloped you like background music in a cheap horror movie when entering a New York subway.

Above ground, New York and the NYPD were absorbed in their own ongoing crisis. The city's 1989 homicide rate of 1,905 had set a sorry record, one promptly broken the following year with an astounding 2,245 murders.

Nor was that the whole story: in 1993, when there were 1,946 killings in the city, over 5,800 people had been shot!

Thirty months later, when Bratton resigned as transit police chief, felony subway crimes had decreased by over 20 percent, robberies by 40 percent, and fare evasions by 50 percent.

Broken Windows Policing

During that time Bratton had also enthusiastically introduced and championed social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling’s contentious but highly influential “Broken Windows” theory of crime. Such crimes as public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling, street prostitution and loitering, Wilson and Kelling argued in a 1982 Atlantic Monthly article entitled Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety, created an atmosphere of fear and permissiveness that leads to more serious crimes.

Therefore, they argued, cops needed to enforce laws prohibiting that kind of behavior in the same way that broken windows must be repaired or they’ll lead to a neighborhood’s gradual physical deterioration.

“Broken Windows” or “quality of life policing” and another Bratton policing focus—”stop and frisk”— became instrumental in refocusing the New York City subway police and the NYPD away from haphazardly responding to crimes as they occurred, concentrating instead on long-term crime prevention and a more holistic approach to a safe environment. The two tactics –and most especially stop and frisk – also had huge potential for abuse.

A potential that would most notoriously be realized in the very city where Bratton had famously used them and was now, ironically, returning in part because of that notoriety.

But for the subways of New York in those pivotal initial years, those strategies were critical first steps in restoring both a sense of safety and of sanity in a crucial public space. At a time when crime was becoming America's number one domestic obsession, Bratton had proved on a national stage that something could actually be done to stem a rising fear of violence and lawlessness in big-city America. And in New York City, circa 1992, that was a revelation.

About a month after his election, in November, 1993, another mayor-elect, Rudolph Giuliani, stood with William Bratton and named him New York City's 38th Police Commissioner.

As it turned out, 1994 was an auspicious year for Bill Bratton to plunge into his new job as Police Commissioner. The public was hugely supportive and New York's economy was starting to boom. Under President Bill Clinton, federal money was flowing in for training, equipment, and hiring new police.

Most importantly, the 10,000 new NYPD cops that Giuliani's predecessor, Mayor David Dinkins had found the money to hire, were now trained and ready to hit the street. The nationwide crack epidemic that had 14- and 15-year-old street-corner dealers carrying Glocks and shooting each other in record numbers in turf wars all over urban America, moreover, was finally winding down.

Partly as a result, the decline in violent and property crime that had started nationwide in 1991 was accelerating.

Bratton's contribution would be to spearhead and maximize the trend in New York City. Using CompStat to track crimes and complaints; “Broken Windows” policing to aggressively enforce gun and drug possession and petty crimes; and other deployment and management strategies, Bratton re-energized and refocused a previously adrift NYPD that was now 38,000 officers strong.

As if by magic, New York's homeless—a large number of whom were mentally ill and hapless—suddenly began to disappear.

This also had a lot to do with an initiative begun by former mayor David Dinkins. Bratton had ordered the formation of a special 35-officer unit to push the homeless, and particularly those sleeping on the sidewalks, off the streets of Manhattan and other areas of the City. What made the unit truly effective, however, was the fact that Dinkins had gotten then-New York Governor Mario Cuomo to help finance 7,500 units of single residency apartments where the homeless could be placed. One hundred million dollars, meanwhile, began flowing in from the Clinton administration for homeless housing, at the same time that large numbers of new public housing units commissioned by Mayor Ed Koch's administration during the 1980s were also coming on line.

The disappearance of the homeless and of aggressive panhandlers, who were being arrested for any code violation the NYPD could come up with, had an instant impact that led to a stark realization by the city's residents: that a seemingly intractable, high-visibility problem could actually be made to go away.

Simultaneously, crime was plunging dramatically. The number of murders in NewYork City in 1995 dropped by nearly 385 from the total in 1994, an almost 25 percent decline in just one year. By the end of 1996 they would fall by almost 590, a decrease of over 37 percent.

Total felonies in 1995, moreover, decreased by 27 percent, robberies by over 30 percent, and burglaries by 25 percent.

So remarkable was Bratton's impact on the city that in January, 1996 his image was emblazoned on the cover of Time magazine as the face of hope for an America then obsessed with urban violence. “Finally,” read the story's cover line, “We're Winning the War Against Crime. Here's Why.”

While Bratton was being celebrated by Time magazine as New York's savior, Rudolph Giuliani and his administration were seething over the attention Bratton was getting. Giuliani was obsessed with controlling information from city departments to the media, demanding absolute subservience from department heads, and allowing the credit to go to him.

Soon after the Time story appeared, Bratton was unceremoniously forced to resign.

Watching From the Sidelines

In the years that followed, Bratton formed his own security firm, which advisied police departments in South America, and elsewhere. When the 9/11 planes hit, he sat watching the biggest calamity in New York and modern American history unfold on a television screen in his Manhattan apartment, helpless in the face of what could have been, should have been, the defining moment of his professional life.

“In your life as a police officer,” he'd later say, “you live to deal with crisis, to be tested by it. It's very frustrating when you're not in a position to do anything – particularly when you know what needs to be done.”

In 1999, his frustration would bubble over as he spoke before a fraternal organization of idolatrous former and current NYPD officers known as The Shields.

Suddenly during his speech hestopped, “put down his prepared remarks;” discarded his reading glasses, and – as writer Rory O'Connor described it in Boston Magazine – announced to his audience that this was “the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times,'” he said, because “there's a revolution going on in American policing…homicides [in New York City] have plummeted by 70 percent – a phenomenal decrease…

“And it's the worst of times,” he continued, “when the claims of others go unchallenged, claims that take credit for this decrease, [and credit instead] demographic or social changes that mystically caused this decrease in crime. Let me tell you that nothing infuriates me more. In fact, he continued it drives me crazy!… The only losers in New York City during the '90s were the cops – the very people who made the rest of the city winners!”'

Some of that rewriting of history, Bratton would later say, was due to the “anti-Giulianism” that had exploded in New York as Giuliani neared the end of his second term battling with seemingly everyone in the city; and as his successors, as Commissioner, Howard Safir and Bernie Kerik had failed to promote New York's cops as the primary reason for the city's crime decline, and had instead come “under attack.”

It was deeply frustrating for him to watch all of that, to watch the “gains to the profession, the gains for [him] personally and professionally being undermined.” In short, his legacy was at stake, and Bratton knew it.

Then, one day in October 28, 2002, Bill Bratton's exile into the private sector ended when he was sworn in as Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. He got the job not just because he was so well qualified, but because had prepared for it far better than anyone else. And because he really wanted it, for financial and legacy reasons — and for professional reasons as well.

The kind of reasons that undoubtedly played a big role in de Blasio's decision to hire him.

Tackling Racial Tensions

As Bratton told his wife Rikki Klieman when he was pursuing the chief's job in LA, “I'd never really had the opportunity to deal with community policing or significantly improve race relations while leading the NYPD.”

The flash-point for racial tension in America's cities for decades, Bratton told me when he first arrive in Los Angeles, has been the police, and if the cops were ever to get buy-in and the consent of the poor people-of-color they were policing, they'd have to stop being part of the problem.

LA, he understood, would be the ideal place to work through those issues.

And he succeeded to a remarkable degree. In his six-and-a-half years as chief, ending in August, 2009, Bratton accomplished a great cultural change within the LAPD, in terms of shifting from the department's notorious warrior-cop, us-versus-them mentality, to one intolerant of police abuse and seeking community approval.

John Mack, the President of the Los Angeles Urban League, and a leader of the black community for decades in its fight against police abuse, would become president of the Police Commission, and one of Bratton's biggest champions.

Community Policing – real back-and-forth partnering between the police and black and brown communities flourished— not because Bratton issued any grand master plan but because he permitted and encouraged his division captains to develop those relations in ways specifically suited to each division.

He embraced a gang interventionist academy—a school for former gang members that led to a highly effective system for reducing retaliatory shootings between gang members, and a significant reduction in gang violence.

He took a captain named Charlie Beck and jumped him two grades; and then successfully championed him as his successor because he recognized that Beck, perhaps first among all others on the department, had the best understanding and the truest feel for the kind of community policing that empowered neighborhood organizers and lead to increased public safety and community improvement and development.

Meanwhile throughout Bratton's tenure, crime rates continued to fall.

So Bill Bratton will succeed in bringing real community policing to the NYPD, because he will free up his best precinct commanders to develop it in a specifically structured to the needs of specific communities.

When it comes to stop-and-frisk, however, Bratton is no apostate. You've got to

have it, he says. Got to. And he certainly never shied away from the practice while in LA.

Two Versions of Stop and Frisk

According to Peter Bibring, a Senior Staff Attorney at the ACLU of Southern California, in 2005 —Bratton's third year as chief —the LAPD made 275,000 pedestrian stops. In New York, meanwhile, the NYPD's stop rate was rising from about 90,000 stops in 2002 to a high of 660,000 in 2011.

In other words the LAPD was making a little over one-third the stops as the NYPD — 660,000 to 275,000. But Los Angeles had only half the population of New York, and well under a third the number of police officers. And few people who aren't black, brown and poor were doing much walking in LA.

The pedestrian stops, in fact, were very disproportionally of African Americans, consistently about 35 to 40 percent, with a black population 10 to 12 percent in the city.

Moreover, the LAPD was making about 700,000 automobile stops; so total stops were pretty close to a million stops per year. Not all were searches. But that was a lot of stops.

Bibring says that according his ACLU colleagues in New York, the NYPD doesn't track vehicle stops. So there's no comparison there.

This is the area, along with community policing where the rubber will meet the road for Bratton.

There were several reasons why Bratton and the LAPD were never challenged for their high number of stops with the same intensity as the NYPD. Bratton had assiduously courted the city's black leadership. Many of the stops were made under the guise of controlling gang violence, a terrible problem that from 1979 through 2006 accounted for 13,000 gang-related homicides in Los Angeles County.

And third, because Bratton was actively supporting other innovative approaches to reducing gang violence than simply traditional police suppression.

He was aided in implementing many of his structural and cultural reforms in Los Angeles by a federal consent decree forced on the LAPD by the US Department of Justice. In New York he'll have a still-up-in-the air court ruling and a mayor who ran on making stop and frisk at the very least a far less frequently used tool then in the past, a change already in the making under outgoing NYPD chief Ray Kelly.

His big challenge will be finding a way to marry or moderate his “assertive” policing strategies with the expectations of wary communities of African Americans and civil liberations primed for substantive change.

A lot will be riding on his success, for both him and Bill de Blasio.

Joe Domanick is Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. A veteran journalist and the author of a number of books on policing, his new book on the Los Angeles Police Department, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD, will be published by Simon & Schuster in the Spring of 2014. He welcomes comments from readers.

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