Can Bill Bratton Change the NYPD?


Every New York Police Department (NYPD) patrol car has the words “courtesy, professionalism and respect” (CPR) etched on its side. But for more than a decade, some New York City residents and visitors have complained that encounters with members of the city's police have not met these high-minded standards.

Audio and video recordings have surfaced showing officers engaged in illegal searches, using foul language and being told to target racial or ethnic minority males for “stop and frisk.” In these recordings, officers are usually neither respectful nor courteous.

One example: the notorious tapes recorded by officer Adrian Schoolcraft and reported in The Village Voice. Another is the audio recording of a stop and frisk of a Harlem teen published online by The Nation.

Can the soon-to-be NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, turn this around?

By many accounts, the lack of adherence to the CPR motto is not merely a matter of misbehavior by individual officers, but reflects the policies and ordained practices of a leadership that condones the surveillance and stopping of certain groups as the means of controlling crime.

And it is expensive.

Annual reports from the Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) and the City Comptroller suggest that Stop and Frisk practices contribute to huge financial payouts by the City for police misconduct. In 2011, this amount reached $185.5 million, exceeding the payout for all other city agencies for the first time in 30 years.

As Bratton returns to lead the City's police department for the second time, he is faced with the complex challenge of responding to a ground-swell of data documenting that policing in New York City for the last dozen years has been seriously flawed, at the same time as crime rates appear to be extremely low–compared to rates in previous decades and those in other major cities.

Editors Note: See tables accompanying this essay.

The question of whether he is the “right” man for the job hinges on his ability to simultaneously address these two factors.

Police and prosecutors have joined community groups in calling for policing that is absent of racial profiling and illegal quotas; and that is more accountable to the diverse public that makes up the City of New York. All residents want crime to remain low.

(At a conference held at John Jay College of Criminal Justice on November 15, we had the opportunity to ask a class of NYPD officers what they want from policing under the next mayoral administration.

At the top of their list of priorities were “no more quotas” and discretion to “police constitutionally”. Some of officers who were interviewed had less than five years' experience on the NYPD. Others were veterans with more than 20 years on the job.

With these factors in mind, Bratton is a controversial choice for police commissioner for several reasons.

First and foremost is the fact that he has openly expressed his support for “stop and frisk” as a means of crime control.

Reports indicate that the use of “stop and frisk” increased by 49 percent during his tenure as Los Angeles Police Commissioner. Similar racial disparities among those stopped were evident in LA under Bratton, as are apparent in New York.

But after commissioning a study of racial profiling by the LAPD, Bratton concluded that none existed. This finding hardly seems credible given that department's history. Sources do indicate that the use of stop and frisk in LA was better at uncovering crime, than is the case in New York.

It was under Bratton's first term as NYPD commissioner that the focus on COMPSTAT–computerized crime statistics—gained prominence as the gold standard for achieving effective urban policing. But by computerizing crime statistics, crimes and criminal actors are grouped into aggregate identities that overshadow individual behavior.

Some argue that this focus on “numbers-driven policing,” and the use of aggregate data, were the precursor to the current policing practices that target racial, ethnic and religious minorities for surveillance and enforcement activity; and leads to abusive and discriminatory policing against the poor, women and LGBT individuals.

Bratton continues to be a proponent of “broken windows” policing—a policing strategy that suggests that by aggressively enforcing laws related to low level offenses, more serious crime is prevented.

It is an approach that focuses not just on serious crime but also on so-called “signs of disorder”–such as street prostitution, homelessness, panhandling, vagrancy, etc. The approach criminalizes the poor in a city where the distribution of wealth across residents is massively imbalanced.

The Mayor-elect has explained his decision to appoint Bratton as police commissioner in ways that make perfect sense.

According to DeBlasio, since Bratton has experience working with a federal monitor from his days as the head of the LAPD, he is the best candidate to begin to implement the type of reforms ordered by Judge Schira Scheindlin in two cases decided earlier this year.

He also has experience working with an inspector general, a newly created position resulting from the passing of legislation that the New York City Council voted to enact, not once, but twice, and over a mayoral veto. One role of the inspector general will be to oversee complaints of police misconduct.

Under Bratton's police leadership, violent crime statistics in LA fell drastically, dipping below those for NYC. This seems to bode well for the “collaborative” policing approach that he recently discussed in a meeting with grassroots organizations and advocates.

Reports indicate that LA's crime reduction resulted from such a police-community collaboration and that police-community relations, especially among racial/ethnic minorities, were greatly improved—arguably signs of a truly professional police service.

However, empirical questions still exist as to whether serious crime in New York is as low as reflected in official statistics, or appears so because of under-reporting—by, for instance, young males of color who are victims of crime but seek to avoid contact with the police for fear that they will be seen as criminals (see Coming of Age with Stop and Frisk: Experiences, Self-Perceptions, and Public Safety Implications by the VERA Institute, 2013).

And because police managers are instructed to downgrade serious offenses, in order to portray a more positive view of public safety than actually exists (See The Crime Numbers Game: Management by Manipulation by John Eterno and Eli Silverman, 2012).

These and other contingencies raise an important question: If crime in New York appears to increase, or actually does increase, once Bratton is in office, will he continue to pursue a progressive policing strategy that includes outreach to the many communities or will he more aggressively pursue controversial existing strategies that he is on record as supporting?

Delores Jones-Brown, J.D., PH.D., is a Professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at John Jay College and is founding director of the Center on Race, Crime and Justice. She is also a former New Jersey prosecutor. She welcomes comments from readers.

Comments are closed.