When a deranged black man named Ismaaiyl Brinsley killed two New York Police Department (NYPD) officers two weeks ago, he did more than take their lives. He also transformed the dynamic surrounding the effort by New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio to transform an embattled NYPD in 2014.
Before the murders of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, demonstrations over police-killings of black men had created a powerful momentum both nationwide and in New York for police reform—a momentum underscored by the disproportionate militaristic police-response to protests over Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Mo; by Eric Garner's chokehold death at the hands of an NYPD officer for selling “loose” cigarettes; and by the rush-to-judgment fatal police shootings of black shoppers in an Ohio Wal-Mart, and of a 12-year-old Cleveland boy.
The protesters' sustained, organized and largely peaceful demonstrations, and their rallying cries of “Hands Up, Don't Shoot,” “I Can't Breathe” and “Black Lives Matter,” seemed the birth of a national movement that turned police-killings, mass incarceration, stop-and-frisk and the war on drugs into the civil rights issue of the 21st Century.
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama amplified that message by creating a “Task Force on 21st Century Policing,” focused in part on the kind of community policing Bill Bratton was spearheading in New York.
Then came the murders of the NYPD officers—and an explosive blowback from the city's police unions and conservative critics of the reforms piloted by Bratton and de Blasio, who swiftly moved to use Brinsley's assertion that the murders were payback for Brown's and Garner's deaths to draw a causal link from de Blasio and the protesters to the officers' killings.
The fate of the struggle of Bratton and de Blasio to transform the NYPD's repressive tactics and arrest-obsessed culture while moving the department to a progressive community policing model currently remains unclear.
What is certain, however, is that their attempt to alter the abysmal relations between the city's poor communities of color and the NYPD is the most significant attempt by an urban law enforcement agency to address a crisis in American policing not seen since the wild, crime-ridden years of the early 1990s.
And, amazingly, Bill Bratton is once again driving profound change, as he did during his first stint as NYPD commissioner in 1996, when he landed on the cover of Time magazine as New York's savior, after his innovative policing strategies played a key role in dramatically lowering the city's soaring crime rate.
Rehired as NYPD Commissioner by de Blasio on January 2, 2014, Bratton has, ironically, been trying ever since to undo much of what he once championed in a city that has shifted from an obsession with crime to concerns about how its cops are policing.
His performance over last year thus tells us a lot about his chances of succeeding; and whether the 67-year-old Bratton still has the leadership skills and political savvy to meet the demands of de Blasio and the protesters, while transforming a defiant police department that's both the nation's largest, and currently its most complex.
While remaining at the forefront of some of the country's most sophisticated law enforcement strategies, the NYPD has also grown into an organization characterized by belligerent patrolmen and sergeants' unions at war with the city's political leadership, and by a senior leadership that since 9/11 has increasingly acted as if the department were unaccountable, and above criticism or the policy directives of a new mayor and police commissioner at the top of their chain of command.
The unions and some elements of the senior leadership are now fighting fundamental fixes to a department they regard as unbroken and that has presided over 20 consecutive years of falling crime rates—an unprecedented record that is by far the best in the nation, and of which they feel justly proud.
At first blush, Bill Bratton and Bill de Blasio seemed an odd couple.
An unabashedly progressive populist, de Blasio ran for mayor in 2013 as a sharp critic of stop-and-frisk, and went on to win a resounding victory propelled by an astounding 95 percent of the African-American vote.
Bratton, on the other hand, was mistrusted and even despised by many of de Blasio's most ardent supporters for introducing stop-and-frisk to New York and never disavowing it. As late as June 2013, Bratton was still defending it, while criticizing the way stop-and-frisk was being conducted in New York.
“Many politicians and community activists are thinking of doing away with [the policy],” he said in a phone interview with me at the time. “But I'm sorry; you do away with it, and crime will come back in the blink of an eye. It is the most frequent, effective and useful tool we have in policing…”
After meeting together over a dozen times, however, he and de Blasio reached agreement that at the very least stop-and-frisk would have to be dramatically scaled back. Throughout 2014 they would publically speak as one on the issue.
De Blasio's reasons for hiring Bratton were obvious and would become far more so as Bratton's stature with older conservatives and the police provided the mayor with badly needed cover when he came under attack.
That stature was the product of experience derived from successfully transforming the New York Transit Police, and police departments in Boston, New York City and Los Angeles—and learning key political lessons along the way.
As NYPD Commissioner in the 1990s, for example, Bratton had been a brash lover of the spotlight –putting him on a collision course with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who so resented Bratton's headline-grabbing persona that he forced his resignation. A wiser and more politically sophisticated Bratton went on to work extremely well with Los Angeles mayors James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa—a fact that de Blasio was surely aware of when he hired him.
Bratton's reasons for wanting the job were more complex: money, being forced out by Giuliani, and always his absolute love of the reform game and playing it out on America's biggest stage, and in the city he loved and now regarded as home.
Keenly aware of his legacy, Bratton has also long wished to alter the historically hostile dynamic between the nation's police and African Americans through a community policing strategy focused on winning acceptance and trust by partnering with grassroots community leaders to identify quality-of-life and other crime problems, and jointly setting priorities to solve them.
As chief in LA, Bratton had simultaneously courted black leaders while encouraging his division captains and bureau chiefs to create community policing plans tailored to specific areas and needs— an effort that led to a significant reduction in the historically sizzling tensions between the city's blacks and cops.
“Police matter,” Bratton once told me when he was still in LA. “Traditionally cops have been the flash point for so many of America's racial problems. If we don't solve the race issue we'll never solve all the other [related] issues. By working hand in-glove with black communities, police can create conditions where people of all races and incomes no longer fear young black and brown men, and people can live safely together.”
In 2014, Bratton would get his chance to start that process by tackling the stop-question-and-frisk policing strategies whose use under Bratton's predecessor, Raymond Kelly, had become heavy-handed and racially tinged. In Kelly's first year as commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2002, for example, the NYPD stopped-questioned-and/or frisked over 97,000 New Yorkers. By 2011, stops had exploded to over 685,000, while the number of black males aged 14-to-24 stopped exceeded the entire population of young black men in the city by 10,000 — that is, 158,000 black males in that age group were stopped more than 168,000 times.
In the summer of 2013, unrest over stop-and-frisk peaked when a federal judge declared that the policy amounted to unconstitutional racial profiling. The ruling was then underscored by de Blasio's decision in 2014 to both drop the Bloomberg Administration's appeal of the judge's verdict, and his agreement to make all the changes the judge had ordered.
In doing so, de Blasio declared his actions “a defining moment in [New York] history…for millions of our families, especially those with young men of color.”
Bratton, too, had something to say on that day.
Declaring that NYPD officers will no longer “break the law to enforce the law,” he described that pledge as a “solemn promise to every New Yorker regardless of where they were born…live, or…look like.”
These values, he added, “aren't at odds with keeping New Yorkers safe. They are essential to long term public safety, [and] we are committed to fulfilling our obligations under this agreement…”
In 2013, Kelly, under great outside pressure, had reduced stop-and-frisks by one-third. Simultaneously, homicides had also decreased, to 335, a new record-low. That was good, but tentative news for opponents of stop-and-frisk.
Far bigger news would come at the end of 2014, as homicides dropped again to yet another new record low of 328. Robberies fell by 14 percent, and burglaries, rapes and grand larcenies also decreased. Although good, solid numbers, they were similar to other crime decreases of recent years..
Viewed as a gauge of just how important stop-and-frisk had been in suppressing crime, however, they were spectacular. As crime was decreasing, stop-and-frisks had plunged 79 percent in the first nine months of 2014. By years end, Bratton predicted, the department would record fewer than 50,000 stops—a fraction of the more than 685,000 they'd made in 2011.
For a decade, Ray Kelly had insisted that the intense, targeted, stopping-and-frisking of poor, young black-and-brown men was crucial to maintaining New York's low crime rate, and could be scaled back only at the city's peril. The biggest beneficiaries of New York's crime decline, Kelly had insisted, were the young black and brown men whose lives had been saved by the tactic.
But the young men allegedly benefiting from Kelly's brand of intense stop-and-frisk were also being crushed. Not just by harsh, stagnant economic truths and the dog-eat-dog violence of ghetto and barrio life, but by cops bent on stopping and busting them for whatever they could while saddling them with stints in the city's hell-hole jail on Riker's Island and with criminal records.
Precisely for that reason, that November Bratton and de Blasio officially banned one of stop-and-frisks most notorious arrest-subterfuges: stopping someone, ordering him to empty his pockets, and then arresting him for “displaying” marijuana in public, thereby explicitly expanding and codifying the ban on a practice Kelly already ordered stopped.
Under a policy announced in November, anyone caught with up to 25 grams of marijuana would receive a ticket and a $100 fine —instead of being subject to jail time and a criminal record that as de Blasio put it, “hurts chances to get a good job…housing or a student loan.” (Those actively smoking marijuana in public will still be subject to arrest.)
The simultaneous drop in crime and stop-and-frisk was an amazing accomplishment, but no accident. Bratton has always been highly versed in bureaucratic intrigue.
In LA, as he once described it, “the top brass tried to corral me in the chief's office so I wouldn't see what was happening within the department. The idea was the old-guard brass would keep me so busy that I wouldn't leave my office and get out and talk to people that they didn't like or want me to listen to, and then come in with documents for me to sign as they went about their business as usual.”
“It's all about control,” he continued. “And the one thing I've understood about organizations (is) you have to let them know from the get-go who's in control.”
Bratton hasn't been corralled in New York either. Before the Garner grand jury verdict was announced, for example, he traveled to Staten Island to meet with Garner's family and community leaders. And on the night the Ferguson grand jury announced there would be no indictment for the killing of Michael Brown, Bratton was standing in Times Square surrounded by a swirl of demonstrators, monitoring them, as well as his officers.
Bratton also always arrives at his new departments with a well-prepared plan and a team of experts who have served as his initial eyes, ears and brains for decades, compiling transition books of Bratton's new department replete with command staff profiles and analysis of the new departments, and forming feed-back relationships with sergeants and captains in the field.
But events can get in the way of the best-laid plans.
In July, “broken windows” policing, another of the innovative approaches taken by Bratton in the 1990s, came under attack. Both Bratton and Kelly have championed the tactic—which is based on the concept that relatively minor, “quality of life” offenses such as breaking windows, drinking in public or hopping a subway turnstile, lead to deteriorating neighborhoods and the commission of more serious crimes —as an important factor in New York's crime decline.
Done right — as a tactic that's part of wider community policing strategy — broken windows enforcement can be important in decreasing the kind of quality of life issues such as public urination, street prostitution and public drinking and intoxication that plague poor neighborhoods. Done wrong, with strict, punitive enforcement, the practice can become just another example of heavy-handed law enforcement.
Which is exactly what happened when Eric Garner died on July 17 after being placed in a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo, in an incident dramatically captured on a cell phone video.
Garner had been arrested eight times for selling untaxed, “loose” single cigarettes in Staten Island and was allegedly doing the same when a small detail of police cracking down on “quality of life” crimes decided to arrest him for a ninth time. When an officer attempted to cuff him, the overweight Garner pulled his wrists away, whereupon a cop instantly locked a forearm around Garner's windpipe, and pulled him to the ground as other cops piled on his back.
Later, the coroner's office attributed his death to both the chokehold – whose use by officers had been banned by the NYPD since 1993 – and to other cops sitting on Garner's back once he hit the pavement. Garner was African American; the cops were white—adding a racial element to the episode that was only underscored with the death of Michael Brown less than a month later in Ferguson.
In response to the Garner death, Bratton ordered a three-day retraining that will eventually include all 35,000 NYPD officers, and will focus on avoiding physical and verbal confrontations when making arrests.
Bratton described the $25 million program, which had been in the planning stage at the NYPD since the previous March, as similar to the firearms retraining which all officers are required to periodically undergo. But he made no bones about where he was headed.
“It was evident,” Bratton said at the time, “that there was the need for a fundamental shift in the culture of the department, from an overarching focus on police activity [i.e. arrests], to an emphasis on collaborative problem-solving with the community.”
During the summer, the Rev. Al Sharpton led a peaceful march protesting Eric Garner's killing. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, Sharpton had been a young, bombastic Pentecostal minister from Brooklyn ambitiously trying to make his name as a civil rights leader by playing the role of a racial lightning rod.
By 2014, however, a matured Sharpton had become a national leader of black activists trying to hold police organizations accountable, and a political ally of de Blasio so valued that Sharpton was one of the first people the mayor had asked Bratton to call as commissioner.
At a public meeting following Garner's death, Sharpton had publically disparaged the NYPD in front of Bratton, who had astutely held his famous temper – a response that paid off. A Sharpton-organized demonstration in the wake of Garner's death was notably peaceful, a pattern of behavior by both cops and protesters that largely repeated itself later in the year when the Brown and Garner grand-jury verdicts were announced, although there was one incident in which several protesters were charged with physically attacking officers.
Despite the heated climate, the NYPD's actions did not become the story of the protests in 2014, as they had in 2010 when officers manhandled and pepper-sprayed Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. Credit for that goes to Bratton's political skills, and to the crowd-control experience in minimizing provocative police actions and violence that he had re-learned the hard way after LAPD officers beat peaceful protestors and reporters on May Day, 2007.
As the year was closing, other news also seemed to auger well for the city's reform activists. A follow-up survey revealed that two-thirds of New Yorkers thought Pantaleo should have been indicted. Meanwhile, de Blasio was defending the protesters, emotionally explaining how he and his African-American wife – like so many parents of black and bi-racial boys – had to engage his teenage son Dante in “painful conversations [about] taking special care” when dealing with the police.
The momentum, it seemed, was all with the reformers.
Then that momentum radically shifted with the killings of officers Ramos and Liu, and was replaced by an explosion of vituperation addressed not at the killer, but at Bill de Blasio.
George Pataki, the former Governor of New York tweeted that the officers' killings were “a predictable outcome of divisive anti-cop rhetoric” by de Blasio and Attorney General Holder. On ABC News, Ray Kelly said that de Blasio's advice to his son was what had “set off this [post-murder] firestorm,” and that de Blasio had run on an anti-police campaign” in 2013.
And in the eyes of other critics like Pat Lynch, the head of the NYPD's 25,000-strong rank-and-file patrol officers' union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association (PBA), he certainly had. Lynch declared that the dead officers' blood “starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.”
Then, first at the hospital where the two officers had been taken, and later in full uniform at the funeral of Ramos, scores of active and retired NYPD cops and police officers from across the country turned their backs in silent contempt at de Blasio. Openly defying Bratton's request not to mix “grieving” with “grievance,” police and staged a similar protest involving hundreds of officers at Liu's funeral the following week—raising questions about whether Bratton could control his union-led rank-and-file.
Amid their triumphs, Bratton's and de Blasio's great failure in 2014 had now become glaringly apparent: their inability to recognize the depth of the rage within the department at the mayor, and their hatred of the anti-police sentiments they believed he represented.
Another reason for the anger was that the PBA had been without a contract since 2010, while most of the city's 144 municipal-unions left in the same boat by the Bloomberg Administration had already settled theirs (including the other police unions). The big problem was money. Starting salary for new officers was just under $42,000, rising after to about $76,000 after five-and-a-half years – salaries that Lynch complained were “among the lowest [of] big-city police officers in the country.”
Perhaps as a result, Lynch has been the most outspoken of police union leaders, and often seems a throwback from the 1970s. But the NYPD rank and file has dramatically changed in the past decade. Once the exclusive bastion of Irish and other white cops who commuted from suburban homes in Long Island or Westchester County, the department now far more reflects the multi-ethnic and multi-racial diversity of New York.
According to the department's end of 2013 figures, almost 53 percent of patrol officers are members of minority groups (16.7 percent black; 29.2 percent Hispanic, and 6.7 percent Asian.) There are also about 6,000 women in the NYPD.
This new demographic may be more receptive to community policing that doesn't oppress people who look just like them—especially if the PBA wins a significant pay increase, and the tensions over Ramos' and Liu's deaths abate. So far, internal racial and ethnic divisions over de Blasio and Bratton's reforms have not been apparent.
But that’s a lot of what-ifs. The rank and file seems currently united around Lynch, as evidenced by an act of defiance far more troubling in its potential effect than Lynch’s bombast or officers turning their uniformed backs on their civilian boss: a unified work slowdown.
Although union leaders strongly deny it is an organized effort, as The New York Times reported, in the week ending January 4, NYPD officers made 50 percent fewer arrests than in the same period a year ago. Just 347 criminal summonses were issued in the entire city compared to 4,077 in the corresponding period last year, and parking and traffic tickets declined by 90 percent.
When questioned about the slowdown, Bratton promised to “look very specifically — precinct by precinct, tour of duty by tour of duty, sector car by sector car, officer by officer — and we will deal with it very appropriately, if we have to.”
Nevertheless, as Bratton and de Blasio have struggled through the last several weeks of adversity, they've shown remarkable unity, and the courage of their smart, humane convictions.
On CBS's Face the Nation, Bratton said of de Blasio: “This mayor, my mayor,” is “one of the best I've ever worked with…Very, very supportive of equipping the police, and a progressive [who] certainly wants police to police constitutionally, compassionately, respectfully—which is why he's hired me, because we are both of a shared mind on this issue.”
That unity will be sorely tested in 2015. It will take all of Bratton's skills and experience to hold it together, while repairing the breach within the department and completing a reform agenda that will have to include finding a way to incorporate a more benign, less arrest-oriented version of broken-windows enforcement into a true community policing model
Bratton's ability to weather the current crisis will determine whether he can move the NYPD into a new era and, by example, help move American policing away from the reflexive police violence we saw in Ferguson, Cleveland and too many other cities.
Ever since the fugitive slave laws and Reconstruction, that kind of policing has had as one of its primary missions—north and south—the suppression of black Americans and the maintenance of Jim Crow.
That, in essence is what the fight in New York is all about. Given what's at stake, we should be cheering Bratton and de Blasio on, not tearing them down.
Joe Domanick is associate director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and West Coast Bureau Chief of The Crime Report. His new book, Blue: The Ruin and Redemption of the LAPD will be published by Simon & Schuster in July 2015. He welcomes comments from readers.