The Complicated Bratton Legacy

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NYPD Nick Allen

Photo by Nick Allen via Flickr

For those who have followed Bill Bratton’s extraordinary 45-year career in policing, yesterday’s announcement that he intended to resign as New York City’s police commissioner after two-and-a-half tumultuous years in office came as no surprise.

For one, he’d already announced earlier in the summer that he would not serve a second term as police commissioner should New York Mayor Bill de Blasio be reelected in 2017.  For another, Bratton, who’s been billing himself as a “change-agent” for decades, has never been one to stick around once he’d decided that the changes he was hired to make had been set in motion.

As he told the Los Angeles Times about a year before he resigned as the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) in 2009, “I never wanted to go and just maintain something” but wanted instead “to be able to fix something.”

And move and fix he has. In a ten-year span from 1983 to 1993, he would head the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Police, the New York City Transit Police, the Boston Police Department, and the New York Police Department (NYPD).

A hometown boy, Bratton began his career with the Boston police in 1970, joining an insular, hide-bound police agency “steeped,” as he later put it, “in Boston Irish culture [and] Irish Alzheimer’s: You forget everything except the grudges.”

In little more than a decade he rose to become the Boston PD’s boy-wonder, second-in-command, as well as its media man, its face, and its chief spokesman. But the grudges piled up, and he was pushed off the up-escalator.

In 1990, he emerged in New York City, media-capital of the world, and as the chief of the New York City Transit Police (which has since been merged into the NYPD).

It was a pivotal time in America. Crime in New York and other big cities was crushing its residents, fear was in the air, and American policing—mired in the past, and devoid of new ideas—had no answers.

What would make Bratton the historic figure in American policing in the second half of the 20th Century and on into the 21st were his ideas about how to prevent and reduce crime.  And for good measure, he borrowed additional concepts from those he hired, or from criminologists he paid attention to—a sign of intellectual curiosity that distinguished him from many other police managers of his generation.

The crime strategies that resulted from his “thinking-man’s approach” to modern law enforcement—strategies such as hot-spot and broken windows policing, crime mapping and COMSTAT and stop-and-frisk dramatically reduced crime in the New York subways, and then on the city’s streets when he was appointed NYPD Commissioner in the mid-1990s.

There has been no shortage of critics, but serious crime has gone down every year in New York for the more than two decades. Crime, of course, has gone down throughout most of America as well, but nowhere has the crime decline been so long and consistent as in New York.

And that remains Bratton’s great, lasting gift to American policing and the public: He proved that smart policing can be effective in changing public behavior and revitalizing what had been crime-ridden cities—and the Bratton effect reverberated across much of urban America, carried by other chiefs who launched their careers as deputies under Bratton’s command.

His legacy as chief of the LAPD was to preside over a hard-nosed police department that had previously been impervious to reform, and was under a tough federal consent decree for its decades of riding roughshod and unaccountable over the poor back and brown people of Los Angeles. He left Los Angeles after seven years, having fulfilled the vast majority of the consent decree’s requirements, while reducing crime,   opening up the space for creative, reform-minded field captains to introduce neighborhood-specific community policing programs, and championing the appointment of one of his accolytes, Charlie Beck, to succeed him – which Beck has admirably done.

This is the game-changing up-side to Bill Bratton’s legacy.

The downside has also been impactful. During the 1990s Bratton had introduced two crime-reduction strategies: stop-and-frisk and broken-windows policing. A good argument — and one I would make — is that the intense use of these tactics was necessary at the time as critical first-steps in restoring both a sense of safety and of sanity to the subways and streets of New York, at a time when crime was becoming America’s number-one domestic obsession.

But starting in the 1990s and continuing to this day, broken windows and especially stop-and-frisk became mass stop-and-frisk; and broken-windows policing — that is, the enforcement of even the smallest of laws degraded into harassment, as America’s police spearheaded the “wars” on drugs and crime—led inexorably to the dogmatic mass incarceration strategy that’s been fed by massive over-policing in poor black and brown communities, and by a massive use of stop-and-frisk in our cities. Add to that the harassing vehicle-stops in our suburbs and rural areas.

Bratton shares some of the blame for that. He had successfully used these strategies, took credit for them, and championed them. While In Los Angeles, the number of LAPD stop-and frisks vastly accelerated under his tenure; and in 2013 he told me: “Stop-and-frisk? You gotta have it. If you don’t, you’d have to leave [New York] City.”

In 2014, the assumptions underlining this kind of tight, intense policing began to be questioned by the general public, as the deaths of unarmed African Americans at the hands of cops – such as Eric Garner (in New York City) and Michael Brown (in Ferguson, Mo.)—became the story of the summer.  In addition, there was fierce blowback to the astoundingly high number of stop-and-frisk in New York City – which in 2011 alone totaled 685,000..

In other words, while Bill Bratton has been an extraordinary leader in effectively reducing crime; he’s also contributed to the fraught situation we just saw playing itself out last month with the shocking, video- recorded police-killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge and Philando Castile in suburban Minneapolis; and the stunning assassinations of eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.

While not directly related to stop-and-frisk, the mindset – particularly in the case of Castile – is part-and-parcel of the tight policing that has led to so much tension and so many bad-shooting incidents.

But 2014 also brought a different Bratton to New York City for his second act as police commissioner and the third act of his career. Hired by newly elected mayor Bill De Blasio — who’d run a police reform campaign with an emphasis on vastly reducing the number of stop-and-frisks in the city — Bratton took the job and leaned into the task. By the end of his first year he’d reduced the number of stop-and-frisks by almost 80 percent, while, at the same time crime in New York continued its steady two-decide decline record decline. (As it did in 2015.)

It was an extraordinary, likely lasting accomplishment—a great last hurrah to big city policing.

Bratton’s now 68. I last recall pictures him of running around Times Square during the protest demonstrations after a grand jury refused to indict the NYPD cop whose chokehold resulted in Eric Garner’s death — trying to make sure his cops wouldn’t go wild and beat some protesters, thereby making the NYPD the bad guy in the story. And they didn’t.

As for what’s next for him, you can take him at his word that he wants to go back to the private sector, presumably to make some big money. (After leaving the LAPD he served a short stint with an international security firm and then as a globetrotting consultant.)

I would bet, however, that, if Hillary Clinton is elected president, he’ll be offered and will take a position in her administration.  In LA he had pictures of the Clintons on his office wall.  His ties to them go back to his days in New York in the 1990s.

With him goes the end of an era. What follows will have to be something we haven’t seen before: serious police reform, which means reform not just by and about the police. They have to be a key player, to be sure.

But police reform also means discussions and solutions to racial mistrust, fear and rage, an insane,  gun-worshiping culture, economic injustice and hopelessness, and too much cheap, polarizing political pandering.

And it means really changing the systemic conditions that keep many of the citizens in our poorest and most troubled communities the real victims of crime.

Joe Domanick

Joe Domanick

Joe Domanick is West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report and author of “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.” He welcomes comments from readers.


2 thoughts on “The Complicated Bratton Legacy

  1. Pingback: Bratton: Police Change Must Come ‘From Within’ | The Crime Report

  2. Pingback: One internet outlet of police change – broadwayface

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