Bill Bratton on Police Reform: ‘Let’s Do It Right This Time’

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Bill Bratton. Photo by Policy Exchange via Flickr

Few figures have been as transformative in U.S. policing as Bill Bratton. It’s not only because he ran police forces in two of America’s largest cities ―New York (twice) and Los Angeles ―but because many of the senior officers who served under him went on to run police forces of their own, in effect spreading the Bratton style of technology-informed, community-oriented law enforcement that has become standard operating procedure in police command headquarters across the nation.

But Bratton is the first to admit that the reinvention of policing he helped set in motion still has a long way to go ―particularly at the precinct level where most citizens encounter their local cop. In his new book, written with Peter Knobler, The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America, he sets out to explain what needs to happen next, at a time when the very fundamentals of policing are being called into question―and when U.S. cities are facing a post-pandemic rise in violent crime.

In a wide-ranging conversation with TCR, Bratton discusses the hard-won lessons from his own career about dealing with the political pressures that influence police strategy, the continuing legacy of racism in U.S. law enforcement, and why the police are the “central thread” in criminal justice reform.

The following transcript has been edited for space and clarity.

THE CRIME REPORT: As I read your book, you’re trying to do more than just write a memoir here.

BILL BRATTON: I was trying to provide a platform that takes into account all the various points of view around police reform, by talking―through my experience―about policing: where it was before, where we are now, and where we can go next.

TCR: So what are the two or three things police can do to move the reform ball forward? 

BRATTON: One is transparency. A lot of the contentious issues [between police departments and reformers] can be resolved by more transparency. And policing is becoming much more accepting of the fact that there’s no place to hide, with body cameras and all the rest. Police transparency is an essential part of any reform movement. Secondly, policing has to embrace the need to change, and better explain what we’ve been doing.

TCR: But has it? Back in 2015, then FBI director James Comey said that “…at many points in American history, law enforcement was often brutally unfair to disadvantaged groups.” He also said that awareness of that “should be part of every American’s consciousness.”

 BRATTON: His comments were right on the money. A phenomenal amount of negativism can be found in the history of American policing, there’s no denying it. One of the unfortunate aspects of policing is that we really don’t do a very good job of teaching that history to new recruits. If we finally expand police training to six months or to a year that would be one of the things that should definitely be incorporated into it.

TCR: And what about reformers? What should they better understand?

BRATTON: That there’s not enough recognition of how much policing has been changing over the last two years, and before that. During the current hue-and-cry. the history of [reform over] the last few years has been erased. But there have been significant improvements in policing which I write about in the book. Departments around the country are working on de-escalating potentially violent encounters, and on being less hands-on.

By that I mean diminishing the numbers of stops, summonses and arrests, while focusing on “precision policing” – going after the small percentage of violent criminals who damage whole communities, and getting the local politicians and public to collaborate with the [police]. This is not World War One where we hit the trenches, and there’s a no man’s land that nobody can survive. There’s a great divide in this country right now. But on the issue of rational policing reform, I think there are many opportunities, and a lot of areas where we can come together.

TCR: You also address the theory of “implicit bias.” What are your thoughts about that?

BRATTON: The issue of implicit bias is phenomenal. A lot of the more progressive departments, including the NYPD, are now including it in their curriculum as part of officers’ education process. We need to do so much more around the idea that all of us have biases. The idea is to be aware of them so you don’t make snap judgments about any individual based on their color, age or anything else. The training is based on facts and research, and it should be part of every curriculum and part of the first socialization of young police officers entering the profession.

TCR: Let’s talk about who those young officers should be. In the book you talked about how, starting after World War One, the Boston police became dominated by military veterans. After they retired, they were replaced by World War Two vets who, in turn, were succeeded by Korean War vets—and then replaced by Vietnam vets. So what was the problem with that?

BRATTON: Stress. You got individuals who had gone through military training, and discipline – which in some ways was good. But [military service] came with its own set of issues and outcomes: posttraumatic stress disorder issues, alcoholism, eras when the military was still segregated, and drug issues for those coming back from Vietnam.

By giving veterans hiring preference, we ended up with a police force that was consistently whiter than in neighborhoods where African Americans or other communities of color predominated]. In the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), for example, that created phenomenal tensions. But I would also argue that having vets in academy classes is beneficial because you’re getting people who’ve had significant life experiences.

TCR: Who should police departments now be recruiting?

BRATTON: People from all walks of life and backgrounds, with increased emphasis on  accepting extraordinarily diverse populations: gays, transgender, transsexual, woman, blacks other minorities – just a much broader mix of people. Policing can only benefit from those populations. The NYPD, LAPD and Chicago PD have all already moved in that direction. Some reformers and advocates are not giving police credit for effectively embracing those changes.

TCR: One of the explicit premises underlying “defund the police” demands is that American cops are performing far too many tasks they’re ill-suited for―tasks that should be performed by social service and other professionals. What are your thoughts on that?

BRATTON: The police would be very happy to get rid of responsibilities which were forced upon them in the first place. We created the homeless problem when we closed down mental institutions back in the 1970s. But there was no (follow-up) funding for the homeless.

So more and more people ended up on the streets, and who was expected to care for them? The police. [Municipalities] ended up having to deal with something that they would not budget and not train people for. The police end up cleaning up the mess political leadership in this country kept kicking down the road.

TCR: Wasn’t that also the trouble with the “Wars” on drugs and crime in the 1990s? The police were expected to deal with all the problems  politicians didn’t want to spend the money to address: the root causes of these historic issues of deprivation, racism and suppression, that continue contributing to so much crime in poor black and brown neighborhoods.

BRATTON: Yes, and here we are with the opioid crisis, [and the police again] are not equipped to deal with it. Because we’re still the entity of last resort, the only entity that works 24 hours a day, the bottom of the net―because afterwards there’s nothing. When you’re at the bottom of the net, you catch it all.

TCR: What other agencies could better do these jobs?

BRATTON: Should we have social workers, clinical psychologists and others do things that police do? Yes, but there are problems attached to that. Seattle [Washington] did a study of emotional distress calls, and found that 40 percent of them involved individuals that were either threatening to harm themselves or somebody else. Social workers are not equipped [by themselves] to deal with the potential violence. Some of these things, unfortunately, are violent, tragic. That’s not widely recognized in the current conversations.

And there’s also this issue: If you take that responsibility entirely away from the police – who work 24 hours a day ― you’re going to have to create a huge budget in other agencies needed to staff these functions 24 hours a day. I would suggest, you know, as we go forward with these efforts, we’re going to find the police are like weaving a garment, that we are going to be a central thread in that garment, no matter who they give the responsibility to.

TCR: What about mental health professionals responding along with police to such potentially violent situations?

BRATTON: In Los Angeles we created [units] where a police officer responded to calls dealing with problems of emotional stress and drug overdoses, along with a trained clinical specialist who could access medical records and could also accelerate the process trying to get somebody cared for in a logical way. But the funding became a problem.

People with significant medical training―you’re not going to pay them minimum wage, you’re going to be paying them as much as ―if not more than ―the police officers they are placed with. A lot of these things might be good, if properly funded and thought out. If not, these kind of programs will go away, and who’s going to end up at the bottom of the basket receiving all those problems? The police once again.

TCR: Let’s talk a little about your experience in LA, from 2002-2009. What were some of the changes you brought to Los Angeles, and what are the lessons reformers in and out of policing can learn from your experience there?

BRATTON: Well, I was brought in as an outside reformer to implement a United States consent decree that was and still is the largest police consent decree in America ever. And the job was all about dealing with the history of racial issues in Los Angeles involving an LAPD that in many ways was behaving illegally or inappropriately. as a result, I would argue, racial [tensions] between the police and community were as bad as any place in America in those years.

TCR: Was being an outsider a problem?

BRATTON: No. Being an outsider was important because I wasn’t tied down by [personal] relationships and by the city’s history and politics. I believe that every police agency can benefit from an outsider coming in to lead it.

TCR: And the consent decree?

BRATTON: The consent decree was important because it allowed me to enforce the will of the [federal] judge overseeing the decree, and to really move that organization forward, because the consent decree covered almost everything down to hiring policies.

TCR: Yes, that particular consent decree was a particularly good one – in terms of being useful for you on a number of levels, was it not? It had stringent guideposts with metrics and timelines for implementing reform – and also stifled organized internal pushback and served as a gauge of the reform progress the department was making.

BRATTON: Right. The LA consent decree optimized my ability to make change. It forced the city to spend a lot of money that it would not have otherwise have spent on equipment, training and retraining. It also provided a very effective tool for me to lobby to get 1,000 additional police officers, and to create and staff a lot of the units charged with working on consent decree [compliance] – money that had not been initially budgeted. So in substance, the LA decree was a great investment in helping reform that department.

TCR: So are federal consent decrees in general useful tools that reformers should push for, particularly now that President Joe Biden is in office and they’re sure to be used again?

BRATTON: Yes and no. For some departments, as I’ve said, they can be very beneficial, so I’m supportive. But you have to be selective in using them.

TCR: How’s that?

BRATTON: They can also be bad for an organization. Police chiefs are also concerned about consent decrees becoming a whole new industry for development firms and individuals―a new profession as monitors and agents of federal oversight judges.

In Oakland, you have the same federal judge still overseeing the same 20-year-old case, who has [nevertheless] failed to get some fairly simplistic reforms and changes implemented, while the city and department is still having many of the same problems as before. So consent decrees are not the panacea that they are presented to be. They need to be carefully focused, in some respects, custom designed. But [if they are], I would advocate for them going forward.

TCR: After a long period of declining homicide rates in many big cities like New York, LA, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, they’re rapidly rising again. And the rise is mostly occurring in poor African-American communities, which has historically been a continuing problem for complex reasons. What part can cops play in addressing this?

BRATTON: One problem is that many people in communities of color just don’t trust the police. Their negativity towards cops just jumps off the page: “Nobody cooperate, don’t snitch out anyone.” Criminal elements have been able to create that message about how bad we [the police] are and how much worse we are than them [the murderers] and that filters down to witnesses who can identify the perpetrators of a crime, but refuse to.

Even with the advances in technology, you still need people willing to come forward and provide information. Many are afraid of retaliation. It becomes very difficult to be in front of a jury and get a conviction based on technical evidence without witnesses. So one of the reforms police are working on is to try and improve the trust with the police.

TCR: Well the concept of community policing has been around a long time and that mostly hasn’t happened.

BRATTON: I just worry that attacks on the police at this moment are actually going to create an atmosphere of more distrust of the police, of less [witness] information going to the police, even as the amount of violence being [fostered] on these communities increases. A national dialogue that undermines trust in the police is going to make it much more difficult to reduce those numbers. And if the technology that we have access to is taken away, or diminished, it will make [public safety] even more difficult.

TCR: In The Profession you’re highly critical of the New York legislature’s efforts to reform the state’s criminal justice laws following the killing of George Floyd last summer. Why?

BRATTON: The idea of my book is finding common ground [for criminal justice reform.]  In New York State, they enacted the most significant criminal justice reforms in the state’s history in the middle of the night, without bringing into the discussion judges, district attorneys or the police, and without taking into account the real-world consequences. They were laws written by and for the defense bar. Many were well intended. But the unintended―or unanticipated―consequences have been causing great havoc.

One example: bail reform. As I wrote in my book, right now, approximately 40 percent of the people arrested for gun crimes in New York are released on their own recognizance…and another 50 percent make bail. So some 89 percent of the people we arrest with loaded guns in the middle of a wave of shootings are walking the streets. How is that going to reduce shootings?

TCR: Any last words?

BRATTON: A lot of these reform [proposals] take us a long way away from where we need to go. We need police reform. But let’s do it right this time. Let’s look back at history; and history, in my case goes back a long time. And a lot of what I write about in my book are things that work and things that can’t work. Let’s read from the past.

Joe Domanick is contributing editor and West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report. 

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