Bill Bratton

New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s Law Enforcement Legacy

Ken Auletta has a not-to-be-missed profile of New York police commissioner (and former LAPD Chief) William J. Bratton in this week’s issue of the New Yorker.

In the mid-90’s, Bill Bratton stepped in as New York’s police commissioner the first time. The city’s crime rates plummeted under Bratton.

Bratton attributes much of the drop in crime to the department’s adoption of Broken Windows, a controversial method of policing which focuses on quality-of-life crimes like tagging and public drunkenness, as a way to prevent more serious crimes. But critics of Bratton and his Broken Windows policing say the downward crime trend wasn’t just happening in NYC. It was happening in many major cities across the US. Detractors also call Broken Windows a discriminatory practice that targets poor men and women of color, and can actually exacerbate tensions between law enforcement and those they serve.

After two years, in 1996, Bratton was ousted by then-mayor Rudy Giuliani. After working in the private sector for several years, Bratton spent 2002 to 2009 in Los Angeles as the city’s chief of police. Under Bratton’s reign, a department mired in misconduct and use of force scandals underwent a fundamental culture change.

Bratton took the role of NY’s police commissioner for the second time, last year. The commissioner set to work improving law enforcement-community relations, in part by cutting down on the department’s controversial use of stop-and-frisk, which exploded under the watch of Bratton’s predecessor Ray Kelly.

Despite some opposition, Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio stand firm in their support of Broken Windows as a crime reduction tool.

When the New Yorker’s Ken Auletta asked Bratton about his legacy, the commissioner said he still hopes to “become the most significant person in policing in the country.”

Here’s a clip, but do go read the rest:

One day recently in a courtroom at Manhattan’s Criminal Court Building, at 100 Centre Street, thirty-one defendants who had been arrested for misdemeanors appeared before the judge. Only one was white—a homeless man. Two of the defendants had been apprehended the day before as trespassers for using a Port Authority bathroom that the police said required that they show a bus ticket. “They threw me against the wall, completely searched me, patted and frisked me in front of all these people, and threw cuffs on me,” Wendell Moore, a thirty-two-year-old man and a father of seven children, told me. The police found a cell phone on him that they claimed was not his. He spent the night in jail, and the next day was charged and released. “Other people going to that bathroom they didn’t stop,” Moore said. “They only stopped two black kids. They didn’t know who had tickets.”

Ed McCarthy, a longtime Legal Aid attorney, told me that broken-windows arrests have a way of steering people into the criminal-justice system. Clients who are younger than Moore often plead guilty, he said, because the alternative is worse: “You have a kid who’s nineteen, twenty years of age. He’s no longer eligible for youthful-offender status. He’s now jumped a turnstile for the third or fourth time, and the D.A.’s policy is ‘No, he’s had his chance. He’s going to be arrested or stay in jail because he’s had a couple of warrants.’ And, of course, if you’re nineteen and the choice is plead guilty, get a record, and go home, or risk going into Rikers for four or five days or even longer, what would you do? You obviously are going to plead guilty.” A criminal record of any kind can prevent a person from getting a job. And, because broken-windows singles out “recidivists,” convictions can quickly accumulate.

Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York branch of the A.C.L.U., said of Bratton’s defense of broken-windows, “There is insufficient concern that a generation of young people, particularly young men of color, have grown up thinking that their legal rights aren’t worth anything, that their dignity isn’t worth anything, that their freedom isn’t worth anything.” She went on, “That’s a huge omission. It doesn’t speak of racial animus. It speaks of a race-bound kind of tunnel vision about how we look at social policy and at policing policy in particular.”

In April, de Blasio again expressed support for the broken-windows approach. “I want to emphasize, my vision of quality-of-life policing and my vision related to the broken-windows strategy is the same as Commissioner Bratton’s,” he said. But many left-leaning activists struggle to understand his reasoning. “De Blasio can’t credibly present himself as a progressive dedicated to equality when broken-windows is both a violation of human rights and a ‘Tale of Two Cities’ writ large,” Robert Gangi, the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, and a longtime critic of broken-windows, told me. Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council speaker, has called for low-level offenses such as public urination and turnstile-jumping to be decriminalized. Bratton has opposed such efforts. However, last November, the police department reduced the penalty for the possession of small amounts of marijuana from an arrest to a summons.

In August of last year, Bratton publicly conceded that the video showing the choke hold that led to the death of Eric Garner was “certainly disturbing.” And although Bratton maintains that community policing has always been central to his work, his closest advisers have acknowledged the need to adjust the department’s policing strategies. “The police environment has changed,” Robert Wasserman says. In 1994, when Bratton began his first tenure as N.Y.P.D. commissioner, crime was rampant, and the issues that he addressed revolved around what Wasserman called “policing solutions,” and consulting the community was not the highest priority. Today, Wasserman added, Bratton has to overcome the community’s “sense that cops only want to arrest people.” Jeffrey Fagan, of Columbia, told me, “When people aren’t in love with the police, they don’t help the police, they don’t coöperate with the police. Communities are the experts on crime, not the police; they know who the bad guys are.”

“One of the biggest challenges facing me now,” Bratton said, “is to continue to advocate for, and continue to implement, broken-windows, quality-of-life policing, because I think it’s essential to how the city feels about itself, and it has an impact on over-all crime. We should not make the mistake of my predecessor on the stop-question-and-frisk issue. We have to insure that the amount of it is appropriate to the issues that we’re facing, and be sure that it’s being done constitutionally, and that it’s being done compassionately, and by that I mean respectfully.”

Bratton often says that the police are “sales reps” and citizens are “customers.” At a buffet breakfast at the Greater Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church, in Jamaica, Queens, last February, he told the audience that the N.Y.P.D. “needs to face the hard truth that in our most vulnerable neighborhoods we have a problem with citizen satisfaction. We are often abrupt, sometimes rude, and that’s unacceptable.” Subsequently, Bratton told me, “We want cops to be able to see the people they’re policing. In this department, and maybe in a lot of American policing today, unfortunately, too many members don’t treat people appropriately.”

In late June, in an effort to improve customer service, Bratton unveiled a new neighborhood-policing plan called “One City: Safe and Fair—Everywhere,” which assigns the same officers to the same areas (rather than shifting them around) and has them spend a third of their shifts on foot, talking with residents, merchants, and community leaders. Since January, all officers are required to take a three-day training course each year, one day of which has been devoted to “Smart Policing,” which aims to improve how the police interact with citizens.

Leave a Comment