William Bratton has announced that he will step down as New York Police Commissioner. Bratton’s departure comes as policing across America is under relentless attack as biased and brutal. It is a good moment, therefore, to take stock of how the policing revolution that Bratton initiated twenty years ago transformed American law enforcement and saved tens of thousands of black and Hispanic lives.
Bratton’s greatest contribution to policing was the revelation that violent crime is not an inevitable feature of American urban life.
Before Bratton took the helm of the NYPD for the first time in 1994, it was widely assumed that policing could only respond to crime after the fact by making an arrest. Actually lowering crime was thought to be the province of government social programs. (Never mind that the billions of taxpayer dollars spent on welfare and other redistribution schemes from the 1960s to the early 1990s had failed spectacularly to prevent a more than 300% rise in violent crime.)
So thoroughly did law enforcement repudiate any responsibility for crime rates that the FBI’s annual national crime report included the disclaimer through the late 1980s that “criminal homicide is largely a societal problem which is beyond the control of the police.”
Legal historian Lawrence Friedman expressed the prevailing fatalism about urban crime in a 1993 book on crime and punishment. “No solution to the problem of crime is in sight, not in the short run at least,” Friedman wrote. The “siege of crime” was simply part of the American fabric, he said.
Friedman’s timing was unfortunate. The next year, Bratton would shatter the consensus about the inevitability of street crime. As newly appointed commissioner of the NYPD he did something that few, if any, police chiefs had ever risked: He publicly set himself a one-year target for crime reduction. Bratton not only met his target of 10%, he beat it, with a one-year crime decline of 12%. The next year he upped the ante, declaring that the NYPD would lower crime by 15%. That year’s crime drop logged in at 16%.
The idea that the police would take public, measurable responsibility for increased public safety was revolutionary. To meet that responsibility, the NYPD’s top brass started obsessively poring over crime data on a weekly, then daily, basis. Until then, crime data did not even reach the deputy commissioners until six months after the fact — far too late to actually devise strategies for protecting potential victims.
Bratton and his team of chiefs started holding precinct commanders ruthlessly accountable for crime in their precincts. And they asked police officers to intervene in suspicious or disorderly conduct that officers observed on the street before that conduct ripened into a more serious felony.
Over the next two decades, felony crime in New York would drop 80% — an unmatched and unprecedented crime decline. And as Bratton’s accountability revolution — that came to be known as Compstat — spread across the country, felony crime nationally dropped nearly 50%. The vast preponderance of people who have been spared criminal victimization thanks to the Compstat revolution have been black or Hispanic.
In New York City alone, over ten thousand additional minority males would have died of homicide had crime rates remained at their early 1990s levels. If crime is a regressive tax on minority communities, policing-generated crime declines are a progressive benefit, as Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring has observed.
The idea that the police would take public, measurable responsibility for increased public safety was revolutionary.
The NYPD’s embrace of accountability under Bratton extended beyond crime to the behavior of the department itself. New Yorkers are ignorant about the NYPD’s status as one of the most professionally managed, self-critical departments in the world. The NYPD’s use of lethal force is far below that of other urban departments, thanks to the painstaking analysis that the department devotes to every officer-involved shooting.
The Compstat data process means that officers are deployed to where people are most being victimized; race has nothing to do with it. And Bratton’s embrace of low-level public order enforcement, otherwise known as “broken windows” policing, was simply a formal recognition of what precinct commanders hear every time they meet with community members: The law-abiding public in high-crime areas is desperate for the police to restore order on the streets. Far from being opposed to broken-windows policing, residents of troubled neighborhoods are its strongest advocates, as numerous polls have shown. The current media-driven narrative that holds that broken-windows policing is racist is dangerously false.
When Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014, he knew that his hopes for reelection rested primarily on one reality: whether he would keep New York’s crime rate down. It is a measure of how much Bratton changed how we think about policing and crime that this consummate “progressive” sought to ensure that crime remained low not by lining up more welfare spending but by hiring the original architect of the great New York crime decline. Bratton’s greatest contribution to policing was the revelation that violent crime is not an inevitable feature of American urban life.
This piece originally appeared in the New York Daily News
Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor at City Journal.
Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images