How the top cop will do things differently this time around
William Bratton and New York City have been at the leading edge of a revolution in American policing and urban governance since the mid-1990s. Today, he is uniquely poised to restore public trust in the police by rebuilding a true partnership with the community.
Quite simply, Bratton recognizes that citizen support of police, and confidence in the tactics they use, will be crucial over the next few years to keeping the city safe and maintaining its quality of life. He will enhance transparency in police actions, and give greater attention to ensuring the legitimacy of them — whether they be "stop, question and frisk" or anti-terror operations.
Bratton brings an impressive portfolio of innovative problem solving, leadership and knowledge of highly sophisticated and proven methods in anti-terrorism and crime control. His prior experiences in Boston and Los Angeles as well as New York reflect the breadth of his success in reducing crime while garnering strong support from local communities.
One of his key strengths has been adapting to new settings and evolving problems, seizing the opportunities that circumstances offers and capitalizing on them. Despite the substantial differences between New York City in 1994 and 2014, these strengths will serve him — and the city — well.
What has Bratton actually accomplished in diverse experiences to make his reappointment as the NYPD commissioner so significant?
-His work with the NYPD and then the LAPD demonstrated that police do matter in crime prevention and control, upending the long-held view that crime was caused by poverty, racism and social injustice and all police could do was respond after crimes had been committed.
-He demonstrated, especially in Los Angeles, that police could conduct aggressive crime-prevention tactics constitutionally, humanely and at the same time with strong community support.
-He proved that reshaping a police department into a truly community-oriented organization need not take decades, transforming the cultures of both NYC Transit Police and the NYPD in a matter of months from a moribund "do nothing and stay out of trouble" orientation to an energetic crime-prevention and public-safety focus.
-He oversaw the development of CompStat, the interactive crime analysis and precinct accountability scheme that subsequently spread throughout policing in the U.S. and internationally, and even further into urban governance in general. This innovation has proven one of the most significant administrative improvements in 20th-century policing.
-He understood from his earliest policing days in Boston that citizens are at least as concerned about disorderly conditions and behavior as they are about serious crime. Acting on this knowledge, he spearheaded efforts in both New York City’s subways and in its aboveground public spaces to restore and maintain order.
-He recognized that members of the wider community are not passive bystanders in crime prevention and public security but need to be active partners of police.
In many respects, what awaited Bratton when he took over the NYPD in 1994 constituted a "perfect storm." New Yorkers were demanding that order be restored, and many were threatening to leave the city. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic city, was elected on his promise to restore order. Giuliani and Bratton then agreed on a course of action to include a broken-windows approach, intending to restore order and prevent crime.
We all know what happened: It worked, brilliantly.
Bratton’s subsequent success in Los Angeles provided further evidence — if any were necessary — that the NYC accomplishments did not represent merely an opportunistic fluke. The challenges in Los Angeles were different; so were the tools in the commissioner’s toolbox.
Unlike New York, Los Angeles was an under-policed city with a relatively small number of police relative to the population size and area to be policed. Problems that could be handled simultaneously in NYC had to be handled sequentially in L.A.
One example was disorder in Los Angeles’ skid row: Bratton understood that a temporary "sweep" would be a waste of resources over the long haul; instead it took several years and a class graduating from the police academy before he was ready to tackle the problems.
Second, the demand for order and public safety in NYC was urgent, broad-based, and ran across neighborhoods, whereas in L.A., crime and contempt for police were concentrated in particular neighborhoods.
Third, while some resistance did arise in the LAPD, in general CompStat was conducted with less confrontation and greater collegiality than in the NYPD, at least as it was first conducted in NYC.
Fourth, Bratton had to deal with multigenerational gangs in L.A., a problem not afflicting NYC. Through an interagency effort, police successfully lessened gang impact on neighborhood life.
Fifth, the LAPD was under a Department of Justice consent decree that required his attention and consumed resources. This decree was lifted in May of 2013 with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa crediting Bratton and his successor, Charles Beck, for using the consent decree to help change the culture of the LAPD.
Finally, in contrast to his conflicts with Mayor Giuliani in New York, in L.A., Bratton worked easily and successfully with Mayor James Hahn and Villaraigosa.
It worked. Over his tenure, crime came down by more than 50% and the LAPD and minorities were remarkably reconciled, especially given how deep the rift between them had been.
The way forward
If the differences were vast between New York City in 1994 and Los Angeles in 2002, those between New York City in 1994 and today are probably as great or greater. The new commissioner will find a city that today is one of the most crime-free and orderly cities in the country. The decline in crime has persisted despite staff reductions of approximately 6,000 sworn personnel.
Despite its success in crime prevention, the department has come under attack for its field interrogation practices (stop, question and frisk) and has been put under a federal monitor. The demand for order during the 1990s (at almost any cost) has been replaced by a demand for police restraint in its operations.
Notwithstanding the continuing declines in crime, there is a lingering unease about the ability to maintain current low levels of crime or to continue them, especially by those who believe that future restrictions on field interrogations could substantially weaken police crime-prevention efforts. In addition, since 9/11, terrorism has come to be viewed as a serious urban problem requiring a major allocation of NYPD resources for its management. NYPD has responded by building one of the most sophisticated anti-terrorism capacities in the world. Nevertheless the NYPD, heretofore noted as a leader in American policing, has pretty much isolated itself from the professional discourse over the past decade.
What then can we expect of Commissioner Bratton? Without ranking them in terms of priority, I suggest the following:
First, he will reach out to the community through his own personal contacts and by holding precinct commanders accountable for establishing strong relations within the community. I expect that he will exercise more control over field interrogations through enhanced training and supervision, developing specific guidelines, and undoing any basis for the belief by officers that they have a quota to meet.
Field interrogations will continue, however, will lessen and be carefully managed. Additionally, Bratton will work closely with the federal monitor using the process, as he did in L.A., to support his agenda.
CompStat will remain the cornerstone of Bratton’s crime-control capacity. Yet I anticipate it will become more collegial than when it originated, with district commanders assisting each other in analysis and tactic development rather than just having input and direction from the top.
CompStat will also likely become more transparent. In Los Angeles, some of the CompStat meetings were held out in the district under consideration so that neighborhood representatives could observe the problem analysis and tactical planning that police undertook.
Of course some matters—like terrorism and investigations—must remain confidential. Nevertheless, citizens have legitimate concerns that deserve to be addressed about the tactics police will use in their neighborhoods and communities.
I expect that Bratton will push CompStat to the leading edge of crime and problem analysis, perhaps by using the latest statistical techniques for identifying hot spots, spikes in crime or disorder, criminal networks, and to predict much more closely when and where criminal events are likely to occur. Bratton is a champion of such "predictive policing."
And, district commanders will be held accountable to maintain low levels of crime.
The crime-control achievements of the NYPD since 1994 have been truly stunning. The issue at hand is to reestablish the community’s sense of fairness and justice in dealing with police while maintaining low crime rates. Bratton has pushed value-driven policing throughout his career. During the press conference announcing his appointment he quoted Sir Robert Peel’s 1829 "Principles of Policing"— principles that shaped how police should behave in a democracy.
Paraphrasing the key principle: The police are the people and people are the police; the only difference is that we pay police to do what is everyone’s responsibility. If we truly believe citizens can govern themselves it follows that they can police themselves as well. In a complex urban society, they do this through surrogates, police, but the principle still holds.
Bratton is serious about these values. They should stand him in good stead as he works with the community.
This piece originally appeared in New York Daily News