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Bill Bratton returns to New York

It will be interesting to see what Bill Bratton does in his second round as commissioner of the NYPD. When he served in that role from 1994 to 1996, he changed policing across the country by starting the Compstat system, which quickly maps crime to identify problems.

One consequence is that by heightening the importance of crime statistics, Bratton helped to equalize crimes. That is, a murder on a street in Bedford-Stuyvesant figured just as prominently in the statistics as a murder on Park Avenue. As a result, commanders in high-crime areas were under much greater pressure to be aggressive about preventing crimes.

The down side was that after Bratton left office -- pushed out by Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who was jealous of the media attention his subordinate was receiving -- the new commissioner decided that the best way to keep reducing the crime numbers was to flood poor neighborhoods with large task forces of cops who were unfamiliar with the community. This did reduce the crime rate, but local residents came to feel as if the police were an occupying force. The death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant police shot at 41 times, was the low point.

Critics have focused on the NYPD's quota-driven practice of stopping and frisking people on the street. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio's opposition to that policy propelled him into office. He called for community policing.

Bratton also employed stop-and-frisk in New York, albeit on a much smaller scale than in recent years. It was part of his strategy to get guns off the street. He scoffed at community policing, saying cops weren't social workers. (That may have been posturing to ingratiate himself with Giuliani; his overall record in heading police departments in Los Angeles and Boston shows, according to de Blasio, that Bratton supports community policing.)

Could two New York mayors be more different than Giuliani and de Blasio? It will be interesting to see how Bratton manages this change.

Under Bratton's leadership in the 1990s, crime fell sharply in all categories -- not just the seven major felonies that the FBI records in its annual crime index, the figures that form the "crime rate" that makes or breaks political careers. Crimes also fell sharply in all the non-index categories -- misdemeanor assault, say, and not just aggravated assault. That hasn't been the case since, which raises some questions about the data.

One key to Bratton's success was that he not only held precinct commanders accountable, but also empowered them. He dropped  restrictions that discouraged precincts from cracking down on prostitution or drugs, or from running "sting" operations to, say, break a small-time fencing ring. In the past, such tasks had been left to centralized units. Cops in the precincts  responded to this with enthusiasm -- they were being allowed to do their jobs.

Bratton also benefited from the community policing program he scoffed at. Thanks to the previous emphasis on community policing, there was a corps of officers in each precinct who really knew the community. If the officers know who's who, they are in a much better position to adapt more aggressive policing methods. It was unfortunate that Bratton dismantled that program; the result is seen in the sour police-community relations that followed.

Also of interest will be how Bratton's stated support for community-oriented policing applies to the   mini-CIA that sprang up within the NYPD. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his commissioner, Ray Kelly (who also preceded Bratton in 1993), expanded intelligence operations after the 9/11 attack demonstrated that the feds had tragically failed to protect New York from terrorists. As The Associated Press reported, the NYPD infiltrated the daily life of Muslims, systematically spying in their mosques, campus organizations, and businesses. The FBI objected to such an approach, preferring to win the confidence and help of the Muslim community as the best way to prevent terrorism. 

These are serious matters that affect not only New York, but will influence law enforcement practices across the country.





About the Author

Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College/CUNY, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015).



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The NYC police force has probably always been in tension and contention with the people they "serve." Paul, you list some of the most recent sources of the tension. You are too young to remember the time, 70s, 80s, early 90s, when "petty" crimes were far more prevalent than they are now, muggings, bicycles stolen, pickpockets, and the squeegee men who were a regular feature of corners with stop lights.

In our now "safe" neighborhood drug dealers hung out in the local park (regularly offering "family smokes" to people with strollers). When walking, you had to be careful to make wide turns around corners to avoid the guy hiding against the corner of the building ready to jump out at you. Kids were told to give up their loose change and bus passes (no cell phones then). All of this just seemed like part of New York life.

Today, streets and sidewalks are much safer (except for the cars that run red lights). I find even unsafe neighborhoods today much safer. We know it wasn't just policing methods and police chiefs, but it's hard to think that some of those crime-control efforts weren't part of curtailing what is now called "quality of life" crime. Maybe Bratton and de Blasio will reap the benefits of previous efforts without stepping over the "uber-policing" line. Is that too pollyannish?

At the press conference, Bratton came across as something of a prima donna.  

Peggy's description is spot on. I remember being wary if someone asked me for a match. I would not let them get that close or would simply say I did not have any. I remember a distinct story of a woman going to her apartment tenement in Manhattan when she saw  an apparent robber approach. She knew she had a small window to take out her keys and enter her apartment. She did not make it and lost her life. It was an outrage that you did not walk the streets without being keenly aware of who was around you. Many conservatives were made at that time. 

It is almost pollyanna now. Except for those men who took flying lessons without learning how to land. Perhaps the largest danger is all those absentee owners who live outside the country buying fifty three milllion dollar apartments while many do not have a living wage. Ente De Blasio.

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