Bill Bratton returns to New York
Paul Moses December 6, 2013 - 10:00am
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).