As New York City prepares for controversial Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s departure, city residents are sizing up Kelly’s replacement, William J. Bratton, and pondering whether he will continue to use controversial policing practices or reform the largest police force in the nation.
Appointed by New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, Bratton is no stranger to the NYPD or the role of police commissioner. In the early 90s, Bratton served as police commissioner, and actually introduced some “innovative and aggressive” policing policies that are still used today to drive down crime.
One such policy is known as the “broken windows theory,” which encourages officers to stop, question and frisk low-level offenders such as fare jumpers, graffiti artists, crack dealers, and those with open alcohol containers, in order to clean up the city’s streets and neighborhoods. Another, known as CompStat, is program that monitors and analyzes crime data to help officers identify pattern problems so that neighborhoods can be staffed correctly.
Despite these policies being implemented long before Kelly took over, throughout New York’s mayoral race this fall, the current mayor, Republican Michael Bloomberg, warned constituents that a vote for Democratic candidate Bill de Blasio was a vote for an increase in crime. Bloomberg argued that since de Blasio campaigned on a platform of reforming the police department and putting an end to the controversial policing practice of stop-and-frisk, his actions would result in an increase in crime and 2,000 murders a year.
But as many New Yorkers have pointed out, when Bloomberg’s right-hand man Kelly had his first stint on the job from 1992 to 1993 under the supervision of Mayor David Dinkins, the city had about 2,000 murders per year. And it wasn’t until incoming police commissioner Bill Bratton took over in 1994 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani that the city’s murder rate began to decline.
Although Bratton was fired by Giuliani in 1996 after only two years on the job, his policing policies such as “broken window” and CompStat remained staple actions for the department to reduce crime, and he was able to reduce homicides to 1,177 per year. By the time Kelly took over again under Bloomberg’s administration in 2002, homicides in New York were down to about 587, and 12 years later Kelly was able to reduce that number to 333 per year.
Since Bratton is the man who implemented use of the tactics that led to the reduced crime rate, namely stop-and-frisk, many activists and civil liberties advocates have expressed their skepticism about de Blasio’s decision to appoint Bratton as police commissioner.
City Councilman Charles Barron, D-Brooklyn, who did not support de Blasio for mayor, said that asking Bratton to come back and stop racial profiling is like asking an arsonist to help put out fires.
“You don’t ask the person who’s the architect of racial profiling, stop and frisk to come back and now put a stop to it,” Barron said.
But Bratton has received some support from certain stop-and-frisk opponents, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton.
“We want not only a city that doesn’t profile us, but we want a city of no crime and no violence because just like we are stopped disproportionately, we suffer crime disproportionately,” Sharpton said.
While Sharpton has expressed concern about Bratton’s return to the role, he said: “Mr. Bratton knows of my concerns and the concerns of others about racial profiling in stop-and-frisk policing, but at the same time is aware of our desire to continue the decrease of violence and crime in our community.”
Similarly, City Councilman Jumaane Williams, D-Brooklyn, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about Bratton’s appointment as police commissioner.
Though de Blasio called Bratton “the poster child for how to do things wrong,” in terms of using racial and overreaching policing techniques, he said asked Bratton to take over the NYPD after he realized they were on the same page — that the NYPD needed reform.
“Commissioner Bratton said something simple,” de Blasio said. “He said, you can’t break the law to enforce the law.” He continued on saying that he chose the “best police leader in the United States of America.”
Although de Blasio has been an opponent to stop-and-frisk, he says Bratton’s CompStat was a “game-changer in policing this city.”
A changed man?
During a recent speech in front of a largely black audience at a tribute to Nelson Mandela at Sharpton’s National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, Bratton promised to give New Yorkers a respectful police force that “will practice what Mandela preached. It will demand respect for all, compassion for all.
“I like being a cop because I know what cops can do when we get it right,” Bratton said. “My promise to you is we will get it right.”
Though Bratton says he doesn’t want to completely remove use of stop-and-frisk, he says it is essential this strategy be used in a constitutional and respectful manner.
De Blasio has tried to highlight Bratton’s strengths in the position, but not everyone is convinced he is the right man for the job, even though Bratton has promised he’s a changed man.
Dear de Blasio, pick again
Since his appointment as police commissioner in December, there have been several protests throughout the city, as opponents point out that when Bratton was working at the Los Angeles Police Department he actually expanded the department’s use of stop-and-frisk.
Other concerns about Bratton’s leadership are that he is more of a friend to officers than the communities the NYPD serves. Nicholas Heyward Sr. and his family led a protest along with other parents of victims who were shot and killed by NYPD officers under Bratton’s watch.
Heyward lost his 13-year-old son after an officer mistook the boy’s toy rifle for a real gun, and Heyward says Bratton didn’t do anything about it.
“I’m angry today. I’ve been angry since hearing that Bill de Blasio has chosen Bill Bratton to be the next police commissioner again,” he said. “You see, back in 1994, my son was murdered, and he was gunned down by a New York City police officer. Whether it was housing or just a city officer, you should have addressed that issue. But [Bratton] failed to do that.”
When asked if he would be willing to give Bratton a chance, Heyward said he didn’t know if he could.
“Like I said, I don’t know if I could actually give a man a chance, despite the fact that New York City is safer. What kind of change is actually going to take place when this man is in office, that the citizens of New York can really believe in?”
Though the protest wasn’t solely a call for de Blasio to appoint someone else to the position as police commissioner, the protesters said it was their way of putting Bratton on notice that they will not tolerate a lack of accountability for the department, and said they will continue to protest Bratton’s appointment even during his inauguration on Jan. 1.
A promising future?
While there isn’t any doubt that Bratton may be able to invoke drastic changes to a police department, which is what he did when he invoked NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, the new police commissioner has his work cut out for him in terms of being able to reform the department for the better.
In addition to changing the culture of the department and the NYPD’s headquarters, Bratton needs to implement changes throughout the city’s precincts, tour commanders, and beat cops who work on the streets. He also needs to repair the strained relationship many New Yorkers have with the NYPD officers.
“At a time that police and community should be so much closer together, that there should be a bond of legitimacy and trust between them, that is not the case in so many communities in this city,” Bratton said. “That is unfortunate, but it can be corrected.”
Aware of the concerns some residents have about his return to the NYPD, Bratton has pledged that he doesn’t want to police the city the same way he did before, saying, “I want what (de Blasio) is promising, a new day.”
Whether he will be able to deliver that promise remains to be seen, but one thing remains certain: New Yorkers will be watching.