Public Safety & Justice

Bratton's Brigade

One May night, two police officers bicycle-patrolling their beat in a violence-prone neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, spotted a car parked near a recreation center....
by | July 31, 2007

One May night, two police officers bicycle-patrolling their beat in a violence-prone neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island, spotted a car parked near a recreation center. They knew it belonged to a young man embroiled in a local feud. So the officers pedaled up to the car, shone their flashlights inside and discovered four youths, one of them in the midst of loading a pistol. He was planning to fire into the crowd about to leave a basketball game at the rec center.

A few days later, at the Tuesday morning police command staff meeting in Providence's hulking Public Safety Complex, the satisfaction was palpable. "Those were extraordinary arrests - career arrests," police Major Paul Fitzgerald told the crammed conference room. "They prevented someone spraying bullets into a crowd, and possibly a homicide."

Part of what made the arrest possible was that the officers were not in a patrol car, which would have been far more noticeable than bicycles. And they had been spending their on-duty time in a specific neighborhood rather than rotating through various parts of the city, which meant they'd been able to learn about the feud and the car owner's role in it.

The other part was what was taking place in the conference room. A Compstat meeting, with its detailed analysis of crimes and their patterns, was in progress. It had in attendance an unusual roster: not only the federal, state and local law enforcement officials and parole officers you'd expect but also a representative from the city's public schools, VISTA workers and a pair of social workers from Family Service of Rhode Island whose job it is to work full-time with the Providence police. Also in the room was another surprising choice to be a regular at Compstat meetings: Teny Gross.

Gross runs the Institute for the Study and Practice of Non-Violence, a non-profit group whose mission is to keep the peace in some of the city's poorest and most violence-prone neighborhoods. The Institute's "streetworkers" - a crew of former gang members and ex-felons who routinely put themselves between rival gangs and keep the lid on brewing street fights - have a guarded relationship with the police. But Gross has developed strong working ties with the department and the chief who has set it on its inclusive new course. Their joint efforts are routinely credited with helping Providence cut its murder rate by two-thirds over the past few years. "The relationship between Teny and the police chief," says Jack McConnell, a prominent lawyer in town, "should be a national model."

That chief is Dean Esserman, a sober-faced one-time lawyer who came to Providence four years ago after being wooed by the city's reformist mayor, David Cicilline. In that time, Esserman has taken a department that was widely seen as corrupt, only sporadically effective and isolated from the community it ostensibly served, and turned it into a nationally respected force for civil order.

Esserman stands squarely among a small cohort of police chiefs who trace their roots to New York City and the policing innovations developed there during the tenure of William Bratton, who is now police chief in Los Angeles. Much of what Esserman has done in Providence would be recognizable to anyone familiar with Bratton's time during the 1990s as head of the New York City Transit Police and then of the New York Police Department: holding Compstat meetings, getting cops out of their cars and onto neighborhood streets, making district commanders accountable for results and giving them the authority to deploy resources and develop tactics as needed. Perhaps most Bratton-like of all is Esserman's insistence that police chiefs are "not here as apologists for crime and we're not here to explain it. We're here to get results."

That resolve has impelled Esserman, and to a lesser degree other Bratton alumni, into the forefront of an additional effort: putting the police department front and center in communities' efforts to create public order and safety.

THE LEGACY

The Bratton era in New York is remembered chiefly for putting two big ideas into practice: Compstat meetings, which not only analyze crimes and share information and tactics but help hold precinct captains accountable for driving down crime in their neighborhoods; and "broken windows" or "quality of life" policing - that is, the notion that going after low-level crime and signs of civil disorder reaps big dividends in identifying bad guys and reducing public fear. Both can now be found in police departments around the country. Yet Bratton's biggest accomplishment did not reside in management reform or new strategies. Instead, he reordered the way we think about policing.

In the early 1990s - Bratton took over the Transit Police in 1990, then rose to national prominence after becoming police commissioner in 1994 - police officials around the country argued that their job was to respond to crime. With a few exceptions, they rarely talked about fighting it. As Bratton dismissively put it in his 1998 recounting of his experience, "Turnaround," "Crime, the theory went, was caused by societal problems that were impervious to police intervention. That was the unchallenged conventional wisdom espoused by academics, sociologists, and criminologists. I intended to prove them wrong." And, he might have added, police brass everywhere.

During his two years at the helm of the NYPD, homicides fell 44 percent and serious crime overall dropped 25 percent, and they continued to fall after he left. Under Bratton and his small brain trust of tacticians, the NYPD became a laboratory for crime-reduction schemes and strategies - and a proving ground for police officers and officials who took seriously the idea that they could prevent crimes from occurring. "If you watch what goes on in Compstat, and spend time in the precincts and boroughs," says David Kennedy, director of the Center for Crime Prevention and Control at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, "you see a lot of what would now be called community policing and problem-solving policing." What you also saw in the Bratton era was a relentless focus on pursuing new ways to circumvent crime and disorder, including cracking down on the "squeegee men" who were intimidating drivers; interdicting guns; experimenting with deployments; resuscitating walking beats; using minor infractions to stop and frisk young men; and finding ways to solve the problems posed by corner liquor stores, badly controlled nightclubs and other venues that invited crime.

Academics still debate how much of a difference this made - crime fell generally in the United States during the 1990s - and they always will. "There is no way to unpack what happened or to resolve the debates about it," says David Kennedy. "But I'm in the camp that says you really have to think that policing mattered a whole lot."

So are city officials all over the country. Faced with a community worried about crime, they can hire a chief who frets that there are limits to what he or she can accomplish. Or they can go with someone inculcated in an attitude that holds, as former NYPD deputy commissioner of operations Garry McCarthy puts it, "Every crime can be prevented. Is it a reasonable expectation? No. But if you shoot that high, you'll do pretty well."

That is one reason McCarthy is now police director in Newark, New Jersey, hired earlier this year by Mayor Cory Booker to bring down that city's high crime rate. The philosophies of policing that McCarthy has been using these past 10 years were, he says, "nurtured in [the Bratton] era."

Nurtured, and then exported. Bratton, who had an infamous falling-out with then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani and left the NYPD in 1996, has spent almost five years - longer than his entire time as an official in New York - as chief in Los Angeles. John Timoney, who was Bratton's chief of department in New York, went on to be police chief in Philadelphia, and now holds that position in Miami. Peter Abbott, former head of the NYPD's mounted and administrative units, is chief in Sarasota, Florida. Jane Perlov, a former deputy chief of detectives in Queens, was Raleigh's chief from 2001 until earlier this year, when she became chief of security for Bank of America. Patrick Harnett, who was Timoney's executive officer in New York, served two years as chief in Hartford and is now consulting on police matters in Oakland and San Francisco. Daniel Oates, a former deputy chief in Brooklyn, spent four years as chief in Ann Arbor and since 2005 has been chief in Aurora, Colorado. Ed Norris and Kevin Clark were NYPD veterans who each served stints as chief in Baltimore.

The group's record is not unblemished. Norris, for instance, brought down Baltimore's homicide rate during his three-years there but was later convicted of fraud for misusing police department funds. Both Abbott and Oates have struggled with issues of morale among officers who accuse them of being overly demanding and inaccessible. And Bratton, of course, is under fire for his officers' aggressive handling of a crowd of reporters and bystanders at a May Day immigration rally.

Yet on the whole, the Brattonites' impact on their departments and on crime commands attention. Timoney provides a dramatic example. Before he arrived in Philadelphia, murders had been topping the 400-mark for years. By the time he'd been there two years, they dropped to less than 300. He left at the end of 2001, and by last year the figure was back above 400. Meanwhile, since he arrived in Miami in 2003, the murder rate has dropped from 20 per 100,000 residents to 14, and the problem Timoney was most expressly brought in to address - police shootings of civilians - has almost abated. Perlov, Abbott, Oates and Bratton himself have also presided over noticeable drops in crime.

While the Bratton basics are having a major impact in other cities, so is - if Providence's experience with Esserman is any guide - the less tangible conviction that a police department is not an adjunct to community efforts to keep order. It is its centerpiece and organizing force. Even among the Brattonite diaspora, Esserman stands out for an iron-willed determination to explore just how thoroughly a police department can enmesh itself in community life.

THE NEW ORDER

Esserman is not cut from the same mold as his fellow Brattonites. For one thing, he was never a patrol officer: The son of a New York doctor, he graduated from Dartmouth College in 1979, went on to law school and wound up as the general counsel at the New York Transit Police at the time Bratton took over there. For another, he never went through the NYPD proving ground - in 1991, Bratton and the NYPD commissioner at the time, Lee Brown, helped him get a job as deputy chief in New Haven, and it is Connecticut's police academy diploma that now hangs on his wall. Esserman went on from there to run the Metro-North commuter railroad's police in New York, worked with Bratton on a team to address corruption within the NYPD, then in 1998 became chief in Stamford, Connecticut, before landing in Providence.

Still, Esserman is steeped in the same firm-hand-on-the-tiller ethos, with its unremitting pressure for innovation and results, that Bratton instilled in New York. Indeed, he was part of the Bratton brain trust that created it at the Transit Police, and even after leaving continued to plot strategy with Bratton and Jack Maple, the hard-nosed, street-smart house tactician who helped Bratton reshape first Transit, then the NYPD.

"I want you up all night thinking about this joint," Esserman told his staff in a memorable pep talk he delivered when he became chief in Stamford. "I want you back in the morning before you need to be because you can't wait to get to work. I want you thinking about your job. I want you dreaming about it. I want it to hurt your marriage. I want it to be your jealous mistress. I want it to be your obsession." These days, he doesn't talk about policing as marriage-wrecker, but he's no easier on his officers. "If something goes down in the middle of the night," he says, "I will be there. And if it is cold and rainy, you better be wet before I get there. I don't care how hard you work. All I care about is results."

Esserman came to Providence in 2003 because newly elected Mayor David Cicilline had consulted him on how to go about finding a new police chief and decided after they met that he was what the city needed. "He understood the importance of safety to the quality of life of a neighborhood and of families," says Cicilline now. "And he really understood the principle of having a department that is fully integrated into and supported by the community."

Which is not what Esserman found when he arrived. Cicilline had won election on promises of thoroughgoing reform of the city in the wake of the federal racketeering conviction of longtime mayor Buddy Cianci. The police department was Exhibit A for why it was needed. The previous chief had testified in federal court that he rigged promotional tests, and the department was shot through with favoritism and the buying of advancements based on contributions to the mayor's campaigns. "This was a king's army. City Hall ran everything," says Esserman. "When they say it took $5,000 contributions for the top positions in this department, that was true. One out of three slots in the police academy were paid for. Corruption was everything." Moreover, the department was isolated - it didn't talk to the state police, it didn't talk to the feds, it didn't talk to neighboring police departments, and it certainly didn't talk to the citizenry. "It was a mess," says current U.S. Attorney Robert Corrente. "Morale was terrible, and violent crime was terrible."

Upon taking over, Esserman launched an investigation into the promotions scandal, and slowly identified and promoted officers who hadn't played the old order's game. He asked the entire command staff of the department to retire after it became clear his expectations were different from theirs. "The first three murders, I was there and so was the mayor," he says. "But I couldn't find the chief of detectives." And, of course, he instituted the Brattonite playbook: Compstat; spinning the department off into nine districts with substations in each; walking or biking beats; re-orienting the department's philosophy toward problem-solving and crime prevention, not reaction. He decided that the department's top and unchangeable priority would be going after illegal guns and created a five-member task force whose sole job is to ferret them out. "We want to put the fear of God into people who carry guns," says Commander Paul Kennedy, Esserman's deputy chief. "We want them to think, "They're looking for us; they're following us.' "

Most of all, though, Esserman opened the department up, not only ending its isolation, but turning it into the convener of anti-crime efforts in the region. State police now patrol jointly with Providence police, which has both increased police visibility in general and given the state police insight into Providence's challenges. Agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms now work with the Providence police on every gun arrest, both to gather information and to help "federalize" every case possible. Prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney's office screen every gun case to see if it can be tried in federal court. "When you get convicted of a federal gun crime," Commander Kennedy says, "there's no parole, and you get sent far, far away, where your people aren't going to be able to come visit you."

The most profound change in the department, though, has been its refurbished profile - not just within the law enforcement community but outside it. "In my lifetime, the police weren't a willing partner," says Cedric Huntley, a high school athletics director and one of the architects of the Nonviolence Institute's streetworkers program. "They were here to catch the bad guys and react if something happened." Esserman, he says, has started to "engage people who care about the community, and community people are talking to the force and thanking them for a job well done - something that never happened before."

The attitude that makes this possible permeates the department. Rookie officers spend at least their first year on foot patrol - which includes bikes - because, says Commander Kennedy, "it puts a face on the police department: It forces people to interact and helps us police fear." And, he adds, it helps officers develop the skills to elicit information, which is a big part of policing. Moreover, both patrol officers and detectives are assigned to only one of the city's nine districts, and that not only makes it easier for Esserman to hold his command staff accountable for results, it breeds familiarity between cops and the communities they work in. "No more anonymous police doing it," says Esserman. His hope is that just as people know who their family doctor is, they'll know who their neighborhood cop is. He thinks he's getting close to that goal. The number of 911 calls in Providence has been dropping, he points out, but not the number of calls for service. "Now," he says, "they just call the cop on the street on his cell phone."

Perhaps the most identifiable cop in Providence is Esserman himself. At least one night a week he is on patrol, both to be seen and to watch his officers at work. He is on the scene at every shooting in the city, goes to the hospital to see the victim and visits the victim's family - a habit that is well-known throughout the city.

Most of all, though, Esserman has become a facilitator. "He forces us, some of us who are turf conscious, into a room together," says the Nonviolence Institute's Gross. "He's made the command staff see that the community is really a partner." Family Service of Rhode Island, for instance, now has a team of social workers who are available 24 hours a day to respond whenever a child witnesses or is the victim of a crime, and to show up at every murder scene and on all domestic violence calls. One team member rides with police officers to help them defuse domestic confrontations and to work with families where there's been a domestic violence call in the past. "The police," says Margaret Holland McDuff, Family Service's CEO, "have become brokers of service. They have their tool kit, and we're one of the tools in it."

This degree of community integration is not especially common in American policing, and it's not entirely a Brattonite hallmark - although Perlov had a similar goal in Raleigh. It doesn't always work out well. "When you start bringing in other city organizations or community groups," says Miami's Timoney, "often you find a great deal of enthusiasm early on but that lags later." Six months after an initiative, he says, "you look around and it's just the cops in the room."

In recent years, New York City has moved in a more hard-line direction. Between 1999 and 2006, there was a five-fold increase in the number of "stop-and-frisks" that NYPD officers performed, in which they stopped people they considered suspicious. Chris Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which has been studying the practice, says that the change in the stop-and-frisk practices seems to be generating enormous tension in black neighborhoods, since only about 10 percent of those stopped get arrested or summoned. "So 90 percent were doing nothing wrong," he says, "which feeds into the resentment people feel that there was no reason for getting stopped except that they were walking around in a black neighborhood."

To Esserman, developing a community orientation is a logical outgrowth of Bratton's belief that while the NYPD might need to take strong measures to regain control of streets that had essentially been abandoned, they could not afford to alienate the community in doing so. "I tell my people it's not a fair world," he says. "You produce bad results, you got problems with me. You produce good results but alienate the community, you got a problem with the community. You've got to answer to both."

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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