Last week New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio announced that he was selecting William Bratton, who led the Los Angeles Police Department from 2002 to 2009, to serve as New York Police Commissioner. Bratton previously served as New York’s police commissioner in the early 1990s under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. As a result, some de Blasio supporters have reacted with surprise. During his campaign, de Blasio had promised to end the police practice of “stopping and frisking” large numbers of minority youths. Yet most New Yorkers know Bratton as former mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s top cop, the police commissioner who swept away New York City’s squeegee men, cracked down on public disorder, and pressed cops to make more arrests.
There’s no denying Bratton’s experience or his record of innovation. (Former Governing publisher Peter Harkness has described Compstat, the computerized crime tracking system that Bratton introduced in New York and used to force responsibility and accountability down to the precinct captain rank, as the most significant public sector innovation of our time. Cities such as Baltimore and Louisville and states like Washington have since made it a centerpiece of their management systems.) Nonetheless, the Bratton announcement surprised caught many New Yorkers.
On Twitter, New Yorker writer John Cassidy expressed “surprise” about de Blasio’s choice, which he saw as a possible attempt to “inoculate himself against suggestions that he was soft on crime.” “Stop-and_Frisk Innovator Will Take Over NYPD,” reported the Huffingon Post. Slate’s Justin Peters took a harsher tack, with a story titled, “Why William Bratton Is the Wrong Man to Lead the New York Police Department.” In it, he accuses Bratton of being “a hard-core technocrat” and a slavish devotee of “broken windows” policing.
The idea that Bratton is an advocate of so-called “zero tolerance” policing — and that it’s this philosophy that leads to stop and frisk excesses is widespread. (Last year, I wrote about Washington, DC police chief Cathy Lanier's critique of this approach.) It is also wrong.
I’ve covered Bratton since the early 1990s, when I wrote a case study about Compstat for Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. I’ve interviewed him extensively, and Bratton doesn’t support “zero tolerance” policing, and, as I explained in City Journal last year, he isn’t a slavish devotee of “Broken Windows” policing. De Blasio’s decision to turn to Bratton to repair the strained relations between the NYPD and New York’s minority communities makes perfect sense. To understand why, it’s important to understand what Bratton did in Los Angeles.
What Happend in Los Angeles
Bratton resigned from the NYPD in 1996, forced out by a mayor displeased by a police commissioner whose public profile threatened to eclipse his own. He worked for several years in the private sector; by the early aughts, however, he was eager to return to work as a big city chief, so in 2002, he put his name forward as a candidate to lead one of the most storied — and most troubled — departments in the nation, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
When Bratton took command of the NYPD in 1994, he inherited a department whose size (thanks to extra funding secured by former mayor David Dinkins) had grown to 40,000 officers. Even though crime was beginning to fall, the city was united in the belief that radical changes were necessary. (“Do Something, Dave!” the NY Post famously cried). In contrast, Los Angeles was a challenge of a different magnitude. Crime was rising; the number of officers in the department was falling. A scandal in the department’s Rampart Division had damaged the department’s reputation and resulted in a consent decree with the U.S Justice Department that severely curtailed departmental autonomy. Moreover, the LAPD had a toxic relationship with the city’s African-American community. Twice, in 1966 and 1992, large swaths of South Los Angeles had gone up flames. Much of the hostility was due to so-called “zero tolerance” policing.
The catalyst was crack. Crack/s arrival in LA in the mid-80s made the city’s open air drug markets into shooting galleries. In response, then-LAPD Chief Daryl Gates launched Operation Hammer. Hundreds of cops swarmed through predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods, usually at the beginning of the weekend. The goal was to make arrests. In order to do so police enforced every law available. Zero tolerance. Over the course of a typical weekend, police would pick up one to two thousand people, arresting them on charges such as drinking in public and disorderly conduct and throwing them into jail. Come Monday morning, the courts would dismiss all but a few dozen charges. Residents would go to the impound yards to retrieve their cars. Often they’d been damaged. Not infrequently rims and stereos went missing.
I spoke with Lt. Fred Booker, an African-American officer, the son of South Carolina sharecroppers, who joined the LAPD in 1972 and who has worked closely with the last five chiefs of police, for a story in City Journal last year. He told me about the consequences.
People “were pissed, really angry,” says Booker. “Who were they angry at? The police department. Some of the stuff they were arrested for they were chicken shit arrests. Relations with police was nonexistent. Anger and frustration with the department was overwhelming.” That anger contributed to the Rodney King riots in 1992.
Bratton set out to change that. He hired the defense attorney who had once handled consent decree matters for the city to head a new consent decree compliance unit — and put him in the office next door to the chief’s, a powerful symbolic move intended to underscore the importance of his assignment. He also reached out to outspoken critics of the department, such as civil rights attorney Connie Rice. Rice’s group, The Advancement Project, was asked to conduct another investigation of the Rampart Division scandal. The LAPD posted the result on its website. Bratton also promoted a new generation of leaders within the department who cared deeply about racial reconciliation, among them the LAPD’s current chief, Charlie Beck.
When Bratton left the department in 2009, surveys showed that 83 percent of Angelinos now rate the performance of the LAPD as good or excellent, including solid majorities in every ethnic group, , up from 71 percent two years earlier. The percentage of residents saying that the police in their communities treat members of all racial and ethnic groups fairly “almost all the time” or “most of the time,” rose from 44 percent in 2005 to 51 percent in 2009. When asked to assess personal experiences, a majority of every racial and ethnic group in Los Angeles reported that most LAPD officers treat them, their friends, and their family with respect. In July 2009, a federal judge lifted the consent decree that had saddled the LAPD since the Rampart scandal. All the while, (and despite the great recession) violent crime fell — by over 50 percent. Today Los Angeles is one of the nation.
"I would say that battle has been won," Cal State Fullerton's Sonenshein told me when Bratton left office. "I think the LAPD is a regular department, rather than a semi-political military organization terrorizing elected officials and accountable to no one."
The LAPD’s leadership, said Connie Rice in an interview at the time, “has changed fundamentally — to the bone.” Although the LAPD today has nearly 2,000 more officers than the department did 1990s, it arrests only half the number of people it once did. Senior commanders such as Bob Green, a veteran of the elite Metro division who runs operations in South LA, now spends as much time thinking about how not to arrest certain types of people, namely juveniles for whom receiving a conviction is tantamount to starting their criminal careers, as he does to making arrests.
"When you focus on nothing but enforcement it doesn’t heal the communities,” Green told me.
Bratton deserves credit for presiding over this change (and promoting officers such as current chief Charlie Beck who were prepared to embrace it.) It’s worth noting that Bratton himself changed during this period as well. In his previous positions as Police Commissioner in New York, police chief in Boston, chief of the New York Transit Police, chief of the (Boston) Metropolitan Transit Authority (I’ll stop here but there are more), Bratton arrived, made big changes, and left quickly. In Los Angeles, he stayed the course, serving as chief for seven years.
In Los Angeles, he worked with two very different mayors, Jim Hahn (the mayor who first brought him to LA) and Hahn’s successor, Antonio Villaraigosa. The latter makes for a particularly interesting comparison with Bill de Blasio. Like de Blasio, Villaraigosa took office as an avowed liberal with big dreams (in Villaragoisa’s case, of taking control of the city’s schools and reworking its transportation system). Villaraigosa accomplished one of those goals (accelerating LA’s move toward a mass transit system that can serve the denser city of the future better), but along the way he found another goal, for which he is best remembered now. He embraced Bill Bratton and the LAPD. He defended the department’s budget, actually increasing the size of the force to 10,000 officers during a time of widespread budget cuts. In exchange, crime in LA plunged to New York City levels. A city once known as the home to the Crips and the Bloods became instead one of the safest big cities in the country. LA has also begun to move beyond the antagonisms that did such harm to the city in the twentieth century.
Bill Bratton is no longer Rudy Giuliani’s top cop. Think of him as the police chief who brought peace to LA instead. For anyone familiar with Bratton’s record in LA, Bill de Blasio’s selection of him as New York City’s next police commissioner is no surprise at all.