Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

William J. Bratton

Police Chief

For Bill Bratton, taking risks comes naturally.

Just how natural became apparent one day in 1975 when Bratton, a rookie sergeant with the Boston Police Department, got a call that would have made a veteran blanch: bank holdup; shot fired; possible hostage situation. En route to the scene, Bratton encountered the gunman — a 6-foot-2-inch man in a red leisure suit dragging a woman across a bridge, away from agitated bystanders. Bratton parked and advanced through the crowd — and suddenly found himself standing five yards from the gunman, weapon drawn. At that point, Bratton violated the first rule of hostage negotiations (never give up your cover): He lowered his firearm and, looking into the barrel of the other man's gun, asked the robber to put down his gun, too. He did, and Bratton had a new reputation as someone who was either very brave — or very foolhardy.

William J. Bratton
At Parker Center (LAPD HQ) in Los Angeles is Chief WILLIAM BRATTON Photographed fro Governing by Thomas Michael Alleman FOR ONE-TIME NON-EXCLUSIVE NORTH AMERICAN USE, Oct 2007
Thomas Michael Alleman
In 1993, Bratton took an even bigger gamble. Just one year earlier, he had achieved his life-long ambition of heading the Boston Police Department after leading impressive turnaround efforts at Boston and New York's transit agencies and at Massachusetts's Metropolitan Police. But when advisers to New York City Mayor-elect Rudolph Giuliani approached him about applying for the biggest job in policing — commissioner of the New York Police Department — Bratton went after it with a plan he promised would reduce crime in New York City by 40 percent in three years time. Most criminologists considered it a crazy idea — undoable, career suicide. Giuliani gave him the job.

Twenty-seven months later, when Bratton resigned from the NYPD, felony crime in New York City was down 39 percent, homicides were down by 50 percent. Henceforth, American police chiefs were judged by one thing: Is crime up or down? According to Bill Bratton, that's the way it should be. "If you have a police chief that can't get crime down, get yourself a new police chief," he says.

Bratton left New York as the world's most celebrated police chief. Business school professors hailed his "tipping-point leadership" and studied innovations such as Compstat, the computerized statistics system that Bratton developed to measure results and motivate commanders. Protégés applied the Bratton playbook in cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Providence and Miami, often with impressive results.

Yet there were also skeptics. Criminologists pointed to nationwide crime declines in the late '90s and asked if Bratton's achievements in New York were really unique. For Bratton himself, there was also a personal question: How do you follow up on a success like New York? In 2002, after several years in the private sector, Bratton answered that question by returning to policing as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. In New York, Bratton had policed a city of more than 7 million residents with 38,000 officers. In Los Angeles, a geographically larger city with a population of nearly 4 million people, he had a mere 9,100 officers.

At first, it was rocky going. Efforts to secure more resources for the department failed. Bratton also struggled with an unfamiliar political system. He became closely identified with then-Mayor Jim Hahn, who in 2005 was defeated in his reelection bid. In short, all the ingredients for a serious disappointment seemed to be in place.

Instead, the 60-year-old Bratton triumphed. In his first five years, major felonies have fallen by 30 percent, with homicides down 38 percent and overall violent crime down 46 percent. No wonder that L.A.'s new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has embraced his police chief, pushing through an increase in the trash-collection fee that will allow the LAPD to add 1,000 new officers. Even embarrassing mishaps haven't derailed the chief. When LAPD officers bludgeoned protestors at a pro-immigration rally last summer, Bratton moved quickly, acknowledging the failure, demoting the senior commander on the scene and revamping the department's training procedures.

"To me, that is leadership — under fire, in difficult circumstances," says Police Commission President Anthony Pacheco. In October, Bratton became the first LAPD chief to be appointed to a second term since the 1980s. L.A. is on track to experience fewer than 400 homicides this year — down from 588 in 2001. Those lives saved are part of Bill Bratton's legacy.

— John Buntin
Photo by Thomas Alleman

Tina Trenkner is the Deputy Editor for GOVERNING.com. She edits the Technology and Health newsletters.
Special Projects
Sponsored Stories
Sponsored
In recent years, local governments have been forced to adapt to a wildly changing world, especially as it pertains to sending bills and collecting payments.
Sponsored
Workplace safety is in the spotlight as government leaders adapt to a prolonged pandemic.
Sponsored
While government employees, students and the general public had to wait in line for hours in the beginning of the pandemic, at-home test kits make it easy to diagnose for the novel coronavirus in less than 30 minutes.
Sponsored
Governments around the nation are working to design the best vaccine policies that keep both their employees and their residents safe. Although the latest data shows a variety of polarizing perspectives, there are clear emerging best practices that leading governments are following to put trust first: creating policies that are flexible and provide a range of options, and being in tune with the needs and sentiments of their employees so that they are able to be dynamic and accommodate the rapidly changing situation.
Sponsored
Service delivery and the individual experience within health and human services (HHS) is often very siloed and fragmented.
Sponsored
In this episode, Marianne Steger explains why health care for Pre-Medicare retirees and active employees just got easier.
Sponsored
Government organizations around the world are experiencing the consequences of plagiarism firsthand. A simple mistake can lead to loss of reputation, loss of trust and even lawsuits. It’s important to avoid plagiarism at all costs, and government organizations are held to a particularly high standard. Fortunately, technological solutions such as iThenticate allow government organizations to avoid instances of text plagiarism in an efficient manner.
Sponsored
Creating meaningful citizen experiences in a post-COVID world requires embracing digital initiatives like secure and ethical data sharing, artificial intelligence and more.
Sponsored
GHD identified four themes critical for municipalities to address to reach net-zero by 2050. Will you be ready?