Changing Policing for the Better

The Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle once stated that “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” William J. Bratton may not deserve the accolade “great” (unless you ask his opinion), but when it comes to the history of policing few men have been more influential.

There is little doubt that in the last three decades of the twentieth century Bratton changed policing for the better by combining modern technology with administrative reforms that made the contemporary police force much more effective in controlling crime. Whether it is as effective as the commissioner himself thinks is another question, one which I’ll consider momentarily.

Bratton’s major contribution is the CompStat system. CompStat uses computer technology to map the location of reported crimes and then pressures commanders to take responsibility for crime rises in their precincts. CompStat also enabled Bratton to push “hot spots” policing, now renamed “precision policing,” which assigns more cops to the highest crime locations and thereafter follows up to ensure that the pressure stays on.

The other big police change that Bratton championed is the “Broken Windows” policy, which targets low level offenses such as subway fare evasion, vandalizing public property, pot smoking, or urinating in the streets. Though controversial today, Broken Windows was applauded for restoring order in the urban environment during the awful Crime Tsunami years (late 1960s to early 1990s). But Bratton made bigger claims. He argued that the small-time offenders were often big-time offenders too, and that arrests for petty offenses enabled police to check for outstanding arrest warrants for serious crimes. True enough, but how big a dent this makes in serious crime apprehensions is a matter for debate. Still, Broken Windows is a twofer, providing Quality of Life enforcement along with a way to apprehend some serious offenders.

The overall message of Bratton and Knobler’s book is that policing done right can affect the behavior of citizens, especially those who prey on their neighbors. Nowadays this seems obviously true, but in the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s, there was real despair that anything could be done to save our big cities from being overwhelmed by crime and disorder. When crime and disorder began to plummet in the mid-1990s—just at the time when Bratton initiated his reforms with NYPD—the linkage between his policies and the improvements in city life seemed indisputable.

Reducing Crime

Several chapters of The Profession are devoted to Bratton’s career trajectory. He started in Boston in 1970, a time when policing was totally reactive. The job was about responding to 911 calls, and response time was the key metric. Cop cars replaced the beat cop and the link between the police and the community was broken. Foot patrol, which cops hated—who wants to be outside broiling in the summer and freezing in the winter?—was shown to reduce public fear of crime but not crime rates. Bratton didn’t push foot patrol, but he was convinced that reactive policing—just responding to calls for service—wasn’t enough. Police had to prevent crime.

Bratton headed up the Boston transit police and then a Massachusetts force assigned to recreation areas statewide. The job he really wanted, though, was to be Boston Police Commissioner, but when he said so publicly opposition mobilized and he was sidelined instead of promoted. Still, he learned a lot in his home state. First he gained experience in organizing police departments and motivating the men (there were few women in policing back then) to work. Second, he learned that he needed to watch his words: he could seek publicity for his accomplishments but he couldn’t say out loud “I want the top job.”

And just then a bigger and better appointment came out of the blue. He was offered the job of heading New York City’s transit police. Until 1995 New York City had a separate department to police the subways and buses. The force was demoralized and ineffectual (though probably not as much as Bratton suggests). And the subways were a mess. Vandals covered them with graffiti, giving riders the feeling that public property, like public spaces generally, couldn’t be secured. Crime was out of control.

In 1990, when Bratton came on the job, the New York City murder count hit a new high of 2,245 dead: the worst number in the city’s history. The homeless, mentally ill, and addicts—products of the deinstitutionalization movement that started in the 1970s—were using public transportation as their residences and their toilets. Fare evasion was costing the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) millions. Ridership by the law-abiding fare-paying public was way down.

Bratton spent a lot of money upgrading his force with improved training, better equipment, and better looking uniforms. He flooded the worst fare evasion stations with cops. When a fare beater was arrested the officer could check his record, and one in seven, according to Bratton, had outstanding warrants. This usually meant he had been arrested for a prior crime and after a quick release he disappeared, whereupon the judge at his no-show hearing would issue a warrant for his arrest. Now, having been caught jumping the turnstile, he’d be held for the prior crime, often something serious, not just the fare beat. This was Broken Windows policing at its best.

After a return to Massachusetts and a brief stint as #2 with the Boston Police Department Bratton finally got the job he really coveted. In 1993, both Boston and New York held mayoral elections. The new Boston mayor made clear that he wanted his own guy as police chief. New York’s Rudy Giuliani hired Bratton.

What followed were the turnaround years, the apogee of Bratton’s career. Bratton installed his brain trust, including Lou Anemone and Jack Maple, the “policing genius” behind CompStat, into the top ranks of the NYPD. Friction with Giuliani—portrayed in the book as a publicity hog, unwilling to share credit for the crime slide—limited Bratton’s term to 27 months. But what a 27 months! New York City’s murder rate fell by 40 percent from 1993 to 1995 while the rest of the country experienced a mere 14 percent decline. Bratton denied that New York was part of a national trend: “New York was the trend,” he boasted.

Well, not quite. Something was happening nationwide, and while Bratton’s policing innovations, copied in other cities, definitely contributed to the progress, they cannot explain all or even most of it. First off, crack cocaine, which had jolted crime into the stratosphere in the late 1980s, was over by the early 1990s. A new generation rejected the addiction, death, and imprisonment that had destroyed their fathers and big brothers. Second, the baby boomers, responsible for the massive crime escalation that began in the late 1960s, were aging out of violence. (A man born in 1950 would have been 45 years old in 1995, old enough to leave the rough stuff to Gen X.) These were national phenomena, so crime was down all over the United States. But it was down even more in the Big Apple, and Bratton is entitled to credit for that.

Bratton’s verdict: “Criminal justice reform failed miserably.” It is causing shootings, murders, street crime and disorder to spike. Its premise—“if police do less, somehow the world will be a better place”—is wrong.

After six years in the private sector, consulting for police departments—including the LAPD, his next public employer—Bratton grabbed at the opportunity to implement his plans once more.  

The Los Angeles Police Department had a lot of friction with the black community, especially after the Rodney King riots of 1992. Part of the problem was their policing style: force and intimidation were used to compensate for understaffing. Two black commissioners preceded Bratton, but neither was successful. A federal consent decree was agreed to in 2000, and guess whose consulting firm got to monitor the department’s compliance? This gave Bratton regular access to the mayor and before long he was chief of police again.

From 2002 to 2009 Bratton ran the LAPD. And once again, he beat the national results in reducing crime. Violent crimes plummeted by 87 percent and the murder rate (the most accurate barometer) fell 53 percent. The nationwide decline in the murder rate was 11 percent.

Bratton got a second bite at the Big Apple in 2014, when Bill de Blasio successfully ran for mayor, campaigning against his predecessor’s Stop and Frisk policy. Stop, Question, and Fisk, as NYPD called it, was in a sense a child of Bratton’s philosophy: don’t just respond to crime, prevent it. The whole idea, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police chief Ray Kelly repeatedly declared, was to search for guns, mainly in the neighborhoods with the most shootings, get them off the streets, and make it too hot to carry.

The problem is that the neighborhoods with the most shootings were African American or Hispanic, and the SQF implementation was left to rookie cops with little supervision. The number of stops kept increasing each year even though the targets were largely innocents. Minority resentment mounted, stoked by liberal media opposition and de Blasio’s campaign; a lawsuit essentially ended the policy; and the new mayor replaced Kelly with Bratton.

2014 New York was very different from the city Bratton had left in 1995. Crime and disorder were way down; fear had dissipated. Entertainment venues, hotels, restaurants, and tourism were flourishing. Consternation over Stop and Frisk notwithstanding, Bratton had only to avoid backsliding since Bloomberg and Kelly left the city in great shape.

Bratton didn’t fail. Following a wave of protests over the shooting death by police of Michael Brown, a young black man in Ferguson, Missouri, along with the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island (both occurring in the summer of 2014), antagonism to police escalated. Some thought—solid proof was hard to come by—that law enforcement was being undermined, that police were demoralized or working demonstrations instead of controlling crime, or that white cops were reluctant to confront African American suspects. Whatever the explanation, violent crime spiked by 2016.

But not in New York. While murder rates nationwide jumped twenty percent from 2014 to 2016, they actually went down a tick in Gotham. The old magic was still working.

Policing Today

A big chunk of this book, especially the last several chapters, is devoted to the reigning law enforcement issue of the day: policing low-income communities of color. Some of this material—the discussion of the George Floyd protests, for example—already has a dated feel. But that’s the peril of au courant works; in the time it takes to do serious research and quality writing the world may have moved on.

Bratton and co-author Knobler struggle with the race and police issue. At one point they say that the challenge is to “remove the Black face from the image of crime.” But how does one achieve this when (as the authors repeatedly document) so much crime is disproportionately committed by (and victimizes) minorities? And why is this a police mission anyway, except from a public relations standpoint?

To demonstrate their sensitivity on the race issue the authors issue a few mea culpas too many. They claim that when it comes to race police were on the wrong side of history, even lamenting that they supported slavery. This is a false confession. The first police department in this country was created in New York in 1845. Other big cities followed suit, but they were mainly in the North, while the overwhelming majority of slaves were in the rural South. So police had nothing to do with slavery. The more appropriate charge is that police sided with whites or looked the other way during the dreadful race riots of the gilded age, decades after slavery.

Addressing the present-day situation, Bratton and Knobler say that there is “systematic racism” in policing without defining it or pointing to examples. Individual instances of abuse of African Americans are one thing, of course, a pattern of routine mistreatment motivated by racial bias is another. The authors expressly reject the contention that Broken Windows policing or even Stop, Question, and Frisk (which unquestionably disproportionately impacted minorities) were systematically racist. So what is illustrative? And why do they say yes, systematic racism exists . . . “but.” But what?

A full chapter is devoted to “implicit bias” training for police, apparently aimed at reducing the association of crime with blacks. But the writers never say what such training accomplishes, maybe because there aren’t good studies on the issue. To my knowledge, it has never been demonstrated that enforcement disparities stem from officers’ implicit biases as opposed to other forces. Treating all citizens respectfully is important, but whether this is achieved by implicit bias training is debatable.

Proposals for Police Reform

If Bratton and Knobler seem to want things both ways on the race and police issue they are decisive when it comes to leftist law enforcement proposals. They hate them.

Bail reform laws: Any law that prohibits jail for all low-level offenses removes the incentive to refrain from crime. What’s more, with some of these laws even violent offenders or gun law violators are being turned loose after their initial court appearance. Bratton and Knobler ask, “How is that going to reduce shootings?”

Releasing jail and prison inmates during the Pandemic: The New York experience was “disastrous.” “People convicted of domestic violence went home and did it again. Sex offenders resumed their activities. Recidivists went back at it. And the NYPD was tasked with arresting them . . . again.”

Dealing with the mentally ill, the homeless, and the addicted: These responsibilities fell to the police because society didn’t develop effective programs to handle them after psychiatric hospitals were closed. Police would gladly shed this responsibility, but first we must establish workable alternatives.

Defunding the police: Much of this is just punitive and ill-conceived. How would it make policing better? And where else will the funds go to do the work police do? Abolish the police? “What could they be thinking?!”

Qualified immunity for police: Cops are protected from civil suit if their action was “objectively reasonable” and “clearly defined in law.” Why should judges and prosecutors get absolute immunity while cops, who are asked to make tough, split-second calls while facing great danger, are stripped of this protection?

Prosecutors who won’t prosecute: Prosecutors who try to reduce “mass incarceration” by refusing to prosecute low-level crimes are encouraging the very offenses, such as smoking and selling weed in apartment lobbies, that upset the public. These no-prosecution policies encourage crime, undercut Broken Windows policing, and don’t affect incarceration anyway since no one is jailed, much less imprisoned, for low-level offenses.

Eliminating the discretion of police and judges: New York police used to have discretion to arrest for certain misdemeanors or issue a Desk Appearance Ticket (dubbed “Disappearance Ticket” by cops, given the high number of no-shows). Eliminating this discretion is part of the misguided effort to restrict police and reduce incarceration. It should be restored. And New York judges, who cannot jail offenders on grounds of dangerousness, should have this authority established.

Bratton’s verdict: “Criminal justice reform failed miserably.” It is causing shootings, murders, street crime and disorder to spike. Its premise—“if police do less, somehow the world will be a better place”—is wrong. “Defunding defending—taking money away from the fundamental function of law enforcement at a time when there are so many critical and identifiable needs—is a truly bad idea.”

Will there be a fourth act on Broadway? Bratton, who just turned 73, seems to have the energy and certainly has the experience. In recent interviews he sounded interested. Co-author Knobler told me they’d be writing an epilogue to The Profession. Maybe they’ll delay it a few years for Bratton’s final curtain.

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