NYPD Commissioner William Bratton to step down: a shift in policing?

William Bratton, who came to personify the 'broken windows' approach to policing will step down next month, a move that could possibly signal a push toward reform, some observers say.

Carlo Allegri/Reuters
New York Police Commissioner William Bratton (l.) stands as Mayor Bill de Blasio announces Bratton's retirement at City Hall in Manhattan on Tuesday. Mr. Bratton is set to be replaced by Chief James O'Neil, a veteran officer.

New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton is set to step down this month, marking the end  of a long-running tenure shaping policing in some of the nation’s largest cities – policies that were both celebrated and controversial.

Mr. Bratton’s first stint as police commissioner in 1994 under Mayor Rudy Giuliani garnered him national attention for aggressively working to reduce the city’s crime rate.

But Bratton’s signature focus on a statistics-driven “broken windows” approach that emphasized low-level, quality of life offenses, has become a lightning rod in discussions of policing nationwide.

His departure to take a job in the private sector, which Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Tuesday at City Hall, also points to a crossroads in New York, especially as Mr. de Blasio gears up for what could be a difficult re-election campaign, observers say.

“It’s kind of a momentous time,” says Jeanne Zaino, a professor of political science at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y.

The elevation of Chief James O’Neill, the department’s top uniformed officer, to the commissioner’s chair, Dr. Zaino tells The Christian Science Monitor, represents a break from long-running leadership by either Bratton or Raymond Kelly, who served dating back to the administration of Mayor David Dinkins (1990-93).

Tapped by de Blasio in 2013, Bratton oversaw a large-scale decrease in the number of stop and frisks made by police, which declined from a high of nearly 700,000 in 2011 to less than 25,000 in 2015, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union.

But he was also unwilling to fully disregard the policies on which he had made his legacy, says Nazgol Ghandnoosh, a research analyst at the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C.

“It’s really been hard as an observer to imagine what might change Bratton’s mind. If so much evidence and research does not get him to shift his position on this issue, it’s not clear what would,” she tells the Monitor.

For reform advocates like Dr. Ghandnoosh, who argue broken windows paved the way for controversial “stop and frisk” policies that have been found to have disproportionately impacted black and Latino New Yorkers, the selection of a new commissioner could be significant.

“Hopefully somebody who doesn’t have this long history and whose legacy is not so strongly tied to this form of policing might be able to change things around a little bit more than Bratton has been willing to,” she says.

On the other hand, says Zaino, the political scientist, Mr. O’Neill is a longtime Bratton ally who has moved up through the department’s ranks. “So I think that it’s possible there won’t be as many changes as there might have been because de Blasio hasn’t reached for somebody new.”

But in his second stint as commissioner, Bratton was particularly effective at smoothing tensions between the de Blasio administration and police unions, she notes.

Those concerns came to a head in January 2015, when a series of officers turned their backs on the mayor during the funeral of two officers killed by a gunman who had said he was upset about police killings of black men.

“It was always Bratton who was there trying to walk that line between ‘let’s be understanding to the community’ and, obviously, ‘let’s respect the men and women in blue.’ And he was always trying to kind of be that peacemaker,” Zaino says.

He began his first stint in New York under Mayor Giuliani with a rallying cry, saying, “I did not come here to lose,” as he accepted the job in 1993.

But this year, he was candid about the frustrations many people of color feel in encounters with police. “No matter how rich they are,” he told The New York Times, most African-Americans have had “negative experiences” with the police and “they all respond the same to these incidents: There is a fear, there’s an anger, there’s a frustration.”

For Bratton, who began his career in Boston in the 1970s as racial tensions over court-ordered busing roiled the city, and later moved to Los Angeles in the early 2000s, that shift has led to further reforms, notes Ghandnoosh, of the Sentencing Project.

He came to support efforts by the City Council to reform New York City's summons system and decrease penalties for low-level offenses, reports Politico. A broader approach to broken windows policing, she notes, could also point it more in the direction of community policing, she says.

“Some of the research that shows broken windows policing to be effective actually defines broken windows pretty broadly, as not just arresting and ticketing and summons-ing, but police actually doing things like repairing broken windows."

“So it’s possible for the police to have a lot of contact with people and begin rebuilding these frayed relationships by engaging with communities and trying to understand what are the problems and what are ways of fixing them without bringing out the handcuffs,” Ghandnoosh adds.

For de Blasio, whose administration is facing a series of corruption investigations, including some linked to the police department, Bratton’s departure could also pose further challenges, notes Zaino.

“I think having Bratton there allowed him to say ‘Hey look, I have somebody in position who has worked under Republican mayors, whose first commitment is to law and order and to public safety, who’s not coming to this with a political mind necessarily,'" she says. "I think that Bratton leaving does really open up this question again."

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