Top cop retires, ending tough-on-crime era in NYC. What's next?

Commissioner Bratton steps down after four decades of reducing crime in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles. But in the wake of protests and shootings, many police departments are now working on rebuilding trust with their communities. 

Mark Lennihan/AP
New York's Police Commissioner William Bratton, left, listens to Mayor Bill de Blasio during an event at Hudson Yards, Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, in New York. The commissioner has been called the most influential police reformer in 50 years, but his policies have alienated minority residents.

On Friday, New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton will step down after a 45-year career that made him perhaps the most influential police officer of the past half century.

He oversaw a breathtaking reduction in crime in New York and ushered in safer streets in Boston and Los Angeles. He championed techniques that in many ways revolutionized American policing. Yet, there is a sense today that his towering reputation should come with an asterisk.

The aggressive tactics he advocated have been blamed for widespread minority distrust of the police in cities across America. Some critics go so far as to link those tactics with the high-profile deaths of dozens of black men in recent years.

That is why his departure signals the end of an era. If Commissioner Bratton helped transform American policing with proactive techniques that focused on tackling signs of disorder and low-level quality-of-life crimes, today, across the country, police departments, including the New York Police Department (NYPD), are starting to institute new policies of what is known as community policing.

That includes training cops to get to know the residents and businesses on their beats. Now, “proactive” is coming to mean cooperating with a community and residents, trying to identify problems before they emerge.

However, it is proving difficult to implement in places where trust between residents and the police has broken down, as New York’s experience suggests.

An unlikely pairing

More than two decades ago, when Tony Herbert first got to know a number of New York City cops, he already began to believe people in his community needed to build closer ties to those patrolling the city’s streets. He had seen Bratton’s revolutionary proactive policing techniques – known as “broken windows” – begin to clean up New York’s once-notoriously crime-ridden streets, including his own neighborhood, Bedford Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn. A law-and-order guy, he still believes those techniques are essential for public safety.

Not long ago, Mr. Herbert met with Sgt. Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, one of the unions that represent NYPD cops. And when Herbert started to explain some of his ideas, Sergeant Mullins pulled out a notebook where he had outlined notes on some of his own ideas to help build relationships with the community.

Both wanted to go into schools to talk to young students and develop mentoring relationships, institute sports programs, or provide scholarships for college. As a result of their meeting, for the past few months, members of the Sergeants Benevolent Association have participated in Herbert’s “One Family One Community” initiative, in which men and women, especially minorities from professional service associations, businesses, or other community organizations go into schools and become positive role models for kids.

“People said to me if you two got together you could make a difference, says Sergeant Mullins. “And when you think about it, you have a black community activist in Brooklyn and a white Irish union leader in Manhattan, and we share the same morals, the same ethics, and the same goals.”

Today, this has become something of a national rallying cry for criminal justice reform, even as movements such as Black Lives Matter call attention to the devastating and decades-long impact that proactive policing has had on minority communities. At the same time, many Black Lives Matter activists say many of the current efforts won’t work without tackling the deep, institutional structures that Bratton helped erect.

Beyond barbeques

“It’s a really much more heavy lift,” says Monifa Bandele, a vice president with and a member of the steering committee for the coalition Communities United for Police Reform. “The conversation keeps getting sidetracked about improving police community relationships. But you can’t have a better relationship with someone when there’s not accountability in place.”

Indeed, during the past few months, police departments across the nation have been pushing back. The NYPD recently ended a practice of posting notices about the results of disciplinary hearings. In Los Angeles and Philadelphia, intense police opposition helped kill accountability efforts to inform the public about officer misconduct and discipline.

“So we can operate with impunity, but if we have this barbecue, we can get to know each other,” Ms. Bandele says. “No. We need accountability, there has to be justice for the cases that people are still seeking justice for, and until we see really bold moves toward that, the movement continues. We’re going to just have to keep pushing.”

And the current efforts to improve relations ignore the fundamental problem, she says. It’s the nature of policing itself, the targeted, proactive policing that has been disportionately focused on black and Latino neighborhoods – in other words, the key part of Bratton’s legacy.

For his many supporters, Bratton’s policing techniques will long be hailed for their overwhelming success in reducing crime.  

In 1990, when Mr. Bratton first came to New York City from Boston to run the city’s transit police – which was then a separate division from the NYPD – murders in the nation’s largest city had reached an all-time high with 2,262 homicides. Crime was high in cities across the country.

Bratton's revolution

Bratton brought a relatively simple set of ideas. Drawing from creative techniques from those he hired and criminal justice thinkers he paid attention to, he pioneered Compstat, which mapped criminal activity and allowed police to target high-crime neighborhoods. He had his police officers issue hundreds of summonses for penny-ante quality-of-life crimes, such as drinking in public or hustling motorists for tips with a squeegee and a pail of dirty water.

Most significantly, perhaps, Bratton helped develop the proactive technique of stop-and-frisk, a constitutionally permitted technique in which officers’ “reasonable suspicion” of impending criminal behavior allowed them to pat a person down.

These techniques were a revelation, and when Bratton became commissioner of the NYPD the first time around in 1994, crime in New York began its dramatic, if not epic, decline. Although scholars disagree on the complex web of causes that led to similar drops in crime around the country and even around the globe, the drop in New York’s crime rate was breathtaking.

“I’ve had three good years here, crime went down every year,” Bratton said last week in a local radio interview, about his second stint as commissioner. “Crime has gone down every year as the chief of police everywhere I’ve been. I have never had a year where crime has not gone down. So, if there’s a legacy in Boston, Los Angeles, New York, it’s that I think I’m pretty good at what I do.”

By 2015, New York was the safest it had ever been in its long and infamous history. And the first quarter of 2016 saw the fewest murders and shootings – ever.

“The really big important picture is that Americans now expect their police departments to produce public safety, to prevent violence, to prevent crime,” says David Kennedy, director of the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “That is routine, it’s expected, and police departments now are routinely held accountable for that, as they should be.”

“And 25 years ago, that wasn't true,” Professor Kennedy continues. “And more than anyone else in that entire span of decades, nobody is more responsible for that change than Bill Bratton.”

Chorus of dissent

But that is not the entire picture. As the NYPD ramped up the volume and intensity of its revolutionary policing tactics in the years following Bratton’s departure, a growing chorus of mostly minority voices – those most affected by “broken windows” techniques – began to complain about how they would be stopped constantly as they took the subway to school, sometimes a couple times a week, and seemingly for no reason.

More than that, many were being killed in what should have been nonencounters with the police. These included a 29-year-old security guard, Anthony Baez, who was playing football on the street with his brothers when an errant throw struck a police car. There was an encounter and altercation, and Mr. Baez died after an officer locked him in a chokehold. The officer was acquitted of criminal charges, but served over six years in prison for violating Baez’s rights.

The 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo, a 23-year-old immigrant from Guinea, by four plainclothes officers of the NYPD’s now-disbanded Street Crimes Unit, really sparked the widespread movement against Bratton’s ideas of policing. The officers were later acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing.

Ironically, it was the data, meticulously gathered by the NYPD, that unveiled the racial disparities that have nearly become an inseparable part of the legacy of broken windows policing. And they were startling: From 2002 to 2011, blacks and Latinos, the vast majority young men, made up close to 90 percent of people stopped. And of all the people stopped during this time, 88 percent, or a whopping 3.8 million residents, were never arrested or accused of a crime.

“It was for all intents and purposes like living in a police state,” Bandele says.

Her organization, Communities United for Police Reform, was instrumental in key federal court rulings that held many aspects of the NYPD’s policing unconstitutional in 2013. A court-appointed monitor was put in place, and the City Council, too, passed oversight bills to check the department’s policing in minority neighborhoods.

Indeed, Bratton’s broken windows theories mutated into what Kennedy calls the "debased" notion of "zero tolerance," coinciding with what many see as a troubling era in the wider American criminal justice system. "There are in that same time what everybody should now recognize – the appalling set of policies and choices and practices and moves that led to mass incarceration," he says. "And that’s an American story, a government story, not just a policing story.” [Editor's note: This section was changed to clarify his assertion that it was the misinterpretation of broken windows, rather than the theory itself, that contributed to mass incarceration.]

A peace dividend

Mullins was outraged by many of the court decisions that curtailed stop-and-frisk, but after many conversations with critics, he agrees that “there has to be a balance to stop-and-frisk.” He faults the Compstat system, too, for creating less of an accountability system than an incentive for precinct commanders to become overzealous and push the numbers. Stop-and-frisk, he now says, became less of a tool, less of a common right of police inquiry, than a numbers game.

But both he and Herbert have been vocal critics of Bratton during his second tenure as NYPD commissioner as many of the proactive techniques have begun to wane.

Bratton, citing a “peace dividend” and even better precision policing techniques, has cut stop-and-frisks nearly 97 percent from its height. The city has essentially decriminalized marijuana, issuing summonses rather than making arrests, for the most part. Enforcement encounters are also down. In 2015, the NYPD reported more than a million fewer encounters with people than earlier in the decade, including 670,000 fewer stops on the street, 250,000 fewer criminal summonses, and 82,000 fewer arrests.

Nevertheless, the 2014 killing of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who allegedly was selling cigarettes for 50 cents apiece, at the hands of a New York police officer, along with the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., a month later, helped launched the Black Lives Matter movement of today.

It is a climate, Mullins says, that has directly led to the assassinations of police officers in New York and Dallas. “The perception of the police as the bad guys, is so prevalent nearly four years later, how can we say in good conscience, that things have gotten better?” he says.

But like others, Bratton said last week that both sides need to find common ground.

“A lot of what’s going on in this city, a lot of what’s going on in this country right now, is that we’re talking past each other, we’re not hearing each other,” Bratton said, talking of his legacy. “Whether it's the Black Lives movement, whether it’s the police advocacy movement, we need to start trying to find ways to empathize with each other.”

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