Bratton’s Back: Even Progressives Need Police

Thanks to Bratton and Kelly, even self-styled 'progressive' mayors now understand that public safety is the precondition for all other urban innovations

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Seth Wenig / AP

William Braton, left, smiles as New York mayor-elect Bill de Blasio talks during a news conference in New York, Dec. 5, 2013.

Correction appended, December 9, 2013

New Yorkers of all political stripes can breathe a sigh of relief now that mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has chosen William Bratton as his police commissioner. It’s a choice laced with irony given de Blasio’s all-out assault on the New York City Police Department in this year’s mayoral campaign. But it’s also highly revealing of the limits that now constrain even the most left-leaning urban politicians.

Though de Blasio demagogued against the NYPD during the election campaign, his selection of Bratton shows that he understands that his mayoralty will be judged first and foremost on whether he maintains New York’s status as the safest big city in America. Bratton triggered New York’s record-breaking crime drop when he served his first tour of duty as NYPD commissioner from 1994 to 1996; he brought the same innovative techniques—rigorous data analysis, commander accountability, and proactive enforcement—to the Los Angeles Police Department in 2005 and made Los Angeles the only city to rival New York’s crime-fighting successes.

The ironies of the nomination are considerable. This will be the second time that Bratton succeeds Ray Kelly as New York police commissioner. The rivalry between the two men is intense, and will ensure, if any further guarantees were needed, that Bratton will do everything within his power to match or beat Kelly’s own outstanding crime-fighting record. Their management styles differ greatly: Kelly controlled almost every facet of the massive police force; Bratton is a delegator. He inherits a radically different department from the one he took over in 1994, one that has fully absorbed the principles of accountability and analytic rigor. The NYPD has been running at full-tilt for 20 years now; it has become harder and harder to keep crime going down when all the obvious inefficiencies in management have long since been wrung out.

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Thanks in part to de Blasio himself, the NYPD has been plagued in recent years by specious allegations that it was deliberately targeting blacks and Hispanics for racially biased pedestrian stops. Bratton understands as well as Kelly, however, that effective, unbiased policing will inevitably produce racially disparate enforcement data, given the vast disparities in crime commission and victimization. In 2012, according to NYPD figures, blacks in New York City committed over 78% of all shootings, for example, though they are only 23% of the city’s population. Whites committed 2.4% of all shootings, though they are nearly 35% of the city’s population. At the same time, blacks were 74% of all shooting victims; whites just under 3%. The ratios of stops to arrests and to population data were virtually identical in the Los Angeles Police Department under Bratton and in Kelly’s NYPD.

Unfortunately, U.S. District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin declared the NYPD guilty of unconstitutional pedestrian stops this August and slapped the department with a federal monitor and other unnecessary bureaucratic accretions. (A panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals removed Scheindlin from the case and stayed her opinion this October on the ground that her encouragement of litigation against the department compromised the appearance of judicial impartiality.) De Blasio has vowed to drop the city’s appeal of Scheindlin’s decision; with any luck, Bratton will persuade him to keep fighting the ruling, since it embraces a wrong-headed test of what constitutes racially biased policing that will haunt departments across the country.

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The biggest challenge facing Bratton will be figuring out if the pressures on commanders to keep crime going down have in fact become too heavy-handed, as the advocates maintain, and if so, how to dial them back without destroying the NYPD’s appropriately intense focus on crime fighting and the all-important principle of commander accountability. Bratton has publicly criticized Kelly’s Impact Zone program, which places rookie cops in crime hot spots, where they are expected to intervene in criminally suspicious behavior. Bratton alleges that the program has led to unjustified pedestrian stops, but Kelly instituted it to provide high-crime areas desperately needed police coverage despite manpower cutbacks. It will be a difficult to devise an alternative.

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Bratton will also need to perform a top to bottom CAT scan on the department’s anti-terrorism activities to see if they are all essential. The NYPD currently sends hundreds of officers out of their precincts a day to muster at various locations in the city to dissuade potential terrorists from striking. These so-called Hercules drills are the first place to look for possible cuts in the department’s anti-terrorism resources.

And expect Bratton to build on the NYPD’s already cutting-edge crime-fighting technologies.

It is thanks to the successes of Bratton and Kelly that even self-styled “progressive” mayors now understand that public safety is the precondition for all other urban innovations.

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Correction: The original version of this story misstated the year Bratton began at the LAPD. It was 2002.