NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton has been the tail that wags Mayor Bill de Blasio’s public safety dog since Day One. He is arguably the only strong leader in the entire administration, and—one fears—the only one with the vision, experience, and common sense necessary to keep New York City safe. Now he’s on his way out, leaving those who’ve opposed his practices a clear path to impose their own stunted policy prescriptions on the city. Don’t doubt for a moment that they’ll try, or that they’ll find the mayor receptive to their arguments. De Blasio is moving into an election year with only one solid voting bloc in his corner: African-Americans.
Sadly, the debate over urban policing in 2016 is as racialized as it has been since the 1960s. Two years after the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, and 15 months following the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore, animosity between the city’s cops and a large segment of its black community runs deep. The world may have turned its attention to Dallas and Baton Rouge, but the NYPD hasn’t forgotten the 2014 murders of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos as they sat in their patrol car on a Brooklyn street. Their killer, Ismaaiyl Brinsley, claimed he acted in retaliation for Garner and Brown.
Bratton largely has corralled the NYPD’s rank-and-file resentment. He hasn’t eradicated it, but he’s ensured that it plays a minimal part in day-to-day policing. This may well have been his principal contribution to public safety in the city; it’s easily as important as the clearly defined and easily understandable philosophy of policing that he brought to One Police Plaza.
That philosophy will now come under attack—indeed, it has been under attack by activists and a city council majority since the beginning. Absent Bratton’s reputation and the force of his personality, plus de Blasio’s obvious unwillingness to challenge directly a commissioner he hired as a hedge against being seen as soft on crime, the outlook is far from positive. Yes, Bratton’s designated successor, career-cop James O’Neill, is first-rate. But he’s no Bratton, a master of politics as well as tactics. Nor, for that matter, can he measure up to Ray Kelly, Bratton’s predecessor and another outsize personality.
Kelly and Bratton, each in his own way, understood that the key to effective policing lies in unrelenting attention to detail. When care is taken with the little things, the big things tend to take care of themselves. That’s the essence of the so-called Broken Windows approach to crime and disorder—a willingness to act on the fact that subway fare-beating, aggressive panhandling, and public drunkenness are gateway offenses to greater crimes. Bring them under control and felony rates will fall—and stay low.
Proactive policing has fallen out of favor with New York’s political class. De Blasio campaigned hard and sincerely against it in 2013. City council speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito hates it, and the council itself is trying to outlaw it. The usual assortment of community activists are vocal in their condemnation of Broken Windows policing. The arguments generally are race-based: Broken Windows enforcement disproportionally affects black New Yorkers and other minorities and therefore is illegitimate. But crime and disorderly neighborhoods also disproportionately affect minorities, who will be the principal victims of slackened enforcement.
Nevertheless, racial resentment is real, and exploiting it is a proven political tactic. Without Bratton standing in the breach, it’s not hard to see what the policy debate will produce. New York isn’t Chicago, where violence is now endemic, but nor is it the relatively tranquil city bequeathed to de Blasio by Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg, either.
Losing Bill Bratton means more than the risk of losing proactive policing. It means losing a principled, effective leader at a time when such are in perilously short supply. There’s no reason to believe that James O’Neill won’t measure up on the merits, but at this point, it’s the politics that matter most. All New Yorkers of good will should wish him well.
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