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William Bratton on “Precision Policing”

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William Bratton on “Precision Policing”

August 1, 2018
Public safety

Former NYPD and LAPD commissioner William J. Bratton joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss Bratton’s 40-plus-year career in law enforcement, the lessons learned in New York and Los Angeles, and the challenges facing American police.

Bratton began his career in Boston, where he joined the police department in 1970 after serving three years in the U.S. Army’s Military Police during the Vietnam War. He was named chief of the New York City Transit Police in 1990, where he oversaw dramatic crime reductions in the subway system. In 1994, newly elected mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed Bratton commissioner of the NYPD. From 2002 to 2009, Bratton served as Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. In 2014, he was again named New York City Police Commissioner by Mayor Bill de Blasio, before stepping down in 2016.

In the Summer 2018 Issue of City Journal, Bratton and coauthor Jon Murad (a former assistant commissioner and uniformed NYPD officer) write about Bratton’s second tour as commissioner in New York and the model that they have developed—“precision policing”—that could lead to a new era of public safety and better police-community relations.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Over the past quarter century the United States has seen a remarkable drop in violent crime. Much of that decline can be credited to the incredible improvements in policing, which first began here in New York City in the early 1990s, where crime reductions were most dramatic. But four years ago, the police involved deaths of Eric Garner in Staten Island and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, set off national protests against law enforcement, and it has ignited a passionate debate about the criminal justice system in America. Highlighting the importance of policing, particularly in neighborhoods that are especially vulnerable to crime, is a critical part of what we do here at City Journal, which is why we will talk about it with none other than America’s top cop former New York City Police Commissioner, William Bratton. But before we get to our interview with the Commissioner, we wanted to let our listeners know about the exciting Summer 2018 Issue of City Journal. In the new issue we have Jim Copland on the administrative state and the four horsemen of the regulatory state; John Tierney on The First-Year Experience, a popular program that disastrously indoctrinates college freshmen into radical politics; Nicole Gelinas’ and Steve Malanga’s takes on self-driving cars, or autonomous vehicles, in smart cities; and Aaron Renn writes about the reinvention of Akron, Ohio, and what it means for other Rust Belt cities. You can find those articles and much more by visiting our website at www.city-journal.org. Now, our discussion with Commissioner Bratton. We hope you enjoy.

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to another edition of 10 Blocks.  I’m your host, Brian Anderson.  Today we are joined by a very special guest and longtime friend of City Journal, William J. Bratton.  Commissioner Bratton recently stepped down from his second successful stint as the head of the New York City Police Department.  Now he is an executive chairman at the Teneo consultancy.  Bratton’s visionary career in law enforcement spans four decades and he has served or advised urban police departments around the world.  But he will tell you a bit more about that himself.  He has also contributed essays on policing issues and philosophy to City Journal since the 1990s.  His latest piece, coauthored with his Teneo colleague, Jon Murad, which appears in the Summer 2018 issue is entitled “Precision Policing: Data, discretion and community outreach can ensure a new era of public safety,” and we are honored to have him with us in the studio today.  Commissioner Bratton, thanks very much for joining us.

William J. Bratton: Great to be with you.

Brian Anderson: First off, though we gave an intro just now at the start of the show, it might be interesting to listeners who don’t know your full background to hear just a little bit about how you started your career in law enforcement.  What made you want to become a police officer?

William J. Bratton: I came into policing in 1970, one day after my 23rd birthday, had returned from three years in the U.S. Army, including a year in Vietnam military policeman, and joined the Boston Police Department at a time of phenomenal, almost revolutionary change in the evolution of policing.  And my interest in policing had been shaped in the 1950s by exposure to the new phenomenon, television.  And many of the early on shows in that era – ‘50s and ‘60s – were police-related.  So, no relatives.  No role models.  For me it was largely exposure to television.

Brian Anderson: Now when you first served as New York Police Commissioner, this was in 1994, crime and disorder were far, far worse than they are today.  What was your impression when you arrived in that position in the city – and more importantly, what were your key steps at that time in getting things under control?

William J. Bratton: My first exposure to New York City actually was in 1990 when I was appointed as Chief of the Transit Police. 

Brian Anderson: Is this under Mayor Dinkins. 

William J. Bratton: Mayor Dinkins was the mayor, but the Transit Police were a separate agency paid for by the City but under the control of the Transit Authority, the MTA.  A 4,000-person, 4,000 officer department, but separate from the NYPD, much as the Housing Police were a separate agency.  The conditions I found in the subway were even worse than those in the street and those in the street were – Dante’s Inferno was not far removed from what was going on in New York at that time.  And the turnaround of crime and disorder, the dual plague, one fueled by the other, that we accomplished in the subway in a very short period of time, caught the attention of a soon-to-be mayoral candidate Rudy Giuliani.  He ran on the campaign in 1993 of doing something about crime and had asked, if I were to be his commissioner, could the success of the subways be transferred to the streets.  I said it certainly could.  So, the Transit Police were an off-Broadway production that got me onto Broadway.

Brian Anderson: Very interesting.  And crime began to fall in the subways before it did in the city as a whole.

William J. Bratton: Let me give you a quick example.  At a time when there were 2,243 murders – 1990 – in the City of New York, 5,000 shootings, there were 22 murders in the subway.  And probably four or five dozen shootings.  But many New Yorkers, when asked, thought there was more crime in the subways because at that time five million New Yorkers, excuse me, three-and a-half million New Yorkers every day rode the subways, so they were experiencing firsthand in those confined spaces disorder that was disturbing to them.  And even in those days the chance of being a victim of an actual crime was not high.  But they were exposed to so much that made them fearful.

Brian Anderson: Now fast-forwarding to the present when you returned for a second stint as NYPD Commissioner in 2014, this is after a very successful period, too, as Chief of Police in L.A., tension between law enforcement and many urban minority communities around the country was worsening.  That year saw the Eric Garner incident here in Staten Island, the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, and the emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement, which was soon to take on a very hostile attitude toward law enforcement.  You know, in December 2014, two of your officers were ambushed and killed in Brooklyn by a very troubled man, a mentally ill person, who committed suicide in a nearby subway station but who claimed inspiration from this kind of anti-police movement that was emerging.  In this new essay for City Journal on precision policing, you call this tension the great divide, the gap between police and minority communities.  Can you talk a bit more about this and how you approached repairing police-community relations which were fraying in New York, maybe not as much as in other cities, but we are certainly, you know, we are seeing signs of it in this city too?

William J. Bratton: The issue of racial and ethnic tension, although racial seems to be much more prevalent than the ethnic issues, is part of American life and has been since the creation of our country, largely for the fact that we bring people from all over the world here into what has been described as the great melting pot.  Policing, since the creation of our democracy, has been in the center of those controversies.  We are the entities that were expected to enforce the old fugitive slave laws.  And if you look at history that so often significant racial disturbances, riots or whatever you want to call them, oftentimes were initiated by a police action in a community that did not like, and in fact in many instances hated the police, and the police were not necessarily very well behaved in those minority communities.  So, the experiences of 2014 were not new.  They were the continuation of a still unresolved tension in our country.  I have however, been an advocate that the police, rather than being the catalyst for racial tension, racial violence, can in fact be a catalyst for the resolution – if not necessarily the solution – of that historical and longstanding problem.

Brian Anderson: We’ve written about your experience in L.A. in this context a little bit because when you arrived at the LAPD, community relations with that force were very bad.

William J. Bratton: They were abysmal.

Brian Anderson: And by the time you left, I seem to remember the L.A. Times, which was always a big critic of the LAPD, doing two or three stories…

William J. Bratton: Still is.

Brian Anderson: …that week, but about the kind of turnaround that you had performed there.  So, what, you know, what was it in terms of community relations that you did there, and did you draw on that experience in coming to New York again?

William J. Bratton: One of my proudest accomplishments was the editorial in the L.A. Times as I was leaving that, to paraphrase, that finally a corner has been turned on racial relations in Los Angeles, attributing and significantly crediting the turnaround in the LAPD posture toward the black community in particular.  So much of my policing career has been focused on trying to deal with that racial divide and trying to use the police to heal it rather than expand it.  And so, L.A. was a case in point where a city that had some of the worst race relations police black community in the country historically – we have an adage here in New York, if you can make it in New York you can make it anywhere – well, if you can make it on race relations in L.A., I would argue you can make it anywhere also.

Brian Anderson: During the second stint as New York’s Police Commissioner, a number of major cities around the country, Baltimore and Chicago most noticeably, witnessed a very substantial rise in violent crime, which many observers, including our own Heather Mac Donald, attributed at least in part to what she called the Ferguson effect, a pullback by police from more proactive forms of policing, especially in high-crime neighborhoods.  Now New York thankfully largely avoided that spike in crime, and indeed by, you know, by the time you left in 2016, crime was at historic lows in the City.  So, how did the NYPD keep crime under control during this period, especially with the dramatic reduction in stop, question and frisk interactions that was implemented during your second commissionership?

William J. Bratton: Well, at the time of the murder of two officers, Ramos and Liu, in 2014, late 2014, New York was already benefiting by an almost 24-year decline in crime.  Every year crime had gone down, most years, overall crime, so that there was already a strong momentum going forward.  The department had become very focused on its crime reduction capabilities.  So even though there was a temporary slowdown for a month or two after that horrific event that the department never really stopped functioning as it had in Los Angeles.  When I got to Los Angeles, the LAPD had effectively stopped policing the city.  They had an expression the cops drive by and wave.  And that had been one of America’s most aggressive police departments.  So, a combination of leadership, political and police, having had the opportunity to begin to have trust in the rank and file of the NYPD and the leadership, myself and my team, helped us to weather that storm.  The Ferguson effect that you had referenced I believe is real in many departments around this country.  I think that’s certainly been the case for a period of time in Chicago, a city I am very familiar with, but here in New York, fortunately that it was a very short spell for a month or two after the murder of those two officers.  So, a lot of it has to do with the idea of relationships between the leadership and the rank and file, a lot of it has to do with political support.  In this city, the mayor has never been popular – Mayor de Blasio – with the rank and file, but the mayor has consistently resourced the department in a way that it allowed me as police commissioner to find ways to motivate officers, to equip them, to train them, to protect them, in ways that we’d not been able to do for many years in the department.  Better equipment, better training, more officers.  What is not widely known is how far the numbers in the NYPD declined after 9/11.  You would think it would have went the other way, but 41,000 officers in 2001, and when I came in in 2014 it was down to 34,000.

Brian Anderson: And this at a time when the NYPD was also taking on more counterterrorism.

William J. Bratton: That’s correct.  Commissioner Kelly, him and Mayor Bloomberg, their legacy in this city is always going to be the work they did to create an extraordinary counterterrorism intelligence operation that has really helped to keep New York safe from the threat of terrorism, much the same as some of the systems I was able to develop with my leadership team back in ’94, ’95, with Mayor Giuliani around the issue of crime, around the issue of terrorism, the new threat, post 9/11, Kelly and Bloomberg had effectively created a similar apparatus.  When I came in in 2014, it was a matter to blend the crime reduction, the terrorism apparatus together, and to see if there was a way to start dealing with the whole issue that had bubbled up again, the racial controversy, around stop, question and frisk.  And I think we were able to do that to the extent that well, I have been out of office now two years, Commissioner O’Neill has been leading the department, and in the two years he has been leading the department crime has continued to go down and terrorism.  We had three unfortunate incidents in the City, the first attacks that were successful since 9/11, but since those attacks the City has once again been able to be protected.

Brian Anderson: Now Mayor de Blasio, to his credit, has strongly backed the idea of broken windows enforcement which is part of this precision policing model.  That sees order maintenance as a major responsibility of the police and, you know, posits that there is a continuum between lower-level crimes or infractions and more serious forms of crime.  Yet, the New York City Council, New York City Council, is pushing to do away with most criminal consequences for a range of public order offenses, deeming broken windows policing racist.  Now, can the policing successes of the last two decades be maintained without broken windows?  And, you know, I think it’s true that a lot of the demands for this kind of policing are actually originating in minority neighborhoods.

William J. Bratton: Without broken windows policing, New York City would go back to the experiences of the 1980s, early ‘90s, very rapidly.  I have been supportive of the efforts to reduce the amount of broken windows policing because it’s not necessary to the same extent it was in the ‘90s when the City was totally out of control.  What I have not given up, and which Mayor de Blasio has not given up in response to the push by the city council, is keeping all of these offenses criminal, so that while officers are encouraged to use a verbal admonition, or a summons, that the vast majority of these offenses still remain criminal so that the officers do have ultimately in certain circumstances the right to arrest.  You take away the criminal aspect of broken windows enforcement in this city and watch how quickly things change, how ineffective police will become, if they don’t have the power of arrest, the power of criminal law.

Brian Anderson: You were, really since the beginning of your period in New York, a kind of pioneer in using data to track crime patterns and respond accordingly with what has subsequently become the famous CompSTAT Crime Mapping and Accountability System.  You significantly improved LAPD’s data collection and use.  Can you describe how the technology has changed now at the NYPD and how you are thinking about technology in policing?

William J. Bratton: One of the exciting things about policing is that it is constantly evolving and sometimes the changes are dramatic they are revolutionary.  I was very fortunate early in my career in the 1970s that I discovered the importance of mapping as a young sergeant lieutenant in the Boston Police Department.  My office walls were covered with maps in my police district.  Every night I had a surveying clerk take the police reports and put little dots on that map indicating crimes that had occurred.  Very quickly you start seeing these hot spots, or clusters, something that Herman Goldstein wrote about in the ‘80s, Problem-Oriented Policing.  In the ‘70s, I was practicing data management with accountability.  I was giving information to the cops.  This is what is happening on your sector and I’m expecting you to do something about it.  Here is who we think is doing it, when we think they are doing it, and what are you going to do about it?  Twenty years later in the NYPD working with some incredible people, Jack Maple, Deputy Commissioner, Chief of Patrol Louis Anemone, John Timoney, we, if you will, advance it twenty years and with the technology of that time, computers, we are now able to gather information much more quickly, analyze it much more efficiently, and effectively put cops on the dots much more quickly.  So that was the game changer, that was the catalyst, coupled with 7,000 additional officers that Mayor Dinkins had helped to bring into play in the early ‘90s, New York spent a lot of time, money and resources on basically taking the City back from the criminal element that had control of it for so long.  So, that revolution in terms of dealing with crime was similar to what was then done in the 21st century after 9/11, dealing with terrorism.  You respond to terrorism the same way.  Timely accurate information, rapid response to what that intelligence is telling you, effective tactics to deal with it, and then relentless follow up.  The next evolution that we began in 2007 in L.A. was predictive policing…

Brian Anderson: Right.

William J. Bratton: …the idea increasingly through algorithms that were designed we could anticipate where crime was going to occur.  And the article that Jon Murad and I have just written for the City Journal, the Precision Policing, is reflective of what was developed and is continuing to be developed at the NYPD, a precision model of policing that takes us back to 1829, Sir Robert Peel, the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.  And we move it into the 21st century, where we combine that crime analysis through CompSTAT, broken windows policing, and overlap it with neighborhood policing, the idea of officers assigned to specific areas, so they get to know the citizens, the citizens get to know them.  And that article, I would encourage your listeners to read it, because I really believe it is the mantra for American policing going forward, much the same as CompSTAT was the mantra in the ‘90s.  Sir Robert Peel had the mantra in 1829.  Unfortunately, in the 1970s we moved away from it.  In the 1990s we moved back to it.

Brian Anderson: Well that’s our hope for this piece, that we will get wide readership and perhaps begin to heal some of the police-community relations in other cities while maintaining, you know, the low crime rates that we’ve seen…

William J. Bratton: I believe it will.  If there is one overriding features about me and my leadership and my love of my former profession, policing, it is optimism that police can be the catalyst for phenomenal change for the good rather than having been the catalyst, unfortunately, through a large part of our history, for the bad.  And I truly believe that.  I have watched where we are in 2018 versus the profession that I first experienced in 1970.  It is night and day, light years apart.

Brian Anderson: Well you certainly see the positive results in both Los Angeles and obviously here in New York.  You go to downtown L.A., that whole area has come back…

William J. Bratton: Boom town.

Brian Anderson: …and it’s very prosperous now.  It wasn’t like that before you know, the policing gains that you…

William J. Bratton: And a lot of what brought it back there was broken windows policing, because New York’s disorder situation pales in comparison…

Brian Anderson: Right.

William J. Bratton: …to Los Angeles back in the ‘90s, and even today.

Brian Anderson: Now a final question.  A few years ago, you coauthored with Zach Tumin, a very interesting management book, Collaborate or Perish!  What role did collaboration play in your three periods of successful leadership at the head of two of the world’s elite police departments?

William J. Bratton: An essential role.  Community policing, as it came to be known in the ‘90s, that I am a practitioner of and one of the many creators of, has three elements: Partnership within the criminal justice community and with the community that focuses on the problems that are creating fear and crime, so much of that are the broken windows, the so-called victimless crimes as well as serious crimes, but what is the ultimate goal of that partnership and that focus on problems and the more immediate focus on problems with CompSTAT or precision policing?  Prevention.  Going back to Sir Robert Peel in 1829…

Brian Anderson: Right.

William J. Bratton: …the basic mission for which we exist is the prevention of crime.  So, community policing is the way to go and the book Collaborate or Perish!, many stories in that book avow successful collaborations and some that were not so successful.  But the continuing improvement and the safely in American cities cannot be done without collaboration and just think how much more could be done if we could get beyond this racial divide that we have talked about and get minority communities in particular that really feel the most disenfranchised and the most abused by the police working more closely with the police.  Then in terms of the future, it would certainly be one that we could all be optimistic about.

Brian Anderson: Please check out Commissioner Bratton’s work on our website, www.City-Journal.org, including this fascinating new essay, “Precision Policing,” which is coauthored with Jon Murad.  You can follow him on Twitter, @CommissBratton.  We would also love to hear your comments about today’s episode on Twitter, @CityJournal with the #10BlocksLastly, if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes.  Thanks for listening and thanks, Commissioner, for joining us.

William J. Bratton: Great to be here.  Thank you.

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