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Policing on the Brink: A Conversation with William Bratton

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Policing on the Brink: A Conversation with William Bratton

10 Blocks podcast July 22, 2020
Public safety
New York

Former NYPD and LAPD commissioner William J. Bratton joins Brian Anderson to discuss the troubling state of crime and law enforcement in America, the NYPD’s decision to disband its plainclothes unit, the challenges of police morale and recruitment, and more.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. On today's episode, recorded in two segments, is a long-time friend of the magazine, William Bratton. As I'm sure many of our listeners know, Commissioner Bratton's career in law enforcement spans four decades and he served or advised urban police departments around the world. He was most recently the commissioner of the New York City Police Department for a second stint as the city's top cop before his retirement in 2016. He's also served as commissioner of the LAPD from 2002 to 2009, and earlier served in Boston.

Commissioner Bratton has written almost a dozen pieces for City Journal since the mid-'90s, and we've hosted him on the podcast two years ago this month, back in the days when we were recording inside our office studio, something we hope to be able to do again soon. We write a lot about policing in the pages of City Journal and on our website, and we talk about it here on the podcast a lot, and much of it is influenced by the man who I'll be speaking with shortly.

The national debate over the police and the criminal justice system is angrier and hotter now than perhaps at any other point in our lifetimes, and I'm happy that Commissioner Bratton would join us to talk about it. And now for my interview with Commissioner William Bratton.

Brian Anderson: There's obviously a lot to talk about when it comes to policing today, but we can start with the recent unrest that was sparked by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the custody of the city's police department, which provoked protests and even riots and looting and vandalism, and other kinds of violence in cities across the country.

To start with, Commissioner, could you give us your view of that arrest from the standpoint of somebody who's worked in law enforcement for his entire life, and secondly, what's been your reaction to what has happened in New York subsequent to that?

William Bratton: Well, first off, I began as a police officer in Boston in 1970, coming out of the turbulence and turmoil of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the various riots, assassinations of a president, a presidential candidate, Martin Luther King, and came out of that decade of turbulence, coming back from the U.S. Army into Boston Police at a time of great societal unrest around those issues. In Boston, it was compounded over the next decade, the '70s, by the desegregation of its public school systems, it's one of the probably most segregated systems in a Northern city, and the desegregation of its public housing system, which was also extraordinarily segregated, as was the city of Boston.

So I began my career in a decade of turbulence, but it is nothing compared to what we are now seeing nationally, and indeed, it's spread internationally, around the Black Lives Matter banner, and the issues we're facing now, in the past we faced some of it at different times, but never all of it, as we seem to be facing at this moment. And when I say all of it, I mean all the challenges of the 21st century that were already creating problems for the police and relationships with the public, even different from those of the 1990s.

1990s was a time of phenomenal success for American policing. We got back into the business, and this has been reported beautifully in City Journal with some of the stuff I've had the opportunity to write with George Kelling and others, and certainly your focus on the City Journal, helping these issues in New York and around the country. That terrible turmoil of '70s and '80s, rising crime rates, disintegration of society, Senator Moynihan's description of defining social deviancy, social norms and behavior now.

In the '90s, we finally got it right. We embraced the concept of policing that we call community policing, a philosophy as well as a strategy made up of many various tactics. But community policing was and is, it continues to be the way to go. A concept of partnership between police, community, business. A concept of those entities focused on the idea of what are the problems that need to be addressed and prioritized, and the focus on prevention. The creation of modern American policing, modern democratic policing, Sir Robert Peel, his nine principles of policing, and the five most important words in those principles that have guided my career for most of my life, the basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

'70s and '80s, we moved away from the disorder focus and we focused on responding to crime and that's where we really went afoul of Sir Robert Peel's advice. In the '90s, community policing returned us to the focus on the goal is to prevent the crimes before they occur. And we had great success. Compstat New York City, which was then modeled throughout the country. And the belief that police could do something about crime. Why? Because crime is caused by people. It is not caused by, as it was believed in the '70s and '80s, the economy, race issues, all these societal issues that are influencing this. It's individuals who decide to commit a crime, or they accidentally commit a crime in a moment of emotion.

In any event, we had great success reducing crime dramatically. New York City was probably the poster boy of that success. 80 or 90% reduction in violent crime, elimination of significant amounts of social disorder that were destroying the atmosphere in the city. But now it's ironic, and this goes to your question, sorry for the long-winded answer, that what's different about now, what's different about the events over the last two, three months. One is the fact that there's so much happening all at the same time. Even before the death of Mr. Floyd, that the idea of the pandemic and creating a phenomenal economic collapsed almost moving us back into a Great Depression era. The issue of the many things associated with that disease, the idea of unemployment, the anxiety that's being felt around the world. The world is in incredible disarray, but as it relates to law enforcement, there has never been a time in my 50 year exposure that's been as tough as this time.

Right now, American policing is an island unto itself. It has no support by and large from a large part of the political leadership in this country. It has no support, ironically, from large segments of the population, minorities, black, Latino, and a huge outpouring, which is very surprising, among whites, particularly younger whites. The millennials, I guess, I'd describe them, and some of the more ultra-liberal of that white population. And New York City is the epicenter of it in the sense of, I describe it as an Etch A Sketch moment, that the last 30 years of success and reform, it's been erased. It's as if the last 30 years didn't exist. It didn't happen. And that's because the memories of so many of these people, they weren't here in 1990 when, as you reported so beautifully in the City Journal, the city was in freefall and was really the poster boy for everything that'd gone wrong in the '70s and '80s. So in sum of substance, there's never been a time like this time.

Brian Anderson: Well, we're seeing, Commissioner, over the last six weeks or so, cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, they're all starting to experience significant increases in crime particularly noticeable after the recent unrest. Similar disturbing trends here in New York city. You know that last Sunday night in Brooklyn, gunmen opened fire at an outdoor family cookout, killing a little baby in a stroller and wounding three other people. Now, this is the kind of senseless violence that we'd seen less and less of in the city because of the reforms that you led and others carried through during the '90s and 2000s. And you're right. I think a lot of the younger residents of cities have no memory of what a crime-ridden environment is like, so there is an incredible complacency about it. I'm wondering though, if this spike in crime is in part really a reflection of the police pulling back from enforcement in troubled neighborhoods, you know, worried about the flare-ups with the community, worried about getting in trouble if something goes awry. How much of this is just a reflection of police demoralization?

William Bratton: What we attempted to do starting in 2014, like a doctor dealing with a cancer patient, we wanted to see, because we knew that some of the medicine we were applying - Stop, Question, Frisk immediately comes to mind - and other things that we were doing, maybe putting people in jail instead of into drug treatment, if that even existed, which it did not, unfortunately. Could we reduce the amount of police enforcement action by creating the neighborhood policing program, putting cops back on the beat, volunteer officers in the neighborhoods, and pull back on some of the more serious enforcement tools that we used, arrest summons. Could we use an admonition? Could we use a civil summons rather than a criminal summons?

And it was something I was very supportive of because in your magazine, in the speech I gave the Manhattan Institute, 1996, I talked about the bell curve, that in the '90s, we would have to increase enforcement dramatically, but as we made the city a safer place everywhere for everyone, like a bell curve, we would reach a tipping point where we'd go the other way. And in fact, it did. With crime down so dramatically, we could then start pulling back, and I attempted to refine that in 2014.

So we began to incrementally begin to start pulling back on the more serious enforcement, unfortunately. And one time, many times I've predicted that after 1994, crime would never go back up in New York city. I was proven wrong. I've been proven terribly wrong in the last year or so, because I did not anticipate Albany. I did not anticipate the city council that we have. I didn't anticipate both the governor and the mayor in the sense of pushing too much, too soon in the sense of that reduction in medicine, if you will. And so some laws that were passed, the criminal justice reform laws and Albany, some of the stupidity of the city council and the things that they're continuing to pass, we effectively stopped, effectively, controlling the streets.

And we see the decay in the streets now, the graffiti, the aggressive behaviors. So many of the emotionally disturbed in the city's streets and subways. It's really going back to what it looked like in the late '80s, early '90s. And coupled with that, we're seeing a return to serious crime. And we began to experience that before the coronavirus and I don't think the coronavirus has had any particular significant impact on it. It might be influenced, but we were already starting to see in January and February historic turns around in the shootings and murders in the city. And it's been compounded by criminal justice reform, compounded by a loss of memory about how good the NYPD has been in reforming itself and taking control of the violence and the disorder in the city. That's that Etch A Sketch I talk about. And we're in a terrible place at the moment.

The department effectively, there was a wonderful full page ad they're still running that the PBA, the Policemen Benevolent Association, has been putting out, and its headline, "What did you think would happen?" And then they go into a whole litany of wonderful phrases about you blame police officers on the street for your quota-driven stop, question, frisk policies. You decriminalized public consumption of alcohol, public urination. You paroled violent criminals, including cop-killers, onto our streets. You released half the population of Riker's Island. It goes on and on, and it was just this tremendous confluence of churning. And it literally reversed the last 30 years in three months. I've never seen anything like it. I guess it's like watching the tornado come towards you and now it's past. Maybe it's almost like the impact of Sandy. We've never had a storm like Sandy. Well, American policing, I don't think, has ever had, in New York City, certainly, there's not a storm like that's basically rushing through the city over the last, now a year or two, but really hit landfall in the last four or five months.

Brian Anderson: The most recent moves provoked by the recent unrest in the city have been to disband the plainclothes anti-crime unit and to reduce the NYPD budget by $1 billion next year. A part of that reduction may be, of course, the necessity of slashing budgets during a period of really remarkable economic stress, but a lot of people are suggesting that it may be sending the wrong message at the wrong time. But I wonder if in the first part of what I was referring to, what's your view of this move to disband the plainclothes anti-crime unit? Do you think that's an okay idea or is that going to be a potential problem?

William Bratton: Well, quite clearly, the commissioner and his command staff thought it was an appropriate action to take. I'm not intimate with some of the internal circumstances that were behind that, but again, I'll rely on Dermot Shea, who I think a lot of, the terms of his judgment as to why he chose to reassign those offices, which should be understood as those 600 offices have been reassigned to other enforcement capacities. The department also has a significant number of other plainclothes units, gang units, et cetera, that similar type functions. We'll have to see over time if that move has a negative impact. Of greater concern, I think, at the moment, looking at the most recent Compstat numbers, is the overall activity levels of the department are down dramatically. Arrest, summonses, stop, question, and frisk, gun seizures. So there's obviously something going on in the department in terms of the reduced activity levels of the department at this particular time, which is of concern.

Brian Anderson: There was a video last weekend of an officer being put in a headlock by a man he was trying to arrest in the Bronx and according to our colleague here, Raf Mangual, this video was shared pretty widely by other officers on social media in disgust and anger. I'm wondering how significant this kind of new climate will be, where things like this are going on.

William Bratton: It's a major issue both in terms of emboldening many of the cast of characters the police encounter as they attempt to perform their duties. Whether the criminal element or the disorderly groups, very, very frequently now, NYPD officers in their routine duties, in the performance of their duties are encountering this type of pushback, if you will. Threatening the officers, that just adds to the general sense of disorder. The incident you're referring to is of great concern to any police officer. When he has lost control of a suspect and is effectively somewhat under the control of that suspect, as was the case in this video, in which the officer is always fearful of any individual getting access to the firearm, to their TASER, to their pepper spray, all of which can have significant negative impact on a police officer or his partner, that the idea of losing control over somebody who was fighting with them. So officers have great concern over the increasing resistance to even the most routine orders and particularly when they are attempting to arrest somebody, the increasing instances in which the arrest is interfered with. It is not a good situation and my understanding is it's getting worse.

Brian Anderson: This kind of new climate, I imagine, is going to create problems in terms of the recruitment of police officers. This is already an issue nationwide and I imagine a lot of people who might be interested in going into law enforcement are going to be looking at that career choice in a different way now, and maybe thinking twice about it. I'm wondering if you're hearing much about this, Commissioner, and what your views are about.

William Bratton: Ironically, the NYPD has never had a problem recruiting. When I came into the NYPD in 2014, we actually had a backlog of 55,000 candidates where the wait time to get hired was almost five years. We worked to change that. So we got the wait time down to less than two years, might've been down as low as 18 months. Because of the prestige of the NYPD, even in these troubled times, there is not a shortage of candidates, but what you are concerned with is the appropriate type candidates that you are looking for. And also the makeup of those candidates. The NYPD is a minority majority department. Its numbers reflect almost exactly the racial makeup of the city. Maybe off a few percentage points, but by and large, it is a very diverse department.

What I worry about during this period of time of attempting to attract new candidates to get in line for future hiring, and that would be a year and a half, two years down the line at the earliest, will you get an appropriate racial makeup? I'm very concerned that young minority males, particularly blacks and black females, because of the great anger being directed at the NYPD and other police departments around the country by groups such as Black Lives Matter, the concern of being labeled an Uncle Tom, the idea of, what are you working for, the police department, working against us. So that is a very self-defeating aspect of the colored movements that are out there that are so hostile to police that the ultimate resolution of some of these issues of discontent, of anger, are going to be having a police department that is much more reflective of the diverse community that New York, the diverse communities all around the country. So it is ironic that one of the goals that police departments have been actively seeking to achieve may be the significantly impeded or mitigated against by the actions of groups such as Black Lives Matter.

Brian Anderson: As many of our listeners know, City Journal and the Manhattan Institute, through the work in part of our late friend and colleague George Kelling, has long advocated for policing to help communities, including minority communities, fight back against violent crime in their neighborhoods. That's been one of the great success stories of the last 30 years. What do you think George, who passed away recently, would have to say about our current moment?

William Bratton: George? I know exactly what he would say. I spent quite a bit of time with George in his final months in terms of on the phone or going up to visit him several times up in Hanover. And he was very concerned that his legacy, and it was extraordinary legacy, the whole concept of what he was about, that was being misconstrued, mislabeled, misinterpreted, and attacked. And what I'm talking about is his focus on community policing, his focus on an element of community policing, broken windows. The idea of Sir Robert Peel's initial nine philosophies, that basic mission, to police is to prevent crime and disorder. George and Wilson clearly understood in the '70s and '80s, we gave up on doing anything about disorder and that increasing disorder, basically, it provided fertile ground for the growth of violent crime.

And for that message, we would develop police enforcement of minor crime against minority communities. George was attacked very vehemently by some of these aggressive reform components that are out there now leading the charge. It was such a misinterpretation, if you will. A conscious misinterpretation with George was all about.

George really felt that quality of life policing was an essential component of community policing. Because if you want a partnership with the community, you have to focus on what they're concerned about. And if you look at the 311 calls or 911 calls around the country, not just in New York, the bulk of the calls coming from the poor, minority communities are about quality of life. Guys played dice on my doorstep, a prostitute using my hallway, the smoking of drugs in the hallways of public housing developments. Just because you're poor or a minority doesn't mean you don't want the same thing everybody else wants. You want a safe environment. You want to have a night's sleep. You want to be able to go into your home without being accosted by people drinking on your doorstep or shooting drugs or dealing drugs.

And to deal with the violent crime, you need the police. Communities cannot deal with violent crime by themselves. And police cannot deal with it by themselves either. They need the participation of the community. And that's what the very essence of George was all about. This idea of police, community, partnering together to identify the problems that needed to be addressed, whether it's violent crime or broken windows. And what was the goal? Prevention. The idea of preventing. And it worked very well in the '90s. Were there excesses? Unfortunately. Maybe over-incarceration in some instances, over-policing in others, but minority communities want the police. And as an example of a deterioration of a city, you see that happening right now in New York City.

In the Wall Street Journal it was reported the city is now going to give up, as part of its funding crises, any effort other than on public buildings. Do you do anything about graffiti? Well, graffiti is one of those broken windows that's extraordinarily visible in making a city look out of control. And what is the thing that you see so many of these demonstrations, what they attempt to do, is show that they're in control. They mark everything up with graffiti. It's like in the wilderness, the idea of marking your territory. And graffiti used by gangs and even used by many of these demonstrators is intended to spread fear, spread concern, spread a message. And a lot of these messages are not about Black Lives Matter or about justice for all. It's about the "F" the police, kill the police, kill the pigs. I'm sorry. That's not appropriate, when you're no longer going to remove that type of graffiti.

And so that's just another broken window in what was the grand mosaic of a city that was working. Unfortunately, a lot of those windows in that grand mosaic, as David Dinkins, the mayor back in the '90s used to describe it, well, that grand mosaic is breaking down very dramatically in New York City and indeed, around the country.

Brian Anderson: Thanks very much, Commissioner. Don't forget to check out our latest work on the City Journal website, www.city-journal.org. Commissioner Bratton has written a number of articles for City Journal over the years, so we'll link to his author page in the description. You can follow him on Twitter @CommissBratton. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks again, Commissioner Bratton, for joining us.

William Bratton: Pleasure to be with you. Thank you.

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