William Bratton was sworn in last Thursday as commissioner of the New York City Police Department, the largest in the nation, heralding a second term at the helm of the NYPD and his first under progressive new mayor Bill de Blasio.
De Blasio rose to prominence in polls this summer as he promised an end to an era of abuse and racial discrimination in the nation’s largest police force. But civil-liberties advocates and black and Latino community leaders have held off applauding his choice as top cop. Why?
In fact, Bratton oversaw a sharp drop in the crime rate when he led the New York City Police Department from 1994 to 1996. But this time around he faces a number of questions, including: Will he be able to change the controversial practice known as “stop and frisk,” a strategy he ambitiously implemented during his first term? Can he improve relations between the NYPD and communities of color, which were hardly happy to see him the last time he was in charge?
As I watched him on TV last Thursday, it seemed he was bending over doing penance as he posed a question of his own from the dais at 1 Police Plaza in downtown Manhattan, a question which he also answered, “Who says you can’t go home again? “New York is home,” he continued, “and it is great to be back.” Let’s hope.
New Yorkers ultimately need to feel the same way about his return. And that depends on how he adapts to the needs of a city that has changed dramatically in the two decades of his absence.
In 1994, New York’s crime rate soared and police were widely perceived as ineffectual, if not corrupt. Bratton took a tough stand against corruption. At one point, he personally collected the badges of two officers involved in a scandal. He introduced CompStat, a computer system that can be used to pinpoint crimes and arrests as they occur, allowing commanders to hold officers accountable for the crime rates in their precincts. Ironically, Bratton is widely believed to have fathered the “broken windows” theory, which holds that police can sweep guns and serious criminals off the streets by punishing even the smallest infractions, like vandalism, trespassing and turnstile hopping.
Though this paternalistic, tough approach is now standard fare in police departments around the country, in 1994 it was novel, even revolutionary. Consequently, Bratton’s triumphs influenced police forces throughout the United States and overseas, and his successors in New York have largely followed the Bratton template. Today, New York’s murder rate is the lowest it’s been in history.
But as the crime rate dropped, the NYPD has faced accusations of racial discrimination and police brutality, a trend that some observers trace to Bratton’s aggressive style. According to police statistics in a 1996 report by Amnesty International, the number of civilians shot dead by police during his first year as commissioner increased to 31 from 23 the year before, and the number of civilians who died in police custody rose from 15 to 23. So he definitely didn’t spare the rod and spoil the minorities.
Instead, Bratton faced criticism for the instrumental role he played in ramping up the use of “stop and frisk,” the practice of stopping and patting down people deemed suspicious. Advocates for civil liberties and racial justice say police often use the technique inappropriately, primarily stopping blacks and Latinos on flimsy pretenses, and arresting them on trivial charges, mostly for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Although Bratton has staunchly defended the practice, he has suggested that the department took it to a dangerous extreme in his absence. At the ceremony last Thursday, he professed a commitment to getting “every member” of the NYPD to treat all New Yorkers with respect, “regardless of their background, their class, their race.” And what if that respect is not forthcoming? Will he try a little more “stop and frisk”?
“Why is it,” he went on to ask, “that so many in this city do not feel good about this department that has done so much to make them safe? What is it about our activities that have made so many alienated?” I cringed when I heard that statement.
Malachi Epps, a 24-year-old black New Yorker who belongs to VOCAL-NY, a group that advocates for progressive drug policies, offered an answer after the ceremony wrapped up. “It’s because people like me are routinely harassed by the police, and see our peers disproportionately targeted and arrested for low-level violations like marijuana possession,” he said.
“I hope that with a de Blasio administration,” he added in an email, “we will finally have the leadership necessary to close this era of rampant abuse and mistrust.”
I believe if that era of abuse is not closed, New York City will not be the pleasant place de Blasio plans on making it. And people of all colors will pay for it. So let this serve as a warning to the new mayor.
Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer and life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.