Today New York City’s mayor-elect Bill de Blasio appointed William Bratton as police commissioner. In policing circles it is well established that as goes the NYPD, so go police departments throughout the country. For communities of color, however, de Blasio’s selection could mark the beginning of the end of nearly 30 years of oppressive, “one-size-fits-all” policing.
Under the Michael Bloomberg-Ray Kelly partnership, communities of color have borne the brunt of aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics, spying, and in certain high-crime and high-arrest neighborhoods, decreased public safety. Perhaps no other agency has ground its standard-issue footprint onto the lives and livelihoods of communities of color as thoroughly and unapologetically as the police department.
“For the last decade the NYPD has taken a paternalistic approach to communities of color and has dictated a harmful, top-down approach to public safety,” says Delores Jones-Brown, a professor in the department of law, police science and criminal justice administration at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and founding director of its Center on Race, Crime and Justice. “The new commissioner needs to recognize the role these communities play in maintaining their own public safety and partner with them. They don’t need another ‘great white father.’”
Other NYPD observers agree, though for different reasons, that the department is in need of fundamental change. But is Bill Bratton the man to bring it?
Bratton ran the Boston police department in the early ’90s, led the NYPD for two years under mayor Rudolph Giuliani and most recently headed up Los Angeles’s department for seven years.He’s synonymous with so-called broken windows policing based on a theory that punishing small acts of deviance leads to a decrease in serious crimes. He’s also known for implementing CompStat, the NYPD’s data management and police accountability system that, with some debate, has been credited with facilitating, if not causing New York City’s historic crime drop. Since the 1990s the system has been replicated by police departments throughout the country.
However, CompStat is also the target of substantiated allegations—from both outside and in the department—that the NYPD “polices by numbers.” As a result, critics say, the policy encourages systemic racial profiling through stop-and-frisk as well as the downgrading of crimes in certain precincts to artificially lower the city’s overall crime rate. The decision to act (or not) on CompStat is a key indicator of whether and how Bratton means to improve relationships with communities of color.
“There’s an obvious need to reform CompStat and as the inventor, Bratton might be the right guy to call a halt to numbers-based policing,” says Eugene O’Donnell, a former NYPD officer and prosecutor turned professor at John Jay. “It’s much more likely CompStat can be changed if it comes from him.”
Suspending the use of stop-and-frisk until the NYPD’s 34,000-member force is retrained would be another indicator that the new police commissioner means to improve police-community relations, says Jones-Brown.
And Bratton will also need to build trust with millennials, in particular, who’ve come of age knowing only aggressive policing and intrusive stop-and-frisk tactics. Before this year’s decline, at least half of all recorded stops annually involved youth—primarily black and Latino males, ages 13 to 25. Nearly half reported being stopped repeatedly—nine times or more. More than 70 percent reported being stopped at least once and roughly two-thirds describe being searched. That kind of policing took its toll: According to a 2011 Vera Institute of Justice survey of 500 youth living in highly patrolled, high-crime neighborhoods, just one in four would report someone who had committed a crime.
It’s possible that Bratton’s implementation of “broken windows” policing and stop-and-frisk would look very different from Kelly’s. The real test of that will be how officers interact with residents on the ground daily rather than what Bratton says to the cameras, says Alex Sanchez, co-founder of Homies Unidos, a violence prevention and gang intervention organization in Los Angeles.
“Bratton’s a threat to minority communities,” Sanchez says, pointing to the gentrification of downtown Los Angeles that he says officers enforced under Bratton’s seven-year tenure as police commissioner. He also points to the displacement of so-called undesirables who were mainly Latinos, to cities bordering L.A.
“He’s a likable person,” Sanchez says. “You talk to him you’re going to like him, but his basic agenda is corporate.”
A 2009 Harvard assessment of Bratton’s leadership of the LAPD while under forced federal oversight was largely positive. But it also documented a substantial increase in stops and arrests—particularly for “minor crimes.” At the same time, citywide approval ratings of the LAPD crested at 70 to 80 percent according to a June 2009 L.A. Times poll taken near the end of Bratton’s tenure. Among Latinos, nearly 80 percent approved of the LAPD’s performance; among blacks, nearly 70 percent did.
Bratton’s view of stop-and-frisk is a clinical one. “The challenge is to do it appropriately,” he said in a public address. “Applied in the right way, in the right moderation, [chemotherapy and radiation] will cure most cancers. [Stop-and-frisk] is an intrusive power…but applied the right way, it can have an effect on reducing crime.”