The U.S. Is Still Recovering from ‘Supercop’ Bill Bratton’s Policing

Activists say that the man who led New York and Los Angeles's police departments into the days of zero tolerance on crime is a bad choice to lead London's recovery.

By Jamilah King Aug 17, 2011

When British Prime Minister David Cameron announced plans to contract former LAPD chief Bill Bratton to help sort through the ashes of that country’s worst urban rebellion in recent memory, the connection seemed obvious. Los Angeles is the U.S. city perhaps most synonymous with urban rage, and many credit Bratton for the city’s drop in violent crime that began in 2002. Never mind, say critics, that the the city’s response to its rioting was deeply flawed, or that Bratton himself was nearly a decade removed from its most recent uprising, which happened in 1992.

If there’s any indication of exactly how London plans to respond to the rebellions, which were widely reported to have begun in response to police violence and social service cuts, it’s seen in these startling figures: five reported deaths, millions in property damage, 3,100 arrests, and agreement from lawmakers that the country has a "serious gang problem" that may or may not be facilitated by Facebook.

But while most of the British-based criticism for Bratton’s hire centers around whether it’s appropriate to fly in a celebrated foreign cop to handle what they see as a distinctly domestic issue, there’s an even larger question about whether Bratton’s style of policing belongs in any city.

"If you want to solve violence in the streets that young people are engaged in, don’t look to L.A. as a model," says Kim McGill of Youth Justice Coalition, a community-based Los Angeles organization that works to curb youth violence.

McGill notes that Los Angeles has a history of exporting its political stars to prominence beyond state borders, and the results have often proved disastrous for communities of color. She points to two of L.A.’s native sons, former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, who launched or strongly backed the wars on drugs and crime. "We’ve invested billions of dollars and over four decades in trying to refine a model that just doesn’t work."

Some Britons agree.

"I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them," Sir Hugh Orde, head of the Association of Chief Police Officers, told British reporters about Los Angeles. "It seems to me, if you’ve got 400 gangs, then you’re not being very effective. If you look at the style of policing in the states, and their levels of violence, they are fundamentally different from here."

Bratton’s brand of policing is premised on fixing things that have the potential to break, and then making them look pretty. He began his career in his hometown of Boston before gong to New York and Los Angeles, and is a strong proponent of the "zero tolerance" approach to fighting crime. That approach, known among researchers as the "broken windows theory", argues that in order to beat big crime, you’ve got to start small, and early, before relatively petty infractions balloon into violent crimes, or mass rebellions. In New York, the approach was credited with drastically reducing the city’s murder rate. But not before critics accused officers of widespread police harassment of young black and Latino men for petty infractions like loitering, truancy, public noise and jumping train turnstyles. In 1994, Bratton’s first year as police commissioner in New York, juvenile arrests jumped to over 98,000 from just over 20,000 the previous year. In November of 1995, Newsday reported:

The NYPD’s ‘quality of life’ sweeps were jailing an average of 280 young people a day for activities like drinking a beer in public, playing loud music, not having proper identification, loitering, and ‘sneaking onto the train. Four of five arrests in that first year were for nonviolent offenses such as disorderly conduct and drug possession, and half were for violations so minor that they did not require fingerprints.

And while much is often made of Bratton’s drastic cuts in crime, activists claim that his success was largely due to forces beyond his control. McGill points to a decrease in the crack epidemic and an increase in community-led efforts to combat crime.

What helps Bratton tremendously in pushing his program is that he’s not afraid to talk about race. In most cases, Bratton publicly calls out the often long-standing tension between historically white police forces and the communities of color they patrol. Last Saturday, for instance, he encouraged British officials to tackle the underlying racial tensions of the riots.

"Part of the issue going forward is how to make policing more attractive to a changing population," he told reporters, according to the Guardian.

Once again, he served up the same prescription: hire more cops of color. And that, according to his critics, is how police departments have learned to put colorful band-aids on systemic hemorrhages. "Los Angeles has one of the most integrated forces in the nation, but police brutality has increased, not decreased," says McGill. "People may get called fewer racial slurs — although that still happens. But if you’re putting people of color in the exact same system with the exact same training, nothing changes."