What’s in Store for Oakland With ‘Supercop’ William Bratton on the Beat?

The city is struggling with violent crime and police scandal. But is Bratton's reputation for cleaning up both things earned, or just saber-rattling and good PR.

By Ali Winston Feb 05, 2013

Beleaguered by rising violent crime and flagging efforts to complete a decade-old program for police reform, the Oakland City Council voted last month to hire former Boston, New York and Los Angeles Police Commissioner William Bratton as a short-term consultant for crime prevention. The deal, which will cost taxpayers $250,000, brings arguably the highest-profile American policeman of the past 20 years to a city that has witnessed some of the most intense anti-police demonstrations over the past five years.

Dubbed a "supercop" by mainstream publications, Bratton’s terms in three major American cities resulted in marked reductions in crime. His emphasis on narcotics enforcement and quality of life crimes in New York City are widely (and controversially) credited as the cause of the city’s exponential crime reduction in the 1990s, despite only serving as NYPD commissioner for two years. Between 2002 and 2009 in Los Angeles, Bratton oversaw a 45 percent drop in major crimes and a 41 percent reduction in homicides. He also succeeded in getting LAPD in compliance with a federal reform program very similar to the one that has stagnated in Oakland.

However, Bratton’s contentious reliance on get-tough practices that frequently lead to racial profiling–and his involvement in the revolving door that is public-private security consulting–pose questions about whether his legacy is founded on true criminal justice innovation, or merely "Giuliani Time" get-tough tactics and savvy public relations.

Oakland’s decision to hire a mediagenic, baggage-laden former police chief on an expensive, short-term contract with little decision-making power raises questions about the role he will play, and whether his hiring is political cover for city officials’ current push-back against federally mandated reforms. Moreover, his appointment is the latest indication that Oakland’s leadership is leaning towards hard-edged policing strategies to cope with spiking violent crime (Oakland is the most dangerous city in California). It’s a shift that is occurring hand-in-glove with a development boom, gentrification and displacement at an alarming pace.

Stop-and-Frisk Celebrity

Oakland’s Council voted overwhelmingly in favor to hire Bratton, bolstered by an audience comprised largely of black reverends and their congregations, along with law-and-order supporters from wealthier neighborhoods who responded to requests by three councilmembers to pack the chambers. However, Bratton’s hiring also drew outcry from some segments of the community, who turned out en masse to the Jan. 15 session of the Public Safety Committee and made headlines for raucous opposition to the hire.

Of particular concern to opponents was Bratton’s famous support for the controversial practice of "stop and frisk," in which police officers stop and search individuals in crime "hot spots" whose behavior is determined to be suspicious.

Enacted on a broad scale by NYPD in the 1990s, along with increased enforcement of "quality of life" crimes (such as jaywalking, fare-beating and graffiti), stop and frisk composes the core of the "broken windows theory" of policing that Bratton promotes. While New York City has experienced remarkable drops in crime since the crack-fueled madness of the early 1990s, NYPD now stops and frisks over 700,000 people annually, the overwhelming majority of whom are young black and Latino men.

Ever since Bratton’s potential hire was revealed, Oakland Mayor Jean Quan and Police Chief Howard Jordan have repeatedly denied that stop and frisk will be implemented in Oakland, even if the former NYPD and LAPD commissioner recommends its use. Chief Jordan in particular was careful to state that all police stops in Oakland are carried out within the boundaries of "reasonable suspicion" of criminal activity–which, interestingly enough, is the same legal basis for the part of NYPD’s stop and frisk program that a federal judge ruled to be unconstitutional earlier this month.

Bratton came to Oakland as part of a larger contract with Strategic Policing Partnership, a consulting firm headed by former LAPD Deputy Commissioner Robert Wasserman, one of Bratton’s former consultants. SPP, which is on a $100,000 retainer with Oakland as of Aug. 13, 2012, is charged with reviewing OPD’s violent crime prevention plan and bringing them in line with "best practices" policing.

Court documents show Oakland has spent over $1 million on consultants for work on the federal consent decree alone. Moreover, Oakland’s leadership, particularly City Administrator Deanna Santana, demonstrated its willingness to ignore and even undermine the findings of outside experts if they cast a negative light on the police department. In December, I disclosed emails between Santana and former Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier which elucidated the city administrator’s attempt to redact large sections of a critical report Frazier’s firm prepared on OPD’s response to Occupy Oakland.

A hallmark of Bratton’s method for revamping law enforcement agencies is an increased reliance on the private sector. Bratton’s overhaul of municipal departments in Boston, New York and Los Angeles all involved heavy reliance on outside consultants to perform a "cultural diagnostic" of each law enforcement agency. In between his stints in New York and L.A., he worked for the private investigations and intelligence firm Kroll, and sat on the board of Motorola. During his time at Kroll, he helped oversee LAPD’s consent decree before taking charge of that department, a development which drew some criticism at the time and reared its head when LAPD succeeded in removing itself from federal oversight.

Cleaning Up or Papering Over?

The cornerstone of Bratton’s reputation is his service in New York City, first as the head of the NYC Transit Police, then the NYPD from 1994 to 1996. In addition to his "zero tolerance" tactics, Bratton introduced CompStat, a computerized crime-tracking software that allowed real-time monitoring of crime trends and faster response by police.

However, his term also witnessed a major narcotics scandal (the "Dirty 30" officers from the 30th precinct in Harlem, who robbed and resold drugs from local dealers), and recently former NYPD officers disclosed the pressure exerted on them by CompStat-driven performance goals to "cook the books" and produce fake crime statistics.

In L.A., Bratton was more of an outsider to a police culture rendered insular by the Ramparts scandal and decades of aggressive (read, abusive) policing that alienated it from L.A.’s black and brown residents. A hallmark of Bratton’s time in Los Angeles was the extent of his effort to repair ties with the community, which put him at odds with LAPD’s rank and file. In particular, Bratton reached out to Latino and undocumented Angelenos.

Following the murder of African-American teenager Jamiel Shaw by a young undocumented Latino gang member, Bratton resisted calls to rescind an LAPD policy ordering officers not to question residents about their immigration status. He also came under fire for heavily criticizing the police riot that broke out at the 2007 May Day demonstrations in MacArthur Park.

There are mitigating factors in what Bratton can achieve in Oakland. The city already spends more than 40 percent of its annual budget on law enforcement and generously compensates its current and retired officers, which has the effect of hampering OPD’s ability to adequately staff itself to tackle a violent crime rate which ranks first among all California cities. In addition, the protests over his appointment caused Chief Jordan and Mayor Quan to scale back Bratton’s role. He will no longer conduct highly visible community outreach, but will concentrate his efforts on improving OPD’s use of CompStat.

While Bratton’s hiring has elicited strong public reaction in Oakland, his other work commitments and the scope of his contract mean his impact on the East Bay’s largest city will be relatively small. Bratton is also a consultant to the Detroit Police Department, and recently told British reporters of his interest in becoming the first foreigner to lead the London Metropolitan Police. In 2011, Bratton advised British Prime Minister David Cameron on how to deal with violent civil disturbances in London following the fatal police shooting of Mark Duggan, an unarmed suspect in a narcotics investigation. His employment by Cameron in 2011 was heavily criticized by many current and former British police, who complained that Bratton’s zero tolerance approach ran counter to the community policing model prevalent in the UK.

There are also rumors that Bratton may return to his former post in New York City. A number of candidates for the 2013 mayoral race have already discussed the possibility of bringing him on, and at least one has met with Bratton regarding a potential appointment.

In short, Bratton won’t change the way policing is done in Oakland, nor will he do the same in Detroit. His "zero tolerance" approach to policing has widely been adopted by contemporary urban police chiefs, and in the case of NYPD, taken far beyond his wildest dreams in the form of Ray Kelly’s stop and frisk frenzy.

Ali Winston is a Colorlines.com contributor on police accountability. This story is a follow up to his August 2011 investigation, "Deadly Secrets: How California Law Shields Oakland Police Violence." Winston’s writing has won awards from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the New York City Community Media Alliance, CUNY-John Jay and People United for a Better Life in Oakland.

* This story has been updated since publication.