New Top Cop

12.12.13

Bill Bratton Vs. Ray Kelly

The new commissioner of the NYPD will do many of the same things for which the old commissioner has been criticized. Politics change. Policing, not so much.

I recently asked a cop who’s been with the New York City Police Department for three decades what he thought might change now that Commissioner Ray Kelly is leaving and Bill Bratton is coming back to the position he held in 1994 and ’95. Would there be fundamental changes in the way Kelly’s department fought terrorism? Would there be an end to the way cops stop, question, and frisk people on the street?

Small groups of protesters in New York City already are asking that question, and they don’t like what they see. They look at Bratton’s record almost 20 years ago and wonder how the new progressive mayor, Bill de Blasio, could have picked him. But the truth is, top cops everywhere follow pretty much the same game plans these days. Bratton and Kelly are the men who developed them. And they work.

“I think you’re going to see the NYPD doing what it always does when there’s a change at the top,” said the veteran cop. “There’s going to be some rebranding; they’ll change the names of a few things. There’s no way we can do our jobs without the ability to stop, question, and frisk—this is just a question of marketing.”

Or, one might say, it’s just a question of politics. And while the winds of change have blown Kelly away, they can’t alter the basic facts on the ground. New York is a lot safer and more secure than it was when he took over 12 years ago, infinitely safer than it was when Bratton took over in 1994 (succeeding Kelly).

Nowhere is that transformation more apparent than in neighborhoods where dozens of blacks and Hispanics used to get killed every month and where, now, they’re able to get on with their lives.

A little less than a year ago, in January 2013, a Quinnipiac University poll showed Kelly’s approval rating at an all-time high of 75 percent and only 18 percent negatives. In the months since, the murder rate in New York has continued a phenomenal decline; there have been no terrorist incidents; there have been no horrific examples of police abuses. Far from it.

But dating back to 2011, as the mayoral election season approached and Kelly looked like a potential candidate, The New York Times, some minority leaders, civil liberties organizations, and many would-be Democratic Party contenders leveled relentless criticism at the commissioner, as if he represented a Neanderthal era of racism and oppression.

The “stop and frisk” policy, so labeled in the press as if questions weren’t part of the procedure, became a watchword for racial profiling. A federal judge ruled that’s exactly what it was—until a superior court took her off the case. The practice was said to have divided the city. Mayor-elect de Blasio made attacks on NYPD practices a cornerstone of his successful campaign.

Bratton is too good a cop not to recognize the effectiveness of Kelly’s policies, which indeed built on his own.

Let’s be clear. There’s no question that abusive cops can be found among the 34,500 sworn officers of the NYPD. But they are relatively few, and the police commissioner who prided himself on good relations with New York’s many minority communities has found himself publicly vilified.

Ironically, if you talk to some of the community leaders in places like Bedford-Stuyvesant, they say Kelly did great work cleaning up their streets. These neighborhoods used to be synonymous with—well, with fear; with looking over your shoulder during the day; with gunshots in the night. But the number of murders in the police patrol borough of Brooklyn North (PDF) has dropped 29 percent in the last two years, 48 percent over the last 12, and 82 percent over the last 20.

Bishop Gerald Seabrooks, the imposing pastor of the Rehoboth Cathedral in Bed-Stuy, says Kelly’s gotten “a horrible rap.” “I think he has done a marvelous job, not ‘dividing our city’ but uniting our city,”  Seabrooks told me when I called him Tuesday.

The reverend is a no-nonsense guy. I met him briefly at an event he attended with Kelly and Mayor Michael Bloomberg in Bedford-Stuyvesant back in April. Local reporters questioned him directly about the stop-question-frisk procedures, but Seabrooks wouldn’t given them the angry quotation some were looking for. He said if stop-and-frisk was what it took to get guns off the street—to keep young black men from killing each other and slaughtering bystanders—he was for it. All he asked from the cops were good manners.

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“You know, you can stop somebody,” Seabrooks told the mayor and the commissioner as they met the press, but “it should be done with ‘professionalism, courtesy, and respect,’” an allusion to the motto the NYPD paints on its squad cars. Over tea and coffee a few minutes later, Seabrooks buttonholed Kelly and made the point again. “I hear you,” said Kelly. “I hear you.”

Seabrooks says he knows that among police “there will always be some bad apples that spoil the bunch” but that overall the cops “saved lives,” and he really has no doubt about that. He’s seen firsthand confrontations in his community where, in the past, a man might have drawn a gun. Now the man has to go looking for one he hid because he didn’t want to be caught with it if a cop stopped him on the street.

Under Kelly, says Seabrooks, “we started speaking to police officers, police officers started speaking to us—they knew us, they became part of a community where everybody is working for the same sort of cause.”

The once and future commissioner, Bratton, is no friend of Kelly. Some reports claim they hate each other. But that’s largely a matter of egos. Bratton is too good a cop not to recognize the effectiveness of Kelly’s policies, which indeed built on his own. Despite the hype about new supervision and reforms in the NYPD, most police tactics and strategies will remain the same.

When Bratton talked to Denis Hamill of the New York Daily News, for instance, his core message was simple: There’d be no going back to the crime-plagued days of the 1980s. “That is not going to happen,” said Bratton. “Not in this city. Not under my watch.”

Bratton sees himself as the man who turned all that around in the first place. In the two years he served as NYPD commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s right-wing law-and-order regime, his proudest accomplishment was a huge reduction in crime. Bratton developed detailed statistical analysis and accountability procedures under what came to be called the CompStat program, and he got cops out on the street to get in the face of people in areas where the numbers showed crime was high.

Those neighborhoods, then as now, were largely black and Hispanic, and charges of racism and brutality flooded into Bratton’s department. (Bratton defined “police brutality,” by the way, as “unnecessary behavior that caused broken bones, stitches, and internal injuries,” and he argued that most incidents didn’t meet that standard.)

“We were taking back the streets,” Bratton wrote in his 1998 book, Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic, “and it wasn’t easy work. In the course of enforcing laws that had not been enforced for 25 years, we were being more proactive, we were engaging more people, and often they didn’t like it.”

Bishop Seabrooks says he understands that point quite well. “Whether you look at CompStat or you talk about ‘stop and frisk,’ it comes down to the same thing,” he says. “You look at the community where there is the most crime, and you send in the officers there where there’s the most crime in order to stop it.”

Bratton said in his book that after many thousands of complaints on his watch, he understood the need to “win the respect of the people you’re policing,” but he was still trying to sort out that problem when Giuliani fired him in 1996 — not for abuse in the streets but, basically, for upstaging the mayor in the press.

Since then Bratton, as the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and in other positions, has no doubt honed his political skills.

The other area where Kelly has come in for a lot of criticism is the police department’s counterterrorism operations. After al Qaeda’s attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., Kelly created a large and aggressive intelligence-gathering program with international reach.

Under David Cohen, a former director of clandestine operations for the Central Intelligence Agency, the NYPD’s own intelligence division carried out extensive surveillance in the Muslim communities of New York City and, indeed, in other cities.

After the Associated Press published revelations and allegations about these activities, reactions differed wildly among New York’s estimated 800,000 Muslims. It is a population “more diverse than anywhere in the world outside of Mecca,” says Daisy Khan of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. Many are now looking for ways to work more closely and cooperatively with the police — advising them, not attacking them — and hoping that Bratton will be receptive to their overtures.

A memo submitted to the NYPD by the recently formed Muslim Advisory Council, which Kelly convened, noted that the revelations in the AP stories and a few other issues had undermined the cops’ outreach programs. They erode “the goodwill the NYPD has fostered by other means, including the pre-Ramadan gatherings, sports leagues and various community-based initiatives,” the report concluded.

The NYPD’s intelligence division, as close as it was to the CIA, often was at odds with the FBI in bitter turf battles. But Bratton used to envy the NYPD operation. When he was chief of the LAPD in 2007, he called Kelly’s team “the gold standard” of counterterrorism. Bratton’s only criticism back then was that the NYPD did not work well enough with (some) federal agencies.

It’s expected Bratton will appoint erstwhile television correspondent John Miller, who was his spokesman in New York, worked with him on counterterrorism and intelligence at the LAPD, and then served as a senior official at the FBI, to revamp the NYPD intelligence division. But whether Bratton will want to give up the resources and the clout the department’s spookier sections acquired under Kelly is another matter.

In short, as that 30-year veteran of the force told me the other day, everyone inside 1 Police Plaza, where Bratton now has an office during the transition, knows pretty well what’s worked and what hasn’t. “The NYPD will go on,” he said, “and it will still be the best police force in the world.”