Under Fire

Bill Bratton Scolds Giggling Audience at American Justice Summit

With a storm over his deputy and switch to tickets for marijuana offenses, the NYPD commissioner has had a busy few weeks—and he had no patience for derisive laughter Monday night.

11.11.14 5:18 AM ET

Anyone who has gone through what Bill Bratton has suffered over the past couple of weeks would be on edge, and no compassionate person would have blamed New York’s police commissioner if he’d bogarted a joint in order to relax.

After all, weed is practically legal in the five boroughs these days. Starting next week, as Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday, anyone who openly possesses 25 grams or less of marijuana will no longer be arrested and hauled off to jail; assuming no outstanding warrants, the alleged stoner will simply be fined $100 for a first offense and $250 for a second.

But Bratton—doing his second stint as police commissioner under de Blasio after a tour in the same job two decades ago under Rudy Giuliani—had clearly not partaken before appearing later Monday in front of packed crowd at The American Justice Summit 2014 at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Indeed, in recent days he has been a bundle of nerves, at the center of a controversy, largely stoked by the New York Post, about chief of department Philip Banks III, the NYPD’s highest-ranking African-American, who abruptly resigned instead of accepting what he considered a window-dressing appointment as Bratton’s deputy commissioner.

“I told you we can’t trust him!” the Post claimed the mayor’s African-American wife, “a furious Chirlane McCray,” railed at her husband, blaming Banks’s departure on Bratton. That prompted the mayor and his police commissioner to hold a surprising press conference entirely devoted to rebutting the Post’s story. A few days later, when Bratton chose another black man to replace Banks, Post columnist Michael Goodwin accused the commissioner and the mayor of “playing racial games.”

It had to be an unpleasant shock for the much-lauded Bratton. Until recently, as the top cop in Boston, New York, and Los Angeles, he had grown accustomed to glowing press and near-universal praise as the textbook definition of a media darling. No more.

So it was understandable if the Commish was in a testy mood Monday when New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin, interviewing him at the summit, pointed out that the NYPD made 250,000 misdemeanor arrests last year, compared to a third of that number in the early 1980s.

“Do you think we arrest too many people?” Toobin asked.

“No,” Bratton shot back, prompting derisive chuckles from members of the audience, even while Bratton was trying to acknowledge that “in some instances, we may.”

A little later in the conversation, Toobin noted that the city’s crime rate had plummeted precipitously since Bratton’s first time at the helm in the early 1990s, with homicides down from more than 2,200 to 333 a year, and crime overall down 85 percent and still sliding.

“Why did crime go down so much?” Toobin asked.

“Essentially because of the cops, quite frankly,” Bratton answered.

This prompted more laughter—louder and more widespread than the first eruption—and this time Bratton couldn’t ignore it. The commissioner turned on the audience, which, for all he knew, was composed largely of criminal-coddling bleeding-heart limousine liberals.

“You can laugh out there,” he scolded his tormenters, his Boston accent becoming more pronounced. “You have your opinion. I have mine.”

It was a rare moment of tension in a largely agreeable series of illuminating panel discussions—presented by Tina Brown Live Media, a conference business named for and headed up by the founder and former editor in chief of The Daily Beast—on the American way of incarceration.

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The main message, from authorities ranging from John Jay College president Jeremy Travis to right-wing theorist Grover Norquist to acclaimed prisoners’ rights advocate Bryan Stevenson, is that the United States of America incarcerates far too many people for far too long. The state and federal prisons of this country house 2.3 million inmates, more than any other nation in the world, much less a Western democracy—many serving life sentences for convictions short of murder, disproportionately African-American and Latino, often for nonviolent, drug-related offenses, with a prohibitive cost ($74 billion) and terrible consequences for society as a whole.

“How did we become the world’s largest jailer, and what are the consequences?” Travis asked, noting that the prison population has quadrupled since 1972, shortly after President Nixon launched his so-called war on drugs, and the rate of incarceration has increased sevenfold.

Travis argued that “three strikes and you’re out” legislation and mandatory minimum sentences—promoted by politicians who’ve discovered that “tough on crime” is a winning campaign message—have done incalculable damage to poverty-stricken minority communities and perpetuated a dysfunctional social structure in which violence is a way of life as well as certain death.

Like several other summit participants, Travis called for “a national movement” to cut the prison population at least by half. “We need parsimony in our punishment,” he said. “We need to rethink the war on drugs...We know we can do it. It may take years. But the time to get started is now.”

The summit—underwritten by Credit Suisse and the Ford Foundation, and live-streamed by Vice News—featured criminologists, policymakers, activists, politicians, notably New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Pennsylvania prison administrator John Wetzel, and Ford Foundation president Darren Walker. Also on hand, compellingly so, were a few former prison inmates-turned-criminal justice reform advocates, including Piper Kerman, a Smith College graduate who served 15 months on a money-laundering conviction in Danbury, Connecticut, federal penitentiary (the minimum-security women’s wing), and wrote the same-named memoir on which the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black is based.

Also on the program, CSI: NY star Hill Harper talked about his epistolary relationship with a prisoner, starting from his teenage years behind bars, and singer-activist Harry Belafonte, speaking by phone from Ferguson, Missouri, reported on his efforts to quell possible violent protests in response to the expected grand jury decision on whether to indict the cop who shot and killed African American teenager Michael Brown.

In a panel moderated by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, Wetzel, whose title is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, pointed out a paradox of incarceration and its aftermath: “Higher-risk offenders leave lower-risk,” he said. “Lower-risk offenders leave higher-risk.”

And justice reform advocate Glenn Martin, who served six years in New York state prisons on an armed robbery conviction, explained the demographic disparity of an American prison population in which more than half of the population is African-American or Hispanic and 68 percent of black males can expect to serve at least a year behind bars.

Speaking of “diversion programs,” referring to a policy by which a criminal defendant can avoid incarceration by entering state-mandated therapy, Martin said: “The United States has the longest and most successful diversion program of anywhere in the world—it’s called white skin.”