Police Work

Can Bill Bratton Solve De Blasio’s NYPD Dilemma?

New York City mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has asked former NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton to return to the job. Can he change stop-and-frisk without plunging New York back into crime?

After he was named commissioner of the NYPD for a second time on Tuesday morning, Bill Bratton held up the children’s book that had set his life on its course to where he now stood.

The book was Your Police, which Bratton discovered at the age of nine in the Boston Pubic Library on Arcadia Street. He had opened the yellow cover to see it was a child’s view of the NYPD In the 1950s, complete with pictures. He read it again and again, sometimes taking it out, on other occasions rereading it repeatedly in the library.

Bratton read some of it aloud at the press conference where Mayor-elect Bill De Blasio announced that the NYPD commissioner of two decades past would become the new one. Bratton had set New York on course to becoming and remaining the safest big city in America during his first tenure. The words he now read were of particular importance given his new mission to make New York also the fairest big city in America

“We must always remember that whenever we see a policeman, he is your friend,” Bratton read. “He is there to protect you.”

The youngster who read those same words over and over went on to join the Boston Police and he rose to become second in command when he was just 32. He then became chief of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Police.

Bratton still harbored dreams of New York, and in 1990 he got a chance to go there. He became chief of the New York City Transit Police, then an independent department. His life as well as the entire city was about to change when he met a policing genius named Jack Maple.

Maple presented Bratton with a plan to dramatically reduce subway robberies using strategies that included decoys and outsized pin maps he called ”the charts of the future.” Bratton agreed and Maple proceeded to cut robberies underground from 1,200 a year to just twelve.

In 1994, then-Mayor Giuliani named Bratton commissioner of the NYPD. Bratton brought along Maple, elevating him in a single leap from Lieutenant to Deputy Commissioner for Operations.

“Don’t blink, or it’ll all be over,” Maple warned Bratton about their dual leap beyond their childhood dreams.

New York was then a city with 2,000 murders a year. Maple wrote down on a napkin strategies that he promised would cut homicides in half within two years. The heart of his approach was the belief that crime in the poorest neighborhoods has to be treated as seriously as crime in the realms of the rich. He sought to ensure that with Compstat, which began with mapping all crimes and crime complaints on computer maps. A dot was a dot, be it in midtown Manhattan or the far reaches of Brooklyn. Precinct commanders were then held responsible for addressing them and explaining at regular meetings exactly what they had done. A police commander who was suspected by Maple of lying about his efforts was mortified when he turned around during his presentation to see that instead of a computerized precinct map there was a film clip of Pinocchio’s growing nose.

As crime in New York plummeted, Bratton became the subject of considerable press attention, which delighted him as much as it angered Giuliani. Bratton was forced out in 1996. Maple left with him, but the strategies remained in place and continued to be the primary factor in the continuing decline in crime to record lows.

Maple could very likely have returned to the NYPD as commissioner had he not died of cancer in 2001. Giuliani credited him at his funeral for having saved thousands of lives. Maple’s coffin was then given a motorcycle escort along 42nd Street in Times Square, where he had first started developing his strategies as a young transit cop.

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“It’s going to be the Emerald City,” he had often said.

In the meantime, Bratton had become chief of police in Los Angeles and had more great success applying Maple’s ways. But he had another problem to address there: the LAPD was seen as more of an enemy than a friend in minority neighborhoods.

Starting in 2002, Bratton achieved considerable success not only in reducing crime, but also in improving relationships between the police and the people. He managed to receive accolades from community leaders even as he was expanding stop-and-frisk, specifically to address the gang problem. He would compare the strategy to chemotherapy; life saving if administered properly and in the right dose, deadly if not.

Los Angeles was still not New York, and in 2009 he resigned to return as a private citizen to the city he had come to love. The current police commissioner, Ray Kelly, was continuing with Compstat, while adding some strategies of his own. The result was the lowest crime rate in more than half a century, though it came with no small amount of controversy.

But policing in New York had in some ways become too much about numbers for the sake of numbers. And stop-and-frisk too often became stop-and-frisk and go in your underwear and go in your socks, not just a check for a gun but to search for some pot to make a dollar. Even though minority neighborhoods benefitted most from the crime reduction, too many residents began to feel that the police were not at all their friend. That feeling was joined by a larger sense that if New York had become the safest big city in America, it had hardly become the fairest.

As De Blasio ran for mayor this year, he upended the race with a remarkably effective campaign ad featuring his 15 year-old son Dante, who happens to go to Brooklyn Tech, the same high school Maple attended, though Maple left before graduating to become a transit police trainee.

But what really propelled De Blasio’s candidacy after Dante got people to take a real look at him was his talk of a tale of two cities. He also promised to reign in stop-and-frisk as it had come to be practiced.

When he won, De Blasio faced the question of how to make New York a fairer city without making it less safe. Friends who urged him to consider Bratton prominently included Chief Dean Esserman of the New Haven police, who has achieved notable success there in both reducing crime and strengthening ties with the community. Esserman is a New Yorker who has known De Blasio since their sons attended preschool together, and also worked with both Bratton and Maple before setting off to run his own police department.

On Tuesday, De Blasio announced that Bratton was his choice in a press conference at a former Catholic school in Brooklyn that has been converted into a community court that is geared toward alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent crimes. The gritty fog outside seemed entirely apt as Bratton entered holding the children’s book that was out of the mists of the past and had now brought him here.

“I’m just really glad that some other kid didn’t take out that book,” De Blasio said.

De Blasio then jokingly imagined aloud a news item; “Bill De Blasio named a library book today as police commissioner.” The mayor-elect turned serious when asked how the appointment jibed with his call for the curtailment of stop-and-frisk.

“Bill Bratton knows that when it comes to stop-and-frisk, it has to be used with respect and it has to be used properly,” De Blasio said.

When Bratton spoke, he pledged to combine the lessons of his first tenure in New York with those of his time in Los Angeles and apply them to the needs of the present—keeping crime down while building trust in the community, for the sake of the cops as well as the people. “That can happen and it will happen in New York City,” he said. “That is my commitment to this mayor. I love this profession, and I love this city.”

Now 66, Bratton held up the book he first saw when he was 9 in Boston. He placed particular emphasis on the pronoun when he spoke the title aloud.

Your Police.”

Bratton’s challenge is for every kid in every neighborhood in New York to feel that the a police officer really is their friend and protector.