Top Cop

My Patrol With the NYPD’s Bill Bratton

He helped create a ‘new’ New York City and now he’s back on the beat. A ridealong on his old turf—the subways—with the police commissioner.

The police commissioner’s gaze swept from the surrounding straphangers to the window of the door at the end of the subway car. He was about to prove anew that there is no more exalted position in the city than that of a cop on patrol.

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton was officially on a tour of the subways late Tuesday night, but it was with a patrol cop’s eyes that he spied a man striding up and down the aisle of the next car in a manner that was sure to intimidate the other passengers as the train rumbled downtown.

The eyes stayed on the man until the train pulled into the next station. Bratton said nothing as he stepped from the car. Along with him came his security detail, as well as the others who were joining him on the tour, Deputy Commissioner for Collaborative Policing Susan Herman, consultant George Kelling, and Captain Philip Wishnia of the Homeless Outreach Unit.

Bratton entered the next car, where the man he had spied and an inebriated companion were shouting and generally putting the rest of their fellow riders on edge. The troublemaking two did not seem to recognize the commissioner, but they knew cops when they saw them. They quieted and sat down.

“Where are you headed?” Bratton asked.

The two sat silent. A burly man who was well over 6 feet tall rose from his seat beside a female companion. He clearly could have done battle with the rowdy ones if he had been so inclined, but he just as clearly was glad to be spared the necessity.

“Thank you,” the man told Bratton.

The troublemakers got off the train. Bratton and his companions followed to make sure the two did not cause a ruckus on the platform.

With the peace restored in the way of a patrol cop, Bratton resumed a commissioner’s tour that had begun at 10 p.m. in the subway station at East 53rd Street and Lexington Avenue. The descent into the underground was a kind of homecoming.

Bratton had first come to New York as head of the transit police in 1990, when it was still an independent department and not yet part of the NYPD. Bratton had bonded deeply with a transit lieutenant named Jack Maple, a true policing genius who devised various strategies guided by pin maps of the subway system he called “the Charts of the Future,” which recorded where and when specific crimes occurred. Wolfpack robberies in the subway plummeted from 1,200 a year to 12.

In 1994, Bratton’s success underground persuaded the newly elected Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to pick him to head the NYPD. Bratton promoted Maple to deputy commissioner.

At a Manhattan nightspot, Maple wrote on a napkin four major strategies that he insisted could cut violent crime in half within two years. He computerized the Charts of the Future and held regular sessions called Compstat, during which commanders had to explain what they did to address the various crimes translated into dots on precinct maps.

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In the Compstat system, a dot was a dot whether it represented a crime in Manhattan’s wealthiest neighborhoods or in the roughest parts of the Bronx. That, combined with accurate intelligence, corresponding deployment, and relentless followup, and Bratton’s full support at the helm resulted in the historic reduction in violence that Maple had predicted.

The accompanying publicity caused problems with Giuliani that ended in Bratton’s departure. Bratton went on to run the LAPD, where high crime was complicated by longstanding antagonism between the cops and the minority communities. Bratton combined Maple’s strategies with his own considerable policing and leadership skills to knock down crime while simultaneously building up trust between the police and the populace.

Back in New York, Maple fell ill with cancer and died in 2001 at the age of 48. Giuliani spoke at his funeral and credited him with transforming the City of New York and saving thousands of lives. The coffin bearing his hearse was given a motorcycle escort through Times Square, where he had once been scoffed at for predicting it would become a place not for crooks and pimps but for tourists and families.

During his final hours, Maple comforted himself with the thought that the NYPD would have to keep pursuing his strategies long after he was dead if it wanted to keep crime down. The department did indeed continue Compstat under Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who added some strategies of his own to reduce crime to historic lows.

But a seemingly undue reliance on stop-and-frisk in particular caused tensions in minority neighborhoods. Bill de Blasio successfully campaigned for mayor on the promise to curtail it. He nonetheless knew that if he wanted to serve more than one term he would also have to keep crime down.

Bratton’s stellar success with crime and community in Los Angles persuaded de Blasio to bring him back to run the NYPD for a second time. Bratton made note at the start of his official swearing-in that the ceremony would never have taken place had it not been for Jack Maple. Bratton later suggested that a statue of Maple should be erected in Times Square.

As he began his homecoming tour of the subway on Tuesday night, Maple was very much on Bratton’s mind. Bratton noted that this month would mark the 20th anniversary of Compstat. He said that the Compstat center will be named in honor of Maple and that a kind of small museum will be established, including the first rudimentary computer used to chart crimes and a voucher for printer cartridges that was turned down because there was no money in the budget. (He said that by his recollection the cartridges were finally purchased by the Police Foundation.)

As tracked by the present statistics, crime has been markedly down in first three months since Bratton’s return. The city went for 10 days without a single homicide and 24 hours without a shooting. Murder was down 21 percent and shootings were down 14 percent, though Bratton did report as he strode toward the trains on Tuesday night that there had been an uptick in crime that day. He figured it was because the weather had turned warm after seemingly endless winter cold. He questioned the popular wisdom that summer is when violence spikes.

“It’s really spring,” he said. “They kill a guy they’ve been wanting to kill since October but couldn’t because haven’t seen him.”

Bratton now boarded an uptown local with Herman, Kelling, and Wishnia, all of whom will be joining his effort to team up with advocates for the homeless and other agents of social good to help make New York not only the country’s safest big city, but also its kindest; stop and assist. Bratton said he has been pleasantly surprised by the number of organizations that are eager to work with a police department that has proven it is capable of transforming New York.

Bratton voiced particular interest in assisting the mentally disturbed. He added that he is aware that the cops are not an ultimate solution for social ills. But cops can make situations safe and secure enough that solutions might be possible. He in the meantime wanted to see firsthand how things are in the underground realm that is dear to his heart, as the place where it all really began.

The cops had recently begun cracking down on subway panhandlers, so naturally Bratton had no sooner started riding uptown than one appeared. The man began what must be his usual spiel.

“My name is Anthony. I just got out of prison…”

The man stopped upon noticing the two detectives from Bratton’s detail, who look very much like what they are.

“I’m going to shut up,” the man then said. “I didn’t see all the officers. I apologize. If I had seen you, I wouldn’t have even did it.”

Bratton and his companions got off at West 125th Street. He spoke briefly with a cop in a small booth at the end of a platform who has the mind-numbing duty of keeping an eye on the dark tunnels beyond via video monitors.

“A pleasure meeting you,” Bratton told the cop, seeming to mean it.

As he continued on, Bratton noted that the monitors were part of the unceasing counterterrorism effort that began following the 9/11 attacks, which had come a month after Maple’s death. Bratton said that in their transit days, he and Maple had gone into the tunnels looking not for terrorists but for the homeless who lived there. One gentleman on the Bowery had established a residence on a three-tiered subterranean fire escape, with a living room and a kitchen and a bedroom, complete with pirated electricity.

“The condominium,” Bratton remembered Maple calling it.

Bratton returned from past to present when he ascended to the turnstiles, where two uniformed cops stood by a bank of MetroCard machines.

“We get a lot of swipers,” one of the cops reported.

Swipers being the new token suckers, who would jam turnstile slots with paper before the system went electronic. The crooks would then employ their mouths to suck out the tokens people had deposited. One police solution was to spray a little Mace on the slot, which made for some seriously scrunch-faced token suckers.

Nowadays, the crooks jam up the MetroCard dispensers so people are unable to purchase or replenish one. The crook then produces a MetroCard of his own and offers to swipe the would-be traveler through—for a premium price.

The two cops told Bratton that they engage in an endless cat-and-mouse game with the swipers, alternately keeping an eye on the machines and trying to surprise them in the act of selling swipes.

“We know them and they know us,” one of the cops said.

In another change since his transit days, crooks now snatch cellphones, not gold chains. Bratton offered an observation based on a great many of the subway patrons he saw.

“They hold [their phones] in their hands,” he said.

Bratton continued up to the surface and crossed Harlem’s main street to the station at St. Nicholas Avenue. Bratton saw a woman jogging along the far side of the street.

“Alone at 10:30 at night,” he remarked.

He saw her as a symbol of the new New York.

“The change...” he said.

His voice carried no hint that he felt he—or even he and Maple–deserved credit for the transformation. He has always shared Maple’s belief that the credit should go to the cops who actually made it happen, too seldom thanked and too often at great cost to themselves. The cops on Bratton’s security detail include a sergeant who somehow survived being shot in the head and a detective who came back to full duty after being slashed in the arm. Bratton had just a few days before visited a rookie who had been shot multiple times in the legs by a man he had stopped for boarding a bus without paying the fare.

Bratton’s appreciation for what the cops have accomplished and the price they are willing to pay was again manifest in the way he greeted two other uniformed officers when he returned to the subway. He chatted with them for a few minutes and teased one for a hat that looked a size too large.

“I lost some weight,” the cop said.

“A pleasure to meet you,” Bratton said, as genuinely as before.

When Bratton descended to the trains, a man was pacing the platform edge, ranting in Spanish. The detective on the detail who had once been slashed on the arm by a maniac approached the man and spoke quietly to him in Spanish.

“The police have high authority, but not as high as God!” the man announced.

“You’re right,” the detective said.

The man did not seem to expect such an affirmation and he appeared to be suddenly drained of his fury. He stood silent as the detective and his partner joined the Bratton tour on an express train.

As Bratton rode downtown, he looked at a pole in the car’s aisle and waxed poetic, speaking of how countless hands of every kind grab such poles when the trains are crowded, manicured and grimy, dainty and tough, one atop the other. He said that this is what he would present to someone as a symbol of New York’s greatness in old times and new.

“It’s the center pole,” he said. “Everyday five and a half million people hang on it.”

He added, “And by and large they get along.”

The train rumbled past the local stop at West 81st Street, by the Museum of Natural History. Bratton shares Maple’s love for the small details that make a magnificent city and he admired aloud the tiles on the station’s wall that represent various animals and sea creatures. His gaze went to the people who made up the latest collection at the center pole and he was clearly thrilled just to be living in New York, much less to be its police commissioner once again.

Then came the moment when a reflex born of a lifetime with a badge caused him to check the door window at the end of the car. The commissioner soon quieted the two rowdy men in the next car. The thanks that came from large man who rose from beside his female companion was one such as the whole city owes its police department.

Bratton and his companions proceeded to catch a downtown train to the West 4th Street station. Bratton stood on the upper level, and a man in a Yankee cap came up the stairs from the lower level and saw him. The man seemed to doubt this eyes for a moment. He recovered himself as he reached the top.

“Great to have you back,” he told Bratton.

The man proved to be Shawn Lewis, an off-duty sergeant on his way to the 81st Precinct in Brooklyn, where he supervises a team of rookies. Bratton spoke for a moment of his own rookie days and of the importance of learning from experienced cops.

Bratton was warm and welcoming enough that Lewis spoke of a device he had invented to keep a door from closing on police officers when they enter a premises. Bratton extracted a business card from his wallet and presented it to Lewis, telling him to send an email and somebody would get in touch with him.

“All the best,” Bratton said as he and Lewis parted. “Stay safe.”

Bratton rode down to the Broadway-Lafayette station and took a passageway to the Bleecker Street stop. He waited on the downtown local platform as an express roared by. He watched the subway cars flash past.

“That’s in every movie ever made about New York,” he said in quiet delight at again beholding the real thing.

He gazed down at the local track bed and saw something sleek and fat scurry under a rail.

“Still the best fed rats in New York,” he said. “Some things never change.”

Two stops on a local took him to the City Hall station near police headquarters. He returned to the street with his companions around midnight. He gazed at the Woolworth Building and the Freedom Tower just beyond, remarking on how one of the city’s oldest skyscrapers stood with its newest.

He looked from the towers to his phone and got an unneeded reminder that even America’s safest big city still has its dangers. There had been a shooting at West 135th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, 10 blocks uptown from where he had watched the lone woman jog past as a symbol of the new New York.

“Right near where we were,” he said.

Bratton has no illusions that the NYPD’s work will ever be done or even be easy. He bid his companions good night and rode off with the spirit of Maple into the city where there is no more exalted position than that of patrol cop.