The Case Against Bill Bratton
by Josmar Trujillo
If Bill de Blasio is really a progressive, why did he bring back the architect of Stop-and-Frisk as his police commissioner? When it comes to aggressive policing gospel Bratton is the “pastor of the flock.” Bratton seems the least qualified to make the changes that are “desperately needed to relieve communities of color living in what many see as a racialized police state.”
The Case Against Bill Bratton
by Josmar Trujillo
“De Blasio, apart from his campaign rhetoric and the media narrative, had been speaking a message of only moderate reform.”
The first two months of the City's post-Bloomberg era have seen little in the way of "progressive changes to the New York Police Department. While new(ish) Mayor Bill de Blasio may have seen his honeymoon period come to an end with a few notable controversies in February, the once-again commissioner of the NYPD, Bill Bratton, has largely stayed above the fray as he strategically manages the media and helps steer an embattled police department through a reform storm -- one of his specialties.
Policing activists cheered last year when a federal judge ruled that the NYPD was engaging in (at least) "indirect" racial profiling and that reforms, including a federal monitor to oversee changes to the department, were needed. The idea of federal oversight, beyond the scope of City Hall, was music to the ears of many who questioned if the City could reform a police force whose reach stretched overseas. An appeal by the City would be the main obstacle to the court-order remedies.
Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg's appeal of the Floyd v City of New York case was expected. Bloomberg was his famously unapologetic self to the very end. De Blasio, a self-proclaimed "progressive," on the other hand, promised change and accountability for an NYPD that had been trampling the Constitution for years. Some activists, perhaps, felt they had an ally in de Blasio. After 12 years of Bloomberg, expectations for Hillary Clinton's former campaign manager were informed by a sense of optimism--leading some to take "wait and see" approaches. At the end of his first month in office de Blasio and Bratton joined policing activists, civil libertarians and plaintiffs in the Floyd case to announce, to much fanfare, that he would instruct the City's lawyers to drop the Bloomberg administration's appeal.
Of course, simply not being Michael Bloomberg wouldn't suffice in putting the brakes on a growing trend of police abuse, surveillance and militarization. Substantive changes are desperately needed to relieve communities of color living in what many see as a racialized police state. De Blasio, apart from his campaign rhetoric and the media narrative, had been speaking a message of only moderate reform. So moderate that many wondered if he was serious about changing the NYPD in meaningful ways.
The Returning Conqueror
The most obvious pause for alarm for community members and activists came in December when de Blasio announced he'd be bringing back Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner, Bratton, for a 2nd run at the helm of the NYPD. Bratton is widely seen as the man who operationalized “Broken Windows” theory from an article in the Atlantic magazine into a philosophy that dominates law enforcement across the country today. His aggressive, pro-active approach, coupled with his introduction of CompStat, was the precursor to Stop and Frisk. A strange bedfellow for a "progressive" Mayor. For many who live in the front lines of aggressive policing, labels like "progressive" mean very little. Ditto for Stop and Frisk; police profiling and harassment of black and brown men is a time-honored tradition that preceded the policy. But the policy became a controversial issue the past few years and a central theme in last year's mayoral election. De Blasio's biracial son was featured in campaign ads touting his father as the only one who would "end the Stop and Frisk era."
Bratton seemed an awkward choice to fulfill that pledge. Before the appointment, he said that cops who don't do it "aren't doing their job." If you look back at Bratton's cable TV appearances, his speeches and the philosophy of his little known consulting company, Bratton Group, he has never wavered from his support of the tactic. So far he's been consistent: a few days into his second stint as commissioner, the famously media-savvy Bratton told CBS's Norah O'Donnell that policing without Stop and Frisk is like a "journalist interviewing without asking questions." In his most recent interview he said there'd be "anarchy" without it.
But New Yorkers were told that Bratton was different now than the Bratton of the past. A kinder, gentler Bratton wanted to save us from the excesses of the Ray Kelly era. Even Al Sharpton, who had famously been at odds with Bratton in the 90's, gave his blessings to Bratton at an event honoring the late Nelson Mandela. An ACLU lawyer penned an op-ed in the New York Times praising Bratton. Bratton even met with his fiercest critics when he sat down with a small group of policing activists. It seemed many were willing to watch the Bratton sequel unfold--perhaps even support it. The architect of Stop and Frisk had also, to the outrage of some, invoked King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" at a recent MLK day celebration in Brooklyn.
Then Bratton laid out some of his cards. It was reported that Bratton was looking to bring on George Kelling as a consultant. Kelling, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank, is both a friend of Bratton and one of the authors of the influential Atlantic magazine article that birthed “Broken Windows” theory and laid the framework for Stop and Frisk. Activists that had been tempered in their response to the Bratton appointment were now delivering some slightly stronger language as they criticized Bratton's look to the past in shaping the NYPD's future through the hiring of Kelling.
“Bratton told CBS's Norah O'Donnell that policing without Stop and Frisk is like a "journalist interviewing without asking questions.”
But whether you saw Bratton's return as a change of direction from the approach of the Bloomberg-era, or as window dressing to business as usual, you couldn't help but note that Bratton had now been linked with three police departments that have faced community outrage and subsequent legal challenges. Before re-joining the NYPD this year, Bratton had been hired (to significant protest) as a private consultant to the Oakland Police department , a department with a "pattern of resisting reform." The OPD had been operating under a federal consent decree after scandal and corruption led to a legal settlement that required reforms. Before that he had been the police chief of the Los Angeles Police department, which had also been working under a federal consent decree following the infamous Ramparts scandals of the 90's. In a case where both revolving-door and conflict of interest concerns were raised, he had just previously been working as a private consultant for Kroll Associates, the private independent monitor of the LAPD.
The fact that Bratton has been continually called in to help police departments navigate through legal oversight should raise questions for New Yorkers today who wonder if Bratton was brought in to reform or rebrand a police department that was facing legal and legislative pressure. A City Council bill that passed last summer would create potential oversight via the creation of an office of Inspector General for the NYPD. But this would be done under the auspices of the Mayor's Department of Investigations and City Hall--offering a limited amount of independence. Similarly, the Floyd ruling called for a federal monitor to oversee reforms. But the de Blasio administration's agreement with the Floyd plaintiffs made this a temporary role. Would a reform storm that activists, civil libertarians and outraged community members created in LA, Oakland and New York be something that Bratton would embrace--or simply get these troubled departments through
New York area activists of all stripes, but particularly those centered around policing, should keep in mind Bratton's approach to protesters and marchers. Bratton's LAPD violently quelled a May Day rally in 2007, and Bratton said he would have "cleared" protests in Wall Street "right away"--something not even Bloomberg or Ray Kelly did.
Bratton and The Media
Whether it's stopping and frisking large numbers of young black or brown males in the City or cracking down on squeegee-men (both tactics derived from Broken Windows), aggressive policing is gospel and Bill Bratton is clearly the pastor of the flock. Still, as an article recently pointed out, while Bratton may have some moderate policy differences with his predecessor, Ray Kelly, he's more concerned with rehabilitating the NYPD's tattered image than anything.
How does he do this? He's by far the most media-savvy commissioner of any department this City has probably ever seen. Even his counter-terrorism chief, John Miller, has media credentials that blur the lines between being a journalist and law enforcement spokesman. Miller was formerly a spokesperson for the FBI as well as a correspondent for CBS News. But Bratton's best strategy is feeding the public quotes that suggest changes are in the works--but that inspire little hope upon closer inspection. He's made clear that he's "needed to use the media" to get "certain messages through." The media is a willing partner in this regard.
Let's take a closer look at the news from the end of Bratton's first month back in office: A New York Times headline read "Bratton Says Rookies' Role in Anticrime Effort Will End." The local NY1 news channel reported "Bratton Wants NYPD Rookies Out of Operation Impact." By those headlines you'd think Bratton was aiming to curb police harassment in frontline neighborhoods (and the backlash against it) by swapping out rookies with gracious, polite veterans. First off, the headlines were misleading--"Let me emphasize: Operation Impact is not going away. It is an essential tool" he said (echoing the fine print on Stop and Frisk "reform" he had also cautioned). Rookies will still go out to high-crime areas, he said, but they'll be "mentored" first. It's important to note that no policing activist had ever suggested replacing rookies with veterans (who may be more problematic in terms of profiling--it was commanding officers that pushed for quotas, as Bratton has conceded) would reform policing behavior. When one thinks of a dirty or aggressive cop, veterans may come to mind more often than rookies.
Then there was also a widely cited video message that Bratton posted to the Policeman's Benevolent Association website. The PBA have been staunch defenders of Stop and Frisk since the Bloomberg administration and have been highly critical of reforms. They now, thanks to Bratton, also enjoy office space inside 1 Police Plaza--which might be a first for a civil service union. In the video, Bratton speaks to relying less on "numbers." Media insisted he "bags bust quota" (an unspoken--and illegal--system that encourages cops to stop high numbers of people). But he never actually mentions quotas or explicitly says they shouldn't be tolerated, although the impression is that he's steering the department away from the numbers crunch.
“Bratton's best strategy is feeding the public quotes that suggest changes are in the works--but that inspire little hope upon closer inspection.”
But Bratton has always been about numbers. In fact, in an interview he did with NYU Professor Paul Romer (perhaps best known as an innovator of charter cities in the poorest regions of Latin America) a month before his appointment, Bratton points to computer "algorithms" as the next step forward for "predictive policing." In 2009, under Bratton, the LAPD received a grant from the Department of Justice towards predictive policing technology. Any future computer programs ostensibly "predicting" crime would owe much to the legacy of Bratton and CompStat, the data driven computer policing program he introduced in New York during the 90's. That was all about numbers. So in spite of his video message, Bratton seems very comfortable with both numbers and technology (Bratton has also recently joined Twitter).
But few public figures or voices in the media arre willing to probe "America's Supercop" very much. Not only has Bratton and his philosophy come to dominate our City (and nation) through an echo chamber of uncritical media and politicians, they resemble the talking points of previous commissioner Ray Kelly. For starters, de Blasio and Bratton's insistence that Stop and Frisk not be ended is based largely in an argument that there is a correlation between aggressive policing and crime reduction; that without Stop and Frisk and Muslim surveillance the City would descend into New Jack City, or that we'd have another 9/11. This is almost indistinguishable from the prevailing logic of the Bloomberg/Kelly era--and isn't clearly supported by evidence. Upon closer inspection, de Blasio and Bratton's approach tries to encapsulate the political rhetoric that said the previous administration was too cavalier--but without undermining its logic.
Fear of a city descending into a crime-ridden replay of the past may have indeed led to the hiring of a figure of the past in Bratton. Fear is a prime ingredient for a highly policed society and it clearly makes the appointment of a controversial figure like Bratton easier to swallow for some. But it also demands media coverage that defers to the celebrity and expertise of Bratton--rarely asking tough questions. Bratton does his part by carefully managing his words, saving substantive discussions for closed-door speeches. Some may remember that it was Bratton's media-mastery that was at the root of his ouster from Giuliani's NYC in the 90's.
Research tells us that communities of color will usually be disproportionately dealt the receiving end of police profiling and brutality. If they are being sold a rebranded NYPD--one that emphasizes "collaborative" policing over constitutional policing--by a recycled Bratton, it is important to get understand how that translates onto the streets, not just in press conferences.
Two weeks into the job, Bratton announced that Stop and Frisk was "more or less solved" and cited data from the Bloomberg era that suggested the practice was already in decline (statistically) since 2013. If true, then candidate de Blasio's rhetoric to reign in Bloomberg and Kelly's abuse of the policy was at odds with Bratton's analysis. Had Bloomberg already reformed the NYPD in 2013? Then why the political rhetoric?
Crime statistics can be politicized depending on what the political climate is and what the incentives are. Robert Gangi from Police Reform Operation Project recently remarked that any figures provided by the NYPD about itself should be taken with a healthy skepticism. The Chief-Leader, a weekly civil service newspaper catered to cops, firefighters and other civil servants, has also written about politicized policing statistics. There is, also, the possibility that some officers simply won't document all stops or interactions. Of course this is hard to prove and would require in-depth, independent studies. In a recent article the New York Times revealed that officers already fail to properly report friskings of drivers they pull over.
That Times article was also revealing in the context of Vision Zero, de Blasio and Bratton's new initiative to crack down on drivers and pedestrians in the name of traffic safety. Public safety is often trumpeted when expansions of police power are rolled out. What in foreign policy is described as pre-emptive war can translate domestically into proactive policing. Who could oppose a plan to reduce traffic deaths--or keep ourselves safe from terror? But if police were focusing their attention on drivers and pedestrians with the latest enforcement crackdown, then what might the long term implications for New Yorkers be? In February, de Blasio placed a phone call to police officials after a member of his Transition Team, a black Brooklyn-based pastor and political ally, was jailed following an improper left turn stop by police.
While the Mayor took heat for the call and for a what many saw as a hypocritical driving detail that ran stop signs and sped over limit, Bratton's NYPD was recovering from its own scandal in January when an elderly Chinese immigrant was roughed up and bloodied by cops after being targeted for jaywalking. Ironically it was the notoriously conservative New York Post that criticized the police crackdown--even as they have unabashedly championed aggressive policing most other times. In a recent interview George Kelling linked Vision Zero to Broken Windows as a "new threshold in terms of order maintenance." He also may have inadvertently given an insight into the initiative's other motivating factors: a crackdown on small crimes (jaywalking for pedestrians; improper turns and lane changes for drivers) as a "pathway" to uncovering other criminal behavior--what he called "side benefits."
Amid the brewing controversies, it was becoming clear that Broken Windows was still the basis for policing in the five boroughs.
While for many New Yorkers, the term Stop and Frisk had become a dinnertime conversation topic, what did people know about Broken Windows? Back in September, de Blasio the candidate proclaimed himself a believer in the theory. Does it work? If you go by most mainstream media and Bratton, it's death, taxes and Broken Windows. Criminologists and researchers aren't too sure. In 2006, Bratton and Kelling reacted angrily in a written response for the conservative National Review magazine to academic research that had poked holes in their theory. In 2004, now-deceased James Q. Wilson, Kelling's Broken Windows article co-author, tried to explain that "I still to this day do not know if improving order will or will not reduce crime… people have not understood that this was speculation."
“It was becoming clear that Broken Windows was still the basis for policing in the five boroughs.”
This year, in an apparent attempt to restore "order" in the City's subway system, Bratton's NYPD, along with the MTA, planned to make homeless sweeps in the subways. Bratton was known in the 90's to target homeless New Yorkers and squeegee men with his quality of life policies. He had continued that trend with the LAPD in Skid Row where harsh quality of life crackdowns (like targeting homeless people for being on public grass) and gang injunctions raised questions of discrimination in the service of gentrification. The former transit top cop also targeted the transit system with his policies. In a recent article for the Times, spikes in arrests of panhandlers and peddlers included immigrant women selling Churros (Mexican pastries) in subway stations. It was clear that for Bratton some habits die hard.
But Bratton's most recent homeless sweeps plans met outrage and pushback from community groups. A few grassroots groups, led by Picture The Homeless, a homeless-led advocacy organization, planned an action that apparently forced authorities to back off the early morning operation. In LA, Bratton's policies had also met resistance from groups like the LA Community Action Network. So in spite of the generally fawning media coverage and relative ease with which he transitioned back into 1 Police Plaza, some activists were ready to oppose Bratton the commissioner as many had done to Bratton the consultant in Oakland and even Detroit. But would it be enough?
Most recently Mr. Bratton and the Mayor revealed a 7-point plan that instructed police officers to be more positive and courteous in their interactions with community members. Bratton indicated cops would be trained in "verbal judo." And again this points to what is packaged as reform by the NYPD. Will training police along the lines of customer service reps (or verbal martial artists) address the constitutional concerns raised over the last few years? Lessons in civility sidestep demands that officers adhere to the standards of the Supreme Court's Terry V. Ohio ruling. As noted civil rights attorney Norman Siegel pointed out, reforming Stop and Frisk wasn't about a magic number of stops or simply the graciousness of police officers; it was about the legality of the stop. Kind words and improved language also wouldn't make police accountable for abuses of power up to and including fatal shootings of unarmed New Yorkers--of which there were dozens during Bratton's first stint.
But perhaps least inspiring is that this new initiative isn't new--NYPD 2020 was spearheaded by Ray Kelly in the prior administration.
The World As a Battlefield
Apart from Bratton's domestic resume, there are also some pretty telling indicators abroad.
Since the 90's, Bratton's police work has taken him across oceans. In 2001, Bratton was a special consultant to the capital of Venezuela when a failed coup d'etat briefly removed Hugo Chavez from the presidency. Bratton and the local police chief were at the helm when 17 pro-Chavez protesters were shot by police before Chavez returned, jailed the chief and sent Bratton packing. In 2007, Bratton tapped an LAPD Lieutenant who studied counterterrorism at Hosni Mubarak's Egyptian National Police Academy to head that DOJ grant on predictive policing. In 2011, Bratton was in talks with UK Prime Minister David Cameron to help advise the police crackdown on race riots in London that were sparked by the police shooting death of a black man.
Finally, both Bratton and the Mayor share an affinity for Israel. De Blasio fancies his role as Mayor as one of a "defender of Israel." Bratton, meanwhile, forged a "close relationship" with the controversial government while on official visits for the LAPD to browse through its counterterrorism technologies. It's safe to say the Israeli government sees most matters of security and policing through a prism of anti-terrorism and militarism, but numerous human rights groups and scholars also say that Israel engages in racial apartheid. A region marred by violence, military checkpoints and concentrated poverty; Israel and the occupied territories is a true Tale of Two Cities.
New Yorkers, particularly those that find themselves in communities of color, should take note.
Josmar Trujillo is an organizer with New Yorkers Against Bratton.