Meet William Bratton, former top cop in LA and New York, now Oakland’s security advisor
on February 20, 2013
William Bratton’s caused a stir in Oakland, and he hasn’t even arrived yet.
The former top cop in Los Angeles and New York has been contracted by Strategic Policy Partnership, a law enforcement consulting group based in Massachusetts, to join a group of six policing experts tasked with improving public safety in Oakland.
Bratton is known for reducing crime in big cities, but with that reputation comes controversy. Some of Bratton’s tough policing tactics have come under fire by civil rights groups and community members in Oakland and other cities where he’s worked, like his support of the “broken windows” strategy, in which minor crimes like public urination are dealt with strongly to discourage more serious crimes, and his encouragement of “stop-and-frisk,” a tactic that allows an officer to stop someone suspected of a crime and frisk the individual if he or she feels their safety is in danger.
At the January 22 Oakland City Council meeting, when the council voted in the $250,000 contract for Bratton’s group, residents packed the chambers, to express both concerns and support for the newly hired Oakland Police Department crime consultant group. Opponents of stop-and-frisk have put up a bus shelter poster outside the Grand Lake Theater depicting a group of young people with their hands against a wall as a police officer pats them down. The poster reads: “Bratton go home! This is not what a community looks like.”
Some community leaders, especially in the faith-based community, have expressed support for Bratton’s new role in Oakland. “We have to do everything we possibly can to bring the violence down and reduce crime,” said Pastor Gerald Agee of Friendship Christian Center International, who attended the January 22 council meeting in support of the consultant group. “If it’s William Bratton, who has a track record of bringing down crime in Los Angeles and New York, then let’s do it.”
But some community groups like PUEBLO, which advocates for low-income Oakland residents and opposed the approval of the consultant contract, have raised concerns that aggressive use of policies like stop-and-frisk will lead to racial profiling. They also worry that the city is spending too much on consultants. “There’s plenty of expertise available for little to no money,” said Rashidah Grinage, director of PUEBLO. “We don’t agree that in order for us to bring down violence, that we have to award a $250,000 contract to a so-called expert.”
Bratton did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. But there is no shortage of articles, studies and analyses of Bratton and his work based on his long career in law enforcement that show how he has led police forces in other cities.
From an early age, Bratton wanted to be a police officer. In his autobiography, Turnaround, Bratton says his family discovered his career ambition when he was one and a half years old and wandered away from his backyard. His mother, frantic, followed the sound of cars honking to the middle of a busy street in Boston, where the toddler Bratton was directing traffic.
Bratton soon followed that ambition, first serving as a military police officer in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War. In 1970, he returned to his native Boston and joined the city’s police department. He spent 10 years with the force, advancing through the ranks to become the superintendent of police—the department’s highest sworn rank—by 1980.
There are few newspaper articles detailing his time with the Boston Police Department, but a 2007 Governing magazine article describes an instance in 1975, when Bratton, then a sergeant, encountered a gunman who had just been involved in a bank holdup and was holding a hostage. Instead of following a rule of hostage negotiations—never give up your cover—Bratton lowered his weapon and asked the gunman to do the same. The man complied.
“Bratton had a new reputation as someone who was either very brave—or very foolhardy,” reporter John Buntin wrote in the article.
In the 1980s, Bratton left the Boston Police Department to take charge of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Police and the Massachusetts Metropolitan District Commission Police. Then, in 1990, he joined the New York City Transit Police Department, where he tested many of the policing strategies he would later be known for, such as CompStat, a program that maps crime data to identify patterns and problems. Today CompStat is used in many cities, including Oakland.
While many people think of CompStat as a type of software, it is actually just a mapping method police can use to decide the number of officers to deploy to an area and measure where specific crimes are occurring, said Junious Williams, CEO of Oakland’s Urban Strategies Council, which used to help the OPD with data analysis and mapping of crime hotspots. (Crime mapping is now done by analysts within the department.)
In a 1992 interview with the City Journal, a national urban policy magazine, Bratton said the potential impact of new policing technologies, like computer applications designed specifically for police work, was “extremely promising.”
“We always have a fight at budget time over whether to invest in technology or hire additional men,” Bratton told the interviewer. “And I try to make the point that while spending $2 million on hiring men will give us twenty men for one year, a $2 million investment in technology will provide efficiencies that give us the equivalent of another twenty cops year after year.”
Though Bratton is better known for his time at the NYPD and LAPD, his efforts at the New York City Transit Police should not be overlooked, said Eugene O’Donnell, a law professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who has written about policing. O’Donnell is a former NYPD officer, but did not serve under Bratton.
Before Bratton arrived, O’Donnell said the agency was inefficient and demoralized, and officers had equipment that was not always functional. Sometimes, the officers’ radios would not even work underground. There was always an excuse for not updating the radios, Bratton said in the City Journal article. “For whatever reason—whether political, bureaucratic, or personality-driven—there was a vacuum of leadership,” the article quotes Bratton as saying of the Transit Police before he assumed responsibility for the agency.
To improve morale, Bratton said in the article, he encouraged command staff to leave their desks and go into the transit system to see what their officers were facing, and efficiency improved when the transit police used plainclothes “sweep teams” which went into the subway system and looked for problems, mostly fare evaders. Catching fare evaders, Bratton said in the article, made criminals think twice about bringing weapons into the system.
The success at bringing fare evaders to justice also energized the department and boosted morale, according to a 2008 Yale School of Management study on Bratton and his policing methods in New York. “Young Bill Bratton took the lead on the transit police and literally transformed the agency,” O’Donnell said. “His finest hour was when he took over the New York Transit Police.”
Bratton left the New York City Transit Police in 1992 to take the job of police commissioner back at his home department in Boston. He stayed only for a year, and in 1994, he returned to New York to head the city’s police department. He immediately announced a new goal for the force: A 10 percent reduction in crime for that year.
Bratton is credited with the largest crime reduction in New York City’s history. In two years, 1994 and 1995, all 76 precincts saw a double-digit decline in crime, with serious crime falling 32 percent and murder decreasing 47 percent, according to the 2008 Yale study.
“He started a program that developed over the next 15 years that was both effective and also aggressive and costly in that regard,” said Franklin Zimring, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Law, who wrote a book about New York City’s crime drop between the years of 1990 and 2009.
Before Bratton, O’Donnell said, commanders of precincts did not always know what was going on in their neighborhood. Under Bratton, command staff became minutely aware of crime, both because Bratton emphasized responsibility over the precincts and because of the crime patterns and practices illuminated by CompStat. “You could no longer shrug your shoulders,” O’Donnell said.
Bratton put two of his most famous policing strategies into practice at the NYPD—CompStat and developing policing practices based on the “broken windows” theory, originated by social scientists James Wilson and George Kelling in 1982, which posits that smaller crimes, such a vandalism, create an urban environment in which more serious problems can develop. Since then, police departments across the nation have developed strategies based on this theory, which aim to deter more serious crimes by strictly policing petty crimes.
Bratton also deployed officers to crime hot spots, Zimring said. Bratton prioritized the destruction of public drug markets in the city and allowed the police force to become more aggressive about stopping people suspected of criminal activity, Zimring said.
Officers would often stop and frisk individuals when searching for a suspect, rather than passively waiting for the suspect to make him or herself known, O’Donnell said. “Some say this became a license to stop and frisk and that it was not as carefully calibrated as it should have been,” he said. “The challenge is to stop the extremism—either you have to do massive numbers of stop and frisk, or you have to stand the police down.”
According to the 2008 Yale study, Bratton had a 71 percent approval rating from the community at the end of his second year as commissioner. The department, as a whole, received a 73 percent approval rating, according to the study.
The number of citizen complaints of police misconduct also slightly decreased during Bratton’s time with the department. According to data from the New York City Civilian Complaint Review Board, an independent organization that investigates charges of police misconduct, the number of complaints decreased by 0.4 percent from 1995 to 1996—the tail end of Bratton’s leadership. Total allegations, including those for abuse of authority, fell from 9,139 to 8,869, a decrease of 3 percent.
But Bratton also famously butted heads with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who initially hired him. “[Giuliani] wasn’t about sharing the limelight with Bratton,” said O’Donnell. “[Bratton] probably would acknowledge that his ego was in the way at the time. He has said that he made the mistake of seeming to eclipse Giuliani.”
This would lead to further problems, according to the Yale study. “Bratton’s poll numbers were higher than Giuliani’s, and the mayor was interested in regaining control of the NYPD and taking credit for the reduction in the crime rate,” the study concluded. After Giuliani vetoed several of Bratton’s police officer promotions and ordered an investigation into Bratton’s trips and book contract, according to the Yale study, the commissioner resigned in March, 1996.
After leaving the NYPD, Bratton moved into the private sector, opening a law enforcement consulting firm called The Bratton Group, LLC. The group has done advisory work with agencies across the world, including extensive work in South America. At the same time, he became involved with the Kroll Associates monitoring team that was overseeing the Los Angeles Police Department’s consent decree. This court order for reform was put in place after the LAPD’s Rampart scandal, in which more than 70 officers in an anti-gang unit stole cocaine, and framed or shot gang members.
“You had a law enforcement, the LAPD, out of control, and there was a real mess here in Los Angeles,” said Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, who worked on an analysis of the LAPD’s internal investigation of the Rampart scandal. “The city needed someone to clean it up and clean it up fast. Bratton did an amazing job—a herculean job—at chief of police.”
In 2002, when Bratton took over the LAPD, he arrived during a contentious time between the police and the community. At the time, “there was a lot of distrust of the police, a lot of animosity, probably both ways between police and some members of the community,” said LAPD Commander Andrew Smith, who is part of the department’s media relations and community affairs group.
At an early meeting with the command staff, Smith said Bratton encouraged the department to create positive change in their community relations. “He said, ‘Look, the police have been at the center, and even the cause of animosity in the community in the past. There’s no reason we can’t be leaders,’” Smith said.
When Bratton arrived, he made no secret of his thoughts of the police force, Smith recalled. “He told us we were an underperforming department,” Smith said. “He held people to a very high standard.”
Bratton quickly made changes in personnel: Removing or downgrading senior command officers, or telling others that there was no place for them in his organization because they were not up to his standards, which led to several retirements, Smith said. “When Bratton came on, everybody bumped up their game,” Smith said. “Everyone saw the writing on the wall that if you weren’t performing … you weren’t going to be in your position long.”
Smith said LAPD officers were initially disappointed that Bratton, an outsider, had been selected as chief over several LAPD candidates. In retrospect, Smith said, he thought it was what the department needed. “It was a brilliant move for us … to bring in a proven law enforcement expert,” he said. “The same challenges in LA were things he turned around in New York.”
Bratton brought CompStat to Los Angeles and began to train officers to use the system. After the numbers were crunched, officers could determine where crimes were occurring and were better able to respond rapidly, said Detective Tyler Izen, who is currently the president of the Los Angeles police union. Crime dropped each year under Bratton’s tenure, with serious crimes falling 33 percent and homicides decreasing by 41 percent, according to an Oakland city report released in January. This past year marked 10 straight years of crime reduction, Izen said.
“Almost immediately, crime started to go down, I think in large part because of [Bratton’s] attention to those CompStat numbers—where crimes were occurring, rapidly responding [to them], and giving commanding officers the latitude to respond,” he said.
Both officers said Bratton improved police relations with the community. Whether it was going out to dinner with community leaders or firing officers that needed to be removed, Smith said Bratton was able to reassure people that he would keep officers accountable and disciplined. Bratton also raised the morale of his officers and increased hiring, Izen said. “He did a lot of good things—I would say he was the right guy at the right time,” Izen said.
Levenson said Bratton made sure his officers understood their duty to the community and worked with civil rights groups, revamped the LAPD’s disciplinary system and integrated civilian oversight. “He was extremely professional,” she said. “He didn’t take the attitude that the police were above the law.”
Rev. Leonard Jackson, former head of the First AME Church in South LA who also served as an LAPD chaplain for 25 years, described Bratton’s tactics as “community policing at its best.”
“I heard this word from him so often, it became part of my vocabulary: transparency,” Jackson said. “In the past, it was always ‘us’ and ‘them.’ With community policing, the community is well informed and the community is what drives policies.”
As with Oakland, Jackson said, initially community members were concerned that “stop and frisk” policies would result in greater racial profiling issues in Los Angeles. But, he said, Bratton relieved those concerns. “He would not let racial profiling become an issue,” Jackson said. “He kept track of everything.”
A 2009 Harvard study asked Los Angeles residents to rate the quality of the LAPD. More than 80 percent gave the department a “good” or “excellent” rating. But alongside the positive responses, some community members said they were unsure of how long the cultural change in the department would last. Others said they sensed “resistance to change from below,” meaning among rank and file officers, and that the community was full of “dry brush,” meaning racial tensions.
A specific focus group studied by the same Harvard researchers on older teenagers and young adults was dominated by complaints about police, which the study said reflected a larger trend of younger people’s discontent with law enforcement experiences.
Bratton stayed with the LAPD for seven years before leaving in 2009. Since then, Bratton has stayed away from top police department positions, and has served as a private security consultant. He has worked on a number of consulting cases both with his group and Kroll Associates. He is also a frequent lecturer and commentator on law enforcement matters and counterterrorism. His work in Oakland is expected to begin in mid-February, and the team will only be in the city for six months before it must give its report on how to improve public safety in Oakland.
It’s a tall order. Oakland’s crime rate has risen in the past year, with the murder rate increasing 22 percent from 2011-2012. In 2011, there were 103 homicides. Three of these victims were under the age of six—a saddening statistic that stood out from other years. One year later, the total number of homicides jumped to 131. Burglaries increased by 43 percent and robberies went up by 24 percent between 2011 and 2012.
In addition, the city and police department are just now emerging from a nearly decade-long threat of federal receivership as a result of the Riders’ case. As part of its 2003 settlement, the OPD was assigned a federal monitor to ensure the department carried out 51 reforms, ranging from the management of police internal investigations to improving a computerized system to track at-risk officers based on data like sick leave and involvement in officer-involved shootings.
In December, Judge Thelton Henderson approved the hiring of a compliance director, rather than a federal receiver, to finish out the final three reforms.
After all of his experiences with other police departments, O’Donnell said he thinks Bratton is more effective now than ever. “I think he really has grown in the job. I think, after all, cops start as cops, and they’re not usually political. But when you’re a police agency, you have to be political,” O’Donnell said. “Navigating around circumstances and large cities and minorities in large numbers that the challenge is to grow into a comfort level with that.”
He added, “I thought [Bratton] was outstanding in New York, but I think he’s even better now with all of the experiences he’s had.”
Some community groups are not as convinced. PUEBLO director Rashidah Grinage said she thinks the consultant contract is merely a “cosmetic” move to show residents that the city is serious about reducing violence. She pointed to the fact that the OPD already has a CompStat system in place, one of the reasons given by Robert Wasserman, head of the consultant group, for Bratton’s coming. “They wanted to do something spectacular to appease the people who are growing alarmed about the level of violence in the city,” Grinage said.
She said the city should have looked to Richmond as a violence reduction model—the nearby city recorded only 18 homicides in 2012, its lowest figure since 2001. She also said the city should consider other nonviolence measures like organizing meetings or basketball games between rival groups in the neighborhood, an initiative that was tried in Chicago.
Bratton’s reputed style of policing also plays a factor in PUEBLO’s opposition to the consulting panel. Grinage said Bratton’s aggressive crime fighting strategies in New York resulted in misreporting of crime data because some officers wanted to over-inflate their numbers to show how proactive they were in their policing.
(The Yale study attributed aggressive policing to the dominance of CompStat. “Some officers questioned whether prosecuting quality-of-life offenses was turning into harassment,” the study stated. “One commander told The New York Times that he felt so much pressure to crack down on public drunkenness that he pushed his officers to scrutinize anyone holding a paper bag or a plastic cup. ‘You are so desperate to get these summonses, you are … sniffing their coffee,’ he complained.”)
Grinage said racial profiling by police was also associated with Bratton’s aggressive law enforcement strategies and that this kind of policing could damage Oakland. “We believe that this style of aggressive targeting without probable cause is the reason we are in this consent decree in the first place,” she said, referring to the Riders settlement. “We certainly don’t need that reinforced.”
In Oakland, Bratton will take on the role of advisor, rather than the lead command position he has assumed in previous departments. City officials are heavily emphasizing his shared role, as well as the fact that Oakland police already use stop-and-frisk as a tactic, and have policies meant to discourage racial profiling or other unconstitutional behaviors.
“Bill Bratton does more than stop-and-frisk. He has done a lot more with the community that doesn’t get recognized,” said OPD Chief Howard Jordan at a press conference in late January after the city council voted to approve the consultants’ contract. “If you look at his track record … he really felt that the community needed to be involved at every level of the planning.”
He continued, “I don’t want to make this about Bill Bratton. He is the most recognizable figure on the team, but it’s not about Bill.”
Zimring said Bratton’s experience with the LAPD could be valuable for his work in Oakland. “Los Angeles was a place where they had horrendous policing legality problems, the Rampart scandals and the need to comply” with the consent decree, Zimring said. “At the same time, they had gang-related crime challenges. Management initiatives that were made after 2002, after he arrived, made both situations better at the same time.”
However, Zimring cautioned that the consultant group would only work in Oakland if it is coordinated with other city officials and does not add to the “chaotically organized political and administrative set of players relating to police and policing.”
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