Breaking Bratton

The left hopes to push a de Blasio administration, but his police commissioner may not budge.

The New York City left’s plan for working with incoming mayor Bill de Blasio is to use his dependence on progressives’ support to hold his feet to the fire when he drifts too far to the right. But will such a strategy work for police policy, with activists aiming to eliminate quotas and stop and frisk, when de Blasio’s NYPD commissioner is someone so self-absorbed and intransigent that he earned a pink slip from Rudy Giuliani the last time he held the post, and is a key architect of the policing philosophy that helped produce such reactionary policies in the first place?

The announcement that the progressive mayor-elect would bring in the mastermind of the aggressive police tactics that defined the city in the 1990s angered progressives. Not only does the choice lessen the possibility of meaningful reform in the NYPD, but it threatens de Blasio’s ability to make good on his grand promise to address economic equality in the city.

The move shouldn’t be a surprise. De Blasio needs a law-and-order police head because he fears any rise in crime under his watch would embolden his right-wing critics, and a former NYPD commissioner is an acceptable replacement for Ray Kelly in the eyes of the force’s rank and file. (The city’s largest police union has already praised the appointment.)

But the mayor-elect’s choice of Bratton goes beyond an attempt to keep an onerous but important constituency placated. De Blasio’s choice also signals to the city’s finance and real estate sectors that he isn’t the Occupy Wall Street candidate some right-wing editorial boards fear — Bratton reportedly says he would have evicted the Zuccotti Park encampment on day one. And then there’s Bratton’s record of instituting George Kelling and James Q. Wilson’s “broken windows” theory of policing in New York City — a policing strategy centered on automatic suspicion of the poor and disenfranchised.

In a clip from the documentary Giuliani Time, Bratton and his then–Deputy Commissioner Jack Maple discuss how their anti-crime tactics were modeled on the British air defense’s World War II strategy of predicting where enemy fighters were coming from. Bratton, whose firm demeanor and thick Boston accent are supposed to be symbols of his take-no-shit attitude, was hardly the first American police chief to further militarize public safety. But he stood out as a public servant who very clearly believed that someone who was homeless, lacked money, or was in need of food or medicine was not a victim of circumstance or even a citizen that simply needed help, but a likely enemy soldier in a never-ending war.

Police sycophants usually respond to this point by celebrating the reduction in crime in the city. But crime has been going down in the nation since the 1980s in general, and different regions and cities have used different policing tactics. The dip in crime is largely a result of capital investment into what were once seen as “blighted” inner cities, pushing out existing communities to make way for condos.

For Bratton, Giuliani, and other adherents to the theory, fixing a neighborhood’s broken windows and addressing other “quality of life” issues didn’t mean cleaning up and investing in a community for the benefit of its inhabitants, but displacing those undesirable residents to the outskirts while attracting a whiter, richer demographic. The drop in crime statistics in a place like Williamsburg and Bushwick is as much the result of high-end real estate developers as the doggedness of the Brooklyn North Command.

The NYPD’s increasing militarization, then, has to be understood as a class issue rather than simply the overzealousness of the state. Gaping inequality, rising rents, and stagnant wages create a growing population for whom the necessities of life are never within reach; a class of people who are to be surveilled, monitored, and generally treated with suspicion until they are eventually forced out of the city.

And Bratton’s definition of victory in this “war” shouldn’t be overlooked. The quotas for arrests and stop-and-frisk, criticized by reform advocates and average cops alike, are the result of Bratton’s deference to cold metrics. Robert Gangi of the Police Reform Organizing Project illustrates this point by repeating what one cop told him: If a cop breaks up a fight between two kids, he doesn’t get any credit. If he delivers a baby in an elevator, he doesn’t get any credit. He only gets credit if he brings in an arrest.

Bratton has left a legacy of criminological bean counting that is central to twenty-first century policing. Cops are urged to downgrade offenses or dissuade victims from filing police reports out of fear that the numbers would show a rise in crime. As Leonard Levitt explains in his book NYPD Confidential, this system provides no incentive for detectives to conduct long-term investigations that could lead to arrests of major criminals like mob bosses, instead rewarding the street cops who can round up as many low-level drug dealers and petty thieves as possible.

And Bratton, who turned his status as a public servant into celebrity, was defensive not only of his policies, but his ability to promote them. As Levitt also documents, Bratton believed the city’s media answered to him, not Giuliani — a tension that ultimately led to his ouster.

A de Blasio administration can open opportunities for the Left to hold the mayor accountable. The police violence during Occupy Wall Street and the civil rights communities organizing around stop-and-frisk helped create a new coalition that was able get two pieces of police reform legislation passed in the City Council with a veto-proof majority under Mayor Bloomberg. But Bratton was notorious for running his own show even under Giuliani, a man well-known for his obsession with personal loyalty.

Bratton’s return is not just startling for New York City, but sets a troubling precedent for progressive Democratic activists in major cities, many of whom look to New York City as a standard setter. Even if the rabble can push the new progressive mayor, on issues of policing, it’s unlikely that the commissioner will budge.