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Bill Bratton: NYPD Huckster?

NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton seems to see his role as dampening controversy over the force’s tactics, not rooting out tactics that are criminal or ineffective.

Bill Bratton.NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton. (Photo: Policy Exchange / Flickr)On February 10, 2014, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton stated definitively that his role at the helm of the nation’s largest police force is to improve the perception of the department in those communities that see the most involvement from the NYPD – primarily low-income communities of color. The former policing regime under Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly was effective, Bratton said, but controversial – and thus he has been tasked with bringing the agency into a more favorable light. Correcting this controversy is Bratton’s mission, a nuanced role that seems to place him amid a trifecta of competing pressures – accountability, the morale of the officers and the way the NYPD is viewed by the public. Bratton says he agrees with NYPD critics who say that stop-and-frisk as practiced through mid-2013 was problematic. While critics might suggest that the practice was illegal, humiliating, racist and an abuse of state authority, Bratton insisted Monday that the primary problem with the policy was that it became a divisive issue. Previously, he claimed that the stop-and-frisk problem had “been solved” during the final months of the Bloomberg administration. He clearly stated on Monday that stop-and-frisk, like Operation Impact, not only will remain in place but will be “re-energized” under his own and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s oversight. The “overuse” of stop-and-frisk aside, it appears that Bratton suggests that the issue facing New York City is not one of an over-reaching or overly aggressive police force but one of messaging; it’s as if he’s offering an aggressive rebrand as a prescription for strained NYPD-community relationships. Bratton evaded the one question posed to him Monday seeking specific tactical changes to the NYPD trainings around stop-and-frisk, answering only with a reiteration of his dedication to community policing, a term he has yet to publicly define.

The location of Bratton’s recent speech, the keynote of this week’s ninth annual John Jay College of Criminal Justice Conference on Crime in America, provided an interesting context. The conference, titled Justice & Prosperity: Reviving the Economic Potential of America’s Justice-Involved Communities and Individuals, has the stated purpose of bringing academics, law enforcement and corporate executives together with journalists to provide a particular frame for the way criminal justice issues are described in the media. As highlighted by Bratton, the conference seemed to be mostly about messaging – although it’s perhaps important to acknowledge that there was not a single representative from “America’s Justice-Involved Communities” among the speakers of the two-day event. Police brutality was never mentioned, and Bratton praised the utility of the police force as a catalyst for economic development, read: gentrification. John Jay President Jeremy Travis, while introducing Bratton, described himself as a close friend of the chief and touched on their long professional relationship, which began in the early 1990s, when both held positions at the NYPD. Bratton is also the boss of Travis’s wife, Susan Herman, recently appointed to a deputy commissioner role in the NYPD. Bratton joked that one of Travis’s accomplishments at John Jay was creating, at a public school, the feeling of a private university for inner-city students who would not be able to afford it, through, at least in part, cosmetic upgrades. This, an apparent theme for the day.

Bratton often is praised for his devotion to Broken Windows-style order-maintenance policing, which has been widely debunked as a crime-reduction strategy. On Monday, John Jay professor Preeti Chauhan and Richard Rosenfeld of the University of Missouri-St. Louis – minutes after Bratton received applause from a roomful of journalists for his keynote on the importance of keeping stop-and-frisk in place – explained how the best research shows that order-maintenance policing can account for between 10 percent and 0 percent of the crime declines of the past two decades. Stop-and-frisk and other aggressive policing tactics do deter victims from contacting the police, artificially lowering reported crime rates, Chauhan said. There is also research that suggests that continued negative police encounters over time may actually lead to criminal behavior, Rosenfeld added. Blumstein said drug-sale arrests, in particular, drive up crime rates because they have little impact on the demand for drugs and replace seasoned, more-experienced sellers with younger and younger dealers who have less discretion, are less steeped in arrest avoidance and have greater cause for conflict over territory. Rosenfeld compared the relationship of the police and crime to that of a doctor and diabetes. While the doctor – like the police – plays an important role, it is limited. Other factors are far more influential, he said.

Without a doubt, violent crime in New York City is low when compared with that of other cities across the United States – although since 2009, it has been trending up. The reasons for New York’s relatively low crime rates are impossible to discern, Al Blumstein of Carnegie Mellon University said Monday. It’s complicated, but the role of policing in crime reduction appears – at least to the science – to be limited. While the 2008 recession was noted as a potential catalyst for crime, there was no discussion Monday of the rampant illegalities of the financial industry, which continue to drive inequality and create the conditions that are most regularly associated with violent crime. Economic factors remain the chief indicators for most crime.

Yet Bratton has the task of being the pitchman for a city agency that wants all of the credit. This stance got him fired from this very post last time around, although he appears to have more support from City Hall nowadays than he received under Giuliani. Throughout his tenure in law enforcement, Bratton has been considered a cop’s cop. He has been persistent about not holding individual officers accountable to the law – be it for police brutality or even smaller indiscretions. So far this year, officers continue to be recorded on camera phones throughout the city beating residents, even as Bratton says over and over again, “We will not break the law to enforce the law.” When officers bloodied up an 84-year-old jaywalker last month, Bratton said they had done nothing wrong. Bratton said not a word about the off-duty officer who pulled a gun on a group of teens in a snowball fight. He wants to return to active status those officers who are in administrative hock for shooting civilians. He recently put the kibosh on an internal NYPD probe into beer found in a precinct house. While a cynic might suggest that the failure to arrest officers and to push for indictments is the result of the protectionist mentality of the blue wall of silence, perhaps it makes more sense within the context of public relations. Perhaps the morale of the officers, the positive perception of the police by the public, requires that officers be held to a lower standard of conduct than the rest of us – and that we take the bait and enjoy willful ignorance. Perhaps the NYPD cannot afford for its officers to be found criminally liable because it places the legitimacy of the agency in the eyes of the community on precarious footing. But is it possible to create trust between the public and the police without doing this? It appears as if Bratton, with his full-court public relations press, is going to give it his best shot – is going to keep telling us, “There is nothing to see here folks.”

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