Racist Policing in the De Blasio Era: Bill Bratton’s Crusade to Save a Dying Brand

The tide is beginning to turn in the criminal justice conversation in the United States as four decades of exponential growth of the prison system and the police state have led to fragmented communities, stark racial disproportionalities and exorbitant expense. Yet the commissioner of the largest police force in the country, William “Bill” Bratton of the New York City Police Department (NYPD), remains an unmoving boulder in the surf, standing fast to policies that assisted him in coming to fame as violent crime crested in the 1990s, but which now stand at irreconcilable odds with the shifting national discourse.

Even while President Barack Obama and US Attorney General Eric Holder, the foremost law enforcement officers in the nation (for now), are speaking out about the burdens on communities, particularly those already marginalized due to predominant racial and economic demographics, that the criminal justice system has levied, Bratton remains the little boy with his finger in the dam, trying his best to hold back what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once described as history’s inevitable march toward justice. Bratton, in his swan song, is cementing his legacy where it began – as an agent of state repression during the civil rights movement – squarely on the wrong side of history.

Earlier this summer Bratton, who in January was brought back to New York for a second tour as commissioner by self-styled progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio, tried to clear up what he described as “misunderstandings” about the NYPD having a race problem.

Spending one morning in any criminal courthouse in the city transports you back to the legally segregated United States.

“Are there more minorities impacted by enforcement? Yes. I’m not denying that . . . But it’s not an intentional focus on minorities. It’s a focus on behavior . . . We are not a racist organization – not at all,” Bratton told the Associated Press as part of a media-oriented clean-up session following the choking death of Staten Island resident Eric Garner by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo in July. Garner was African-American. The city’s medical team ruled Garner’s death a homicide; Bratton stated that race had no impact on the incident whatsoever. De Blasio supported him and City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito similarly dodged questions about the explicit role of race in Garner’s death.

In a recent interview, journalist Jorge Ramos asked de Blasio if Garner would be alive today if he was white, pointing to the disproportionate racial statistics of the NYPD as they relate to the use of force. The NYPD’s use of force statistics have, of course, recently come under scrutiny after a City Council whistle-blower challenged Bratton’s assessment of the issue and was subsequently fired.

Spending one morning in any criminal courthouse in the city transports you back to the legally segregated United States. And yet NYPD consultant and cheerleader George Kelling recently insisted in The New York Times: “It’s not the police’s fault.” Bratton’s complicated perspective on the role of race in law enforcement outcomes is a point of view Andrew Taslitz explains as “racial blindsight” – a subconscious understanding that race does indeed provide an organizing structure for society even while refusing to acknowledge bias and instead constructing psychological fallacies so as to remain consciously blind to the harmful effect of racial inequities. Taslitz offers that because people and institutions are fully capable of removing their blinders to the implications of race, and yet refuse to do so – often for their own benefit – this type of self-deception is particularly “morally reprehensible.”

The broken windows pop psychology that undergirds much of contemporary policing in the United States, particularly in New York City under Bratton – its most well-known exponent – is based fundamentally on racially informed understandings of so-called order.

As hard as Bratton – and de Blasio – try to spin the NYPD as not having a race problem, this position runs contrary to the vast bulk of research on the topic. The United States has a race problem and any institution, particularly one of law enforcement, is going to reflect this reality. For obvious examples, see the Human Rights Watch report on how ostensibly race-neutral drug policies came to disproportionately affect African-Americans on a national scale, Khalil Gibran Muhammad’s seminal work on the creation of black criminality in the United States, and Babe Howell’s research study on misdemeanor arrests in New York City.

Mychal Denzel Smith at The Nation recently described the inescapable influence race plays on policing in the United States:

We don’t escape America’s history of racism because we believe ourselves to be good people, or that we’re just doing our jobs. It’s already defined our lives.

Racism created these neighborhoods where people live in poverty without access to decent jobs. Racism has determined which activities are illegal and who has been arrested for those actions. The selling of untaxed cigarettes, for example, for which police officers were attempting to arrest Eric Garner, is a petty crime that is almost exclusively enforced in communities of color. Racism taught us who is and is not a threat. Racism provided the justification for eliminating the threat. Before Eric Garner ever met Officer Daniel Pantaleo, the policeman who put him in the chokehold, racism had completed the work of shaping how they would interact.

The role of the police is to maintain the social order; unfortunately, here in the United States that social order is one where opportunities are doled out or limited on the basis of race. In short, the social order is a racist one, characterized primarily by white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalistic exploitation. Focusing on the optics of the issue, a coalition of groups have written the commissioner about the lack of ethnic diversity among the NYPD’s top commanders – nearly all of whom are white.

The Police Reform Organizing Project recently published a report detailing the racial discrimination that remains a part of the NYPD even under its “progressive” leadership.

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The broken windows pop psychology that undergirds much of contemporary policing in the United States, particularly in New York City under Bratton – its most well-known exponent – is based fundamentally on racially informed understandings of so-called order. Beginning in the early 1990s, when Bratton was first commissioner of the NYPD, policing became disproportionately concentrated on the city’s poorest, most racially non-white neighborhoods; this was after controlling for crime rates and physical disorder. As what is sometimes referred to as order maintenance policing was studied, researchers found that police, like other residents, described as most disorderly not those neighborhoods with the most objective disorder, but rather those neighborhoods that were most densely populated with black residents. A 2002 study found that police officers in video simulations viewed unarmed African-Americans as more threatening than equally unarmed individuals of other races. This is similarly reflected in Bratton’s current crusade against subway performers.

It was CompStat that led to stop-and-frisk, and the modern reality that almost no white people are arrested for marijuana or other petty violations in New York City.

During the 1990s, these biases were systematized through the use of CompStat. Whatever its impact on reducing crime, and that remains very much in dispute, there is perhaps no other modern policing advance that is more directly responsible for the racialized criminalization of black and Latino residents and communities in New York City. It was CompStat that led to stop-and-frisk, and the modern reality that almost no white people are arrested for marijuana or other petty violations in New York City. Bratton forced precinct commanders to make arrests, summonses and stops in neighborhoods that were identified by the NYPD as “high-crime” to show that they were doing something to reduce the crime statistics. Thus officers preyed on specific demographics to meet these quotas – euphemistically referred to as productivity goals – usually targeting those groups without political power, groups already marginalized by a host of other public policy decisions. Criminologist Franklin Zimring, an outspoken supporter of Bratton and broken windows recently explained that the minor arrests – specifically marijuana arrests – didn’t really have anything to do with reducing crime directly:

The police were not really interested in the possession of marijuana but instead used marijuana arrests to try to discover people with felony warrants outstanding against them.

This use of minor arrests as a pretext targets many young men of color who don’t have warrants against them, so the problems of fairness with that tactic and stop-and-frisk are legitimate.

Meanwhile the research began piling up to show that the intensifying arrests for low-level infractions had no bearing on the reductions of serious crimes. Bratton himself recently acknowledged this during an interview on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show in which he explained the fervor he displays for broken windows policing is simply from a gut feeling that it works, from his personal experience. He was quick to clarify that the results of “academic science,” which might otherwise appear to point toward the philosophy’s demise, have no bearing on his calculus. Now, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is considering a deep-dive of its own into “broken windows” policing, which others in the federal government have termed to be racially discriminatory.

We are left with a style of policing that shares a great deal in common with the black codes of the Reconstruction South.

And so we are left with a style of policing that shares a great deal in common with the black codes of the Reconstruction South. Riding a bike on the sidewalk is not considered disorderly in white neighborhoods, but it is in black neighborhoods. Possession of marijuana is de facto legal in white neighborhoods, but not in black neighborhoods. Black New Yorkers are under especially great scrutiny when they travel in mostly-white neighborhoods. Human Rights Watch took the extraordinary step of weighing in on a local policy issue. One New York City Councilmember recently penned an op-ed detailing the way in which the NYPD is arresting black residents of New York for patently legal behaviors.

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Perhaps the most racist aspect of the NYPD is Bratton’s attachment to a bankrupt policing philosophy that necessitates racially skewed outcomes even as it has been soundly disproved by research. At a recent public forum on policing, Queens College professor Harry Levine explained, perhaps, how someone like Bratton, educated as he is on the topic, could still cling to a policy that appeared promising in the early 1990s, but has since, after decades of study by sociologists, criminologists and economists, been largely debunked as having any significant criminological efficacy.

Bratton has built a significant international brand of policing during his 40 years in law enforcement. His private sector consulting work includes board membership of several companies that sell technology, surveillance gear and other police niceties such as Kroll Inc., Motorola Solutions and ShotSpotter Inc., which coincidentally or not, was just hired by the NYPD to provide gunshot detection services in the Bronx. He now has his own consulting firm, Bratton Technologies, which is developing a social-media network for law enforcement. As chief of the NYPD so far this year, Bratton has made two consulting trips to Israel, and previously engaged with the London Police Department about consulting there – the city turned him down. Bratton and Kroll CEO Emanuele Conti were recently honored side-by-side at an annual New York Fire Department benefit.

Bratton is unlikely to be commissioner in New York City for very long, and his stop here may simply be to burnish his resume before moving back into the private sector. If that’s the case, as Levine points out, he cannot abandon his ideological bread and butter, even if he might disagree with it, even if it has been rejected by all who have seriously studied it. But if Bratton, for his personal financial gain, in the face of decades of research to the contrary, continues to export a policing philosophy that necessarily leads to the criminalization of marginalized groups – specifically here in New York City, black men – what exactly is going on?