After a long and storied career in law enforcement, New York City police Commissioner Bill Bratton on Tuesday announced his resignation. Bratton, a 45-year-veteran of police work who has served as the top cop in Boston, Los Angeles and New York, said he’d be stepping down next month to pursue a job in the private sector.
His departure signals an end of an era, one that saw an almost unfathomable drop in crime but also the rise of mass incarceration and erosion of trust between the police and the communities they serve. In recent years, as high-profile police killings, including the choke-hold death of Eric Garner by police on Staten Island, have sparked nationwide protest and unrest, Bratton has tried to forge new partnerships between officers and people of color.
But for many, the end of Bratton’s tenure and his role as one of the most significant forces shaping American policing couldn’t have come soon enough.
“Commissioner Bratton was no reformer to communities impacted by abusive and discriminatory policing,” said Anthonine Pierre, a spokesman for Communities United for Police Reform, “no matter how much he and his supporters attempt to promote that fallacy.”
When New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tapped veteran top-cop Bratton to serves as commissioner of the NYPD, it was a curious choice given the uber-liberal mayor’s talk of bridge building. Bratton, who first served as the city’s police commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani in the early 1990s, was viewed by many as the hard-nosed architect of one of the most controversial police policies in the country: “broken windows," a predecessor of "stop and frisk” policing.
De Blasio, a Democrat, was elected on a campaign that widely rejected police tactics like stop and frisk, an aggressive approach that resulted in hundreds of thousands of innocent black and Hispanic New Yorkers being stopped, searched and harassed by police. A federal judge later said the department violated the constitutional rights of those it stopped, and ordered widespread change to department policy.
Bratton, during the height of the crack epidemic of the '80s and '90s, helped shape the department’s push into communities of color via broken windows policing, a strategy in which police took a zero-tolerance approach to misdemeanor offenses like loitering. Critics say broken windows, which targeted poor communities of color, was little more than a cog in the machine of mass incarceration that had gobbled up generations of mostly minority men across the country.
But supporters credit the crackdown with driving down crime in the city. Since a peak in violent crime in the mid-1990s, the crime rate in New York City and across the country has dropped dramatically. But the connection between more aggressive policing and the drop in crime remains foggy at best, since crime has decreased across the country during the same time period in cities that did not employ similar tactics.
Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said that while Bratton should be commended for dialing back his predecessor’s use of stop-and-frisk, and for implementing the department’s first use of force policy and instituting important police training, his reliance on broken windows has been troubling.
“Despite these accomplishments, Commissioner Bratton remains stubbornly committed to broken windows policing,” Lieberman said. “This outmoded policing model of the 1990s is not effective and thrusts millions of New Yorkers into the clutches of the criminal justice system.”
Bratton, who was chief of police in Los Angeles between 2002 and 2009, was praised for reining in and diversifying an LAPD that for decades prior had been rife with corruption, racism and a lack of diversity. He was lauded for making accountability and constitutional policing part of the culture.
But during his tenure in Los Angeles, there was also an extraordinary spike in the number of pedestrians stopped by police and accusations of profiling were raised by the public.
His appointment in New York City, while offering a strong, no-nonsense face to the police department, seemed in direct contradiction to much of de Blasio's campaign platform.
In running for mayor, de Blasio had been highly critical of the police department’s heavy-handed treatment of blacks and Hispanics. But in tapping Bratton as one of his first major appointments, de Blasio was able to flex his law-and-order bona fides, a move many believe was aimed at quieting his pro-police detractors who believed he was soft on crime and predicted a rise in crime.
If de Blasio’s aim was to hush that criticism, Bratton was the perfect choice. He was viewed widely in law enforcement circles as a cop’s cop who began his career working the beat in Boston and who rose through the ranks, eventually landing police chief jobs in Boston, Los Angeles and New York, where he served in that capacity from 1994 to 1996 before returning in 2014.
Just about seven months after returning to New York, Bratton and the department faced protests and anger over the death of Eric Garner at the hands of police.
Garner, a black man who was unarmed, died after being placed in a choke hold by an officer who had approached him about selling loose, untaxed cigarettes. His death ushered in a new wave of protest in the city. Despite the medical examiner’s ruling that Garner’s death was a homicide, and the determination that choke holds like the one used on Garner are barred by NYPD policy, a grand jury decided not to charge the officers involved in Garner’s death. Activists not only attacked what they saw as the lethal result of over-policing in black and brown communities, but also Bratton’s role in maintaining it.
“He never broke his commitment to the discriminatory broken windows policing that brought this city and too many others stop-and-frisk abuses, militarized over-policing that targets communities of color, homeless, young and LGBT folks, and a range of other harmful policing practices,” said Pierre, with Communities United for Police Reform. “Those abuses produced lasting damage and pain in our communities through the over-criminalization that led to mass incarceration, and continue harm to this day.”
“There should be no delusion of systemic change at the NYPD under his tenure,” he said.
As tension in the city grew following the death of Garner and the murders of two police officers, and as rank-and-file officers openly revolted against de Blasio, Bratton remained one of the mayor’s most ardent defenders. The mayor responded in kind when the commissioner also offered bold, unprecedented language acknowledging the role that law enforcement has played in oppressing black people and that police were to blame for “many of the worst parts of black history.”
“Slavery, our country’s original sin, sat on a foundation codified by laws enforced by police, by slave-catchers,” Bratton said during a Black History Month breakfast at the Greater Allen AME Church in Queens last year. He told the group that the Dutch explorer who first established New York made slave-catching cops his first priority. “Since then, the stories of police and black citizens have intertwined again and again. …The unequal nature of that relationship cannot and must not be denied.”
That day, Bratton lamented how the killing of James Powell, a black 15-year-old, by a white cop in 1964 set off riots in black New York City neighborhoods and “half a decade of urban unrest in cities across the country.” Bratton’s speech that day was unexpected and welcomed, but offered a stark juxtaposition for activists who see police policy as an ongoing threat to black lives.
Bratton recently began floating hints that his time in public office might be ending sooner rather than later.
In an interview with the New York Times in July, Bratton alluded to his imminent departure, telling the Times that if de Blasio is elected for a second term in 2017, he would not stay on as commissioner.
“I have the luxury of going when I want to go,” Bratton said. “I’m not going to be here in the second term. That’s the reality of it.”
He added that he’d already created a “line of succession” and “a strong team, so that the city is not dependent on just one person.”
Bratton has tapped Chief James O’Neill, the department’s highest ranking uniformed officer. O’Neill has more than 30 years with the NYPD and has had a close relationship with Bratton from their early days as officers. O’Neill told reporters on Monday that he will focus on improving neighborhood policing.
"I just want to make sure the cops know the community and, more importantly, the community knows us," O'Neill said.
Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, a critic of Bratton’s who was there the day of his speech in Queens, said he was “a little stunned” by Bratton's decision to step down.
The announcement comes as protesters this week descended upon City Hall Park and demanded Bratton’s resignation, with many spending the night in an adjacent lot (Occupy Wall Street-style). The protest continued Tuesday even as Bratton was announcing his departure.
“What really surprised me is that he would announce it a day after this protest where people gathered to demand his resignation and today, he actually hands it in,” Gangi said. “He’s not the kind of public figure that would want to appear to be driven out of office by some sort of protest.”
“We’re not sorry to see him go,” Gangi continued. “But it’s not time yet to pop the champagne corks because we firmly believe, almost as an operating principle, that it’s not the personnel, it’s the policy. And we don’t see any indication that under de Blasio and O’Neill that the NYPD practices will change.”
While there has been a constant drumming from activists for Bratton to step down, he’s also been nudged by police union officials.
In a tweet sent out just hours after Bratton’s announcement, Ed Mullins, president of the NYPD’s Sergeants Benevolent Association, wrote “Comm Bratton is finally doing what is right for the NYPD & the ppl of NYC. We wish him well & look forward to a new direction for the NYPD.”