New York police commissioner is going to need exquisite balance
Bratton must walk the line between police department and mayor’s office
William Bratton is sworn in as the 42nd commissioner of the New York police department by New York mayor Bill de Blasio during a ceremony at police headquarters in New York earlier this week. Photograph; Mike Segar/Reuters
Bill Bratton’s biggest problem right now might not be stop-and-frisk. It might be stop-and-sulk. Given a new mayor who catapulted into office by castigating the police, given a city council that passed two punitive Bills related to the police and racial profiling, given the prospect of federal oversight on stop-and-frisk, given the overshadowing of the stunning drop in crime by the open sore of racial insensitivity, New York police may decide to engage in, as police call it, depolicing.
If morale sinks too low, one former New York City police official suggests, officers may not go after criminals “in the most aggressive fashion”. “Right now, police in New York are not happy,” the new commissioner conceded at police headquarters on Friday, surrounded by walls of video screens tracking crime around the city. “They’re frustrated because their good work really did get banged around in the campaign.”
There was a record decline in crime and a record increase in tourism, Bratton said, and “cops aren’t feeling the residual benefit of that”. He said “the most angst” was being caused by a city council Bill expanding the ability to sue over racial profiling by officers, because police see it as a risk to themselves and their families. New York has “a crisis of confidence on the part of the cops about what it is that we can do” and “a crisis of confidence in the public about what the cops have been doing”.
Bratton, always very popular with the police who work for him, has been through it before. When he went to head the LA force in 2002, he said, police were so demoralised by cascading troubles and bad leadership that some sank into a “drive by and wave” mode.
While diplomatically praising his old rival Ray Kelly, Bratton also noted that there were missed opportunities to curb stop-and-frisk. “The shame of it,” he said, “is it probably could have been addressed a year or two years ago but for the intransigence of Mayor Bloomberg. I hesitate to describe it as intransigence because I really do believe that both Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly, both good men, both committed to keeping this city safe, really deeply believed that the reason crime was going down, the reason there was less gun violence, the reason there were fewer guns being taken off the street, was because of the increasing numbers of stop-question-frisk.
“And eventually because of that unwillingness to step back from that posture, it became a rallying cry for a number of the mayoral candidates, including Mayor de Blasio, who was able to most successfully use it as a platform.” Police, he said, “need clear guidelines, clear guardrails, and we don’t have that right now.” They are comfortable re-engaging, he said, when they have those guardrails. In Bloomberg’s final years as mayor, Bratton said, “Cops themselves felt that they were in a no-win position. They had an administration, Mayor Bloomberg, Commissioner Kelly, who were demanding more and more and more. And the cops themselves felt, you know, it’s too much. And the community was saying it’s too much.”