Last week, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio made one of the most important decisions for his incoming administration by picking William Bratton as the New York Police Department’s commissioner.
And it was a terrific choice.
New York City doesn’t have any bridges, streets or courthouses named after Bratton. But one day it will. If there is one individual to whom the city owes its spectacular revival from the crime-ridden decades of the 1970s through the 1990s, it’s Bratton. Ever since Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed Bratton as police commissioner, in 1994, the city has witnessed a jaw-dropping decline in crime, a precipitous drop that even the most sanguine of urbanologists could not have predicted.
New York City has gone from one of the nation’s most violent cities to one of its safest. In 1990, the NYPD reported 2,262 homicides, a death toll greater than the U.S. military has suffered during 12 years of fighting the Taliban. In 2012, murders in the city dropped to a historically low 414.
Neighborhoods through which even the most intrepid New Yorkers would drive with their windows tightly shut have become hot real-estate commodities. Areas that were once associated with crime and drugs now have homes and apartments selling in the seven-figure range.
Bratton was responsible for merging computer science with criminology, introducing the novel COMPSTAT program to the NYPD. Despite much initial opposition by the NYPD, Bratton was able to have the department adopt the crime-tracking software program, and the results were incredibly dramatic. Only one year after COMPSTAT was adopted, murders dropped to 1,181.
But Bratton’s strategy in tackling crime wasn’t only through statistics; it also involved the simple yet powerful idea of holding meetings with precinct commanders and the department’s top-brass, a forum where crime trends are recognized and effective crime-fighting techniques are developed. Now those tactics, once deemed revolutionary, have been adopted by almost every major police department in the U.S.
One of the most visible symbols of New York City’s descent into blight during those years of crime and mayhem was the New York City subway — a graffiti-covered, filthy transportation system, where muggers felt at home preying on commuters. With Bratton as chief of NYC’s transit police, the “Broken Window” theory of policing was implemented.
The theory that simply investing resources into investigating felonies was addressing the symptoms, not the disease, was not a long-term solution to combatting crime. Bratton believed that answering the question of why crime in the subway system was being committed in certain areas was critical to understanding how to uproot a deep-rooted criminal culture. Serious crime, Bratton felt, emerged from a sense of lack of order in the subway system: the graffiti, the broken subway car windows, the fare-jumping. Addressing and eradicating the petty crimes would, in turn, lead to a reduction in more serious ones.
The theory proved itself quickly. As subway cars were cleaned up and fare-jumpers arrested, the MTA saw its crime rate drop 27 percent in one year. Where at one time commuters were wary to venture on a subway after rush hour, the system is now teeming with passengers at all hours of the night.
Bratton has also shined in leading police forces in racially diverse cities, gaining the respect of civil rights, community and religious leaders. He has also championed diversity in his police departments as key to effective crime fighting. Serving as head of the Los Angeles Police Department from 2002 through 2007, he transformed the force from one that was reviled by members of some minority groups and viewed with suspicion, to one respected for inclusion and open to working with community leaders — all the while reducing crime each year in the city. The LAPD, under Bratton, has worked hard to shed its tainted image from the infamous Rodney King days.
During his years in New York and Los Angeles, Bratton forged and maintained excellent relations with the local Jewish communities, showing sensitivity, understanding and respect for the communities’ particular needs.
Leading an effective police force means also making sure that the cops on the streets have confidence in their leadership. That’s another quality Bratton brings to the table: the ability to improve the morale of every police force he has ever led.
After Bratton’s departure from the NYPD in 1996, he left big shoes to fill, and no one has filled them more admirably than the current outgoing Commissioner Ray Kelly, who has continued to keep the city’s crime rate nose-diving. Kelly, a 43-year NYPD veteran, has served as police commissioner under Mayors Dinkins and Bloomberg. He was responsible for helping the department transition from exclusively fighting crime to becoming an internationally recognized anti-terrorism force. New Yorkers owe a deep debt of gratitude to Ray Kelly.
We applaud de Blasio’s decision in appointing Bratton as Top Cop. Behind every great city is a great police commissioner.