In the days since two police officers were fatally shot in their patrol car in Brooklyn, Mayor Bill de Blasio has turned to his celebrity police commissioner for help weathering the biggest political test of his first year in office.
William Bratton has often been the featured face of de Blasio’s administration since the shooting, emerging not only as a steadying presence in a nervous city, but also as a respected national voice from the officers’ perspective on race and policing.
He brokered a rare meeting last week to reduce the tension between the mayor and police union leaders, some of whom blamed the mayor’s past comments on police tactics for the tragedy. He also took to national talk shows to support the mayor and defend the police, arguing that they feel under attack.
Bratton, 67, alternates between statements on behalf of the officers he leads and of support for the mayor at whose pleasure he serves. Nonetheless, it remains unclear whether he can succeed at repairing relations and, in the process, bolster his reputation as an innovator — one he forged as the city’s top cop under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s.
“He came back to New York with a lot of credibility,” Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, said of Bratton, whom he described as “filling a vacuum in consistent leadership” in the city. “The members of the NYPD are watching him very carefully.”
In a city on edge after weeks of protests, Bratton is now under scrutiny very different from the kind he endured during his first tenure as chief here, when crime dominated the headlines.
“A lot of why he’s been thrust in the spotlight is because this is New York City,” said Deputy Commissioner Stephen Davis, Bratton’s top spokesman. “Where else can you get 25,000 people on half a day’s notice to have a demonstration? The fact that the police are the object of the protests make this very challenging.”
Many officers remain furious about the mayor’s admonition to his biracial son, after the Garner decision, to “take special care” during any police encounters.
Davis acknowledged that Bratton “has to work with the mayor, he has to work with the cops, he’s doing a good job balancing that.”
The challenge for Bratton, who has not backed down from his comment that the Dec. 20 killings were a “direct spinoff” of the anti-police street protests, is to appease not just an angry police department but a city anxious over aggressive policing.
“At the end of the day, he can’t lose the cops, he can’t lose the community and he can’t lose his mayor,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington-based think tank. “It’s a toxic environment.”
In some way it’s familiar turf, as Bratton has noted in recent weeks. He was a new sergeant with the Boston Police Department from Irish, working-class Dorchester in the 1970s when forced busing of the city’s schoolchildren incited daily racial conflict.
Bratton responded to a call about a bank holdup with possible hostages, recalled Wexler, who was an MIT graduate student and police intern at the time. The suspect was black. When Bratton arrived, he lowered his gun and persuaded the man to lower his. Wexler says the incident showed an early understanding of how police and minorities can work together.
Bratton’s success at finding that common ground was tested in Los Angeles, where as police chief from 2002 through 2009 he was credited with defusing racial tensions, improving morale in a disaffected police department, and winning the support of black and Latino leaders whose communities felt that police were too aggressive.
“His biggest challenge is he wants to try to change police culture,” Davis said. “We’ve got the crime thing down, which is strategic and tactical. How to work with each other is in some ways a bigger challenge. It’s an abstract-type thing. The proof will be when the feeling is out there.”