A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America
By Bill Bratton and Peter Knobler
On Dec. 20, 2014, two New York City police officers, Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, were assassinated while they sat in their squad car in Brooklyn. Police Commissioner William Bratton, then 67 years old and in his second tour in the job, flew back from a holiday in Boston and raced to the scene.
His behavior then and in the succeeding days was a lesson in moderation. He delivered a moving speech to the families of the deceased that called for tolerance on all sides. He denounced the angry police officers who turned their back on the mayor at a public meeting. Then he forcefully refused to discipline the rebellious officers. “To take action against those cops, to go punitive,” he said, “would have been counterproductive.”
It was classic Bratton. Over a 50-year career in which he has headed three big-city police departments, he has walked a political and ideological tightrope that has maintained his credibility on all sides. “There are parts of any argument,” he insists in his new book, “The Profession,” “where both sides can be right.”
Succeeding as a centrist in public life these days can be an almost impossible task. But centrism in law enforcement may be the most delicate challenge of all. Bratton’s ability to practice it was a startling phenomenon. Some may call it disingenuousness, or even duplicity. But some would use another word for it. The word is brilliance.
“The Profession” is a sometimes dense but consistently engaging account, expanding on his earlier memoir, “Turnaround.” Like that book, also co-written with Peter Knobler, it is a remarkably candid account of one man’s journey, but it is also a veritable encyclopedia of police tactics and culture. It is jarringly self-promotional at times, as when Bratton reports that he went into Los Angeles as “the only person in America who would turn the department around.” But equally often it is appealingly self-deprecating, as when he says he was less than outstanding as a street-level detective and clumsy even at firing a gun. Managing other people was the one thing he could really do well.
“The Profession” begins in Boston, where Bratton joins the police force out of high school as a highly ambitious but also highly cerebral cop, one who liked computers, geography and demographics. He absorbed Sir Robert Peel’s 19th-century dictum that “the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”
Bratton rose fast, but he displayed a little too much of his ambition in telling a reporter that he wanted to become the city’s police commissioner within four years. That declaration was not well received in higher echelons, Bratton was demoted, and he was soon looking for a new job (though he eventually returned as commissioner in 1993). He found a good one in New York.
Bratton took over the city’s transit police in 1990, at a time when the transit system was at a low point. Crime was rampant on the subways; the cars were covered with graffiti; riders were sneaking through turnstiles. Bratton implemented a strategy of “quality of life” policing, derived in large part from the “broken windows” theory advanced by the social scientists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. Controlling minor offenses, they argued, restored a sense of security, and identified petty criminals likely to graduate to more serious crimes. The strategy seemed to work better than even Bratton could have predicted. In less than two years, robberies on the transit network were down 40 percent and crime as a whole was down 22 percent. It was such a striking — and unexpected — success that when the job of New York police commissioner opened up in 1994, when Bratton was back in Boston, there really was no other logical choice for it.
In two years as commissioner, Bratton went on to produce results similar to those he had achieved in the transit system. Bratton implemented an accountability system that focused on numbers of offenses precinct by precinct and held commanders responsible for reducing them.
His achievements were bound to attract national attention, and they ended up getting him in trouble. When he made it to the cover of Time magazine, he alienated Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who had been his ally. One reads through this section of Bratton’s book seeking a more complex reason for their feud than sheer jealousy on Giuliani’s part, but there is none to be found, in the pages of “The Profession” or elsewhere. New York’s triumphant police commissioner had to find another city. It turned out to be Los Angeles, where he became police chief.
Bratton moved west at a moment of crisis. The Los Angeles Police Department had not really recovered from disclosures of brutality, and its racial antagonisms had been worsened by labor disputes and divisions over the previous Black chief, Bernard Parks.
Bratton reiterated his conviction that “we could not only reduce crime but at the same time improve relations with the minority community.” He surprised an antibrutality demonstration by telling the crowd that “I’ll control my cops if you control your kids!” He also offered his cops the three-day, 12-hour workweek they had been lobbying for. Once again violent crime declined sharply; once again there were debates over whether the improvement was a result of Bratton’s quality of life law enforcement or a demographic phenomenon largely unrelated to police strategies.
Bratton retired as Los Angeles chief in 2009, and spent the next four years as a consultant. Then Bill de Blasio won election as mayor of New York in 2013, and decided to bring Bratton back.
He returned to confront a raging controversy over the stop-and-frisk tactics that he had done a great deal to instigate. His message was genuinely Brattonesque: Stop-and-frisk had been instrumental in cleaning up crime in the 1990s, but by 2013 the streets were demonstrably safer — the tactic was being overused. “The numbers,” Bratton writes, “ceased to be a means to an end and became an end in and of themselves.” During his second tenure as commissioner, stop-and-frisk policing became much less frequent. There had been nearly 700,000 stops in 2011 under Bratton’s predecessor, Ray Kelly. In the first year of Bratton’s return, he reports, there were 22,939. Still, he defends the fundamental idea of quality of life policing. “We were accused of targeting minorities, instructing the N.Y.P.D. to go after Black and brown people,” he writes. “That’s nonsense. We targeted criminals.”
Whatever the complex of factors involved, the reality was that crime continued to decline. From a high of more than 2,000 murders a year in the city in the 1990s, the total was down to less than 300 in 2019, three years after Bratton retired as New York’s police commissioner. He is dismissive of any explanations that play down police responsibility for the improvement. “It’s not economics … it’s not jailing half the population. It’s us.”
In the last chapter of “The Profession,” Bratton takes aim at the many restraints on law enforcement that have been put into place since his departure. He challenges the loosening of cash bail requirements, the downgrading of petty crimes into barely punished misdemeanors and in particular the notion of defunding police budgets. “The results have been disastrous,” he writes. He attributes the sharp increase in violent crime in New York City in 2020 to “the ill-conceived and ill-instituted efforts of the Legislature in Albany and the City Council” to appease antipolice activists.
He goes further than that. At dark moments, he fears that “all of our gains have been erased.” He says he fights that pessimism every day.
But the pessimism is not really warranted. The reality is that Bratton’s balanced approach, his crime prevention initiatives, his willingness to listen to both sides in the most incendiary disputes promise to be part of law enforcement in American communities for a long time to come.
It may be true, as Yeats chillingly reminded us, that the center cannot hold. It doesn’t seem to be holding in public life at the moment. But at certain times, in the right hands and circumstances, it does come forward.