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How Some Police Chiefs Are Like LeBron James — And Why That’s Bad for Cities

Top cops like New York’s Bill Bratton command hefty salaries when they move to new cities, but many communities are now clamoring for more control of their police departments.
Photo by Justin Lane/EPA

On April 25, as protesters wreaked havoc following the death of Freddie Gray from injuries he sustained while riding in the back of a police van, then-Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts held a press conference and blamed the unrest on outside "agitators" who came to his city to stir up trouble.

While police never provided any evidence that the troublemakers actually came from out of town, the fact that Batts himself is a Baltimore transplant was largely overlooked. He was recruited after resigning as the top cop in Oakland, and before that he worked his way up to become chief in Long Beach, California.


Batts is part of a small but influential group of roving cops that are the law enforcement equivalent of superstar athletes. These leaders, including New York's Bill Bratton and Chicago's Garry McCarthy, move around the country like coveted free agents, entertaining job offers with hefty salaries. But, just as in sports, securing their services does not always guarantee success.

After six Baltimore officers were indicted in connection with Gray's death, many called for Batts to resign. He was fired on Wednesday by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Bratton, currently the New York police commissioner, is battling a New York City Council initiative to place the NYPD under increased civilian oversight. And in Chicago, McCarthy came under fire after a Guardian exposé uncovered a "black site" where police allegedly subjected suspects to abusive interrogations.

Related: NYPD Allegedly Destroyed Evidence in Civil Rights Lawsuit

Former Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Anthony Batts at a press conference related to the Freddie Gray case. (Photo by Patrick Semansky/AP)

While Bratton and McCarthy have managed to keep their jobs despite their respective controversies, many communities are now clamoring for more control of their police departments, perhaps heralding an end to the era of roving chiefs.

None of the police officials mentioned here — Batts, McCarthy, and Bratton — responded to requests for comment from VICE News. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF), a non-profit that supports and trains police chiefs, also did not respond to multiple VICE News inquiries.


David Couper, the celebrated chief of police in Madison, Wisconsin, from 1972-1996, told VICE News that good chiefs should try to stay in one place as long as possible.

"In my day, a star chief was committed to local, democratic policing, but now things look a little different," Couper said. He became chief of police in Madison just as the Vietnam war was winding down, and relations between the city's anti-war student body and its conservative police force hit a low point. To mend ties between police and the community, Couper knew he'd have to settle in for a long haul. "I said to everyone: 'I ain't going nowhere,'" he recalled.

'In my day, a star chief was committed to local, democratic policing, but now things look a little different.'

Couper kept his job for the next 20 years, and is now credited with transforming the Madison Police Department, making peace between students and police, and easing tensions with the city's black community. "It took 10 years before I was able to start making real changes," said Couper, who has since retired.

If today's top cops are like pro athletes, then Bratton is LeBron James, a megastar with outsize influence. Bratton previously worked as the chief in Boston (1993-1994), New York (1994-1996), and LA (2002-2009) before Mayor Bill de Blasio summoned him back to New York in 2014 to serve as police commissioner.

During Bratton's first stint in New York under then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he pioneered the use of data from the crime-mapping system CompStat, and encouraged "broken windows" policing, a strategy where officers aggressively pursue minor infractions and so-called "quality of life" crimes in poor neighborhoods.


This combination of tactics — often referred to as "zero-tolerance policing" — coincided with lower crime rates in New York in the 1990s. Central to Bratton's philosophy is that public safety and order can be imposed by a technically proficient and aggressive police force. But while the numbers seem to bear this out, critics of "zero-tolerance" contend that the price for order is militarized neighborhoods and discord between communities and cops.

Aidge Patterson, a community organizer and coordinator with New York City Cop Watch, a group that monitors police abuse, said that activists have learned to be wary of roving chiefs — especially Bratton. Patterson, who grew up in Los Angeles, took issue with the way Bratton enforced "gang ordinances" during his tenure with the LAPD. The ordinances made it a crime for suspected gang members to congregate in zones identified as gang territory. While credited with reducing the crime rate, Patterson remembers lots of innocent people getting caught up in the sweeps.

"When we heard he was coming back to New York, were were on the lookout," Patterson said. As part of a coalition known as Communities United for Police Reform, Patterson has pushed for city ordinances to outlaw chokeholds and require officers identify themselves when stopping people on the street. Both proposals are in response to the death of Eric Ganer, an unarmed black man killed last year when an NYPD officer put him in a chokehold.


At a recent City Council meeting, Bratton dismissed calls for greater oversight of the NYPD, calling the proposed ordinances "an unprecedented intrusion" into police business. "We will work out our issues, as we always do," Bratton said.

Related: New York to Get Special Prosecutor to Investigate Police Killings of Unarmed Civilians

Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy speaks at a news conference. (Photo by M. Spencer Green/AP)

Bratton has good reason to be confident. John Eterno, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former New York police commander, told VICE News that the chief helped make New York a "flagship" police department. Like a top college sports program, the NYPD now recruits and develops marquee players in the police world. But much of what Eterno considers the "negative" aspects of NYPD culture — manipulating statistics, aggressive "suppression" policing, stop and frisk — has been exported to other departments as other cities poach up and coming New York cops. "A negative culture can get passed around," Eterno said.

Eli Silverman, a John Jay professor who has studied the impact of CompStat on police departments, links the use of technology in cities across the country with Bratton's rise as a celebrated chief. "There's been an acceleration of this type of rotation model since the 1990s," Silverman told VICE News. "The tactics Bratton developed there really went viral."

Many of the most prominent roving chiefs were trained in New York. McCarthy, the superintendent of the Chicago Police Department, served as deputy commissioner in New York in the 1990s, where he learned "zero-tolerance" from Bratton. McCarthy went on to lead the Newark Police Department for five years before Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel offered him a $260,000 salary to relocate to the Windy City.


Related: Fearing a 'Catastrophic Incident,' 400 Federal Officers Descended on the Baltimore Protests

Some roving chiefs even go international. John Timoney, Bratton's number two in the NYPD in the '90s, went on to stints in Miami and Philadelphia before he was recruited to train the national police force in Bahrain, an absolute monarchy where protests are outlawed and police brutality is widespread.

Many chiefs from smaller towns have also incubated in New York. Dean Esserman came up under Bratton in New York in the 90s and was recruited to be chief in New Haven, Connecticut, before the city of Providence, Rhode Island, wooed him away. He returned to New Haven after Providence fired him for throwing an underage drinking party for his daughter in 2011.

'Getting to know your community is important, job tenure matters — building good relationships isn't just about giving speeches.'

In general, roving chiefs are more common on the East Coast, where powerful mayors can recruit top cops from outside local departments. But there are some roving chiefs with roots on the West Coast. In Long Beach, Batts built a reputation as a maverick problem-solver and was was called in to Oakland to help the department comply with a 2003 federal order to clean house. Batts ruffled feathers when he called on the FBI to investigate an Oakland police officer who fatally shot an unarmed man.

Like many chiefs who move around, Batts always seems to be outrunning scandals. He resigned from his job in Oakland after four years. Just months after he left, a judge empowered an independent monitor to oversee the department after finding that Oakland failed to comply with its settlement with the Department of Justice (DOJ). In 2013, a judge fined Oakland police $1 million for their treatment of protesters during Batts' tenure.


Gray's death in Baltimore has put Batts back at the center of a national controversy over police brutality that ultimately led to his ouster. "The failure from Long Beach to Oakland is now a failure once again in Baltimore," retired LAPD Deputy Chief Stephen Downing told VICE News.

Related: Chicago's Top Cop Calls Justice System 'Broken' After Bloody Fourth of July Weekend

McCarthy has also stayed one step ahead of controversy. Months after he left Newark in May 2011, the DOJ announced it had uncovered a "pattern and practice of unconstitutional policing" in the city, leading to a three-year investigation into police brutality. From 2006 to 2009, McCarthy's department registered 500 complaints of excessive force, illegal searches, and false arrests, but only brought disciplinary charges against six officers. As a result, Newark was eventually placed under federal supervision.

"If you have, for example, a zero tolerance police chief going elsewhere, than you may have a problem," Eterno said, noting that good policing practices can also circulate. He characterized the world of police leadership as "very incestous," saying bad ideas spread and "the intellectual gene pool gets small."

Norm Stamper, the former chief of police in Seattle, told VICE News that "being a good chief isn't just about technical skills."

"Getting to know your community is important, job tenure matters — building good relationships isn't just about giving speeches, you have to actually be driven by your community's needs," said Stamper, who resigned after the 1999 WTO riots in Seattle and has since become an outspoken critic of the war on drugs and police militarization.

Lumumba Bandele, coordinator with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement in New York, said familiarity with the community is exactly what's missing with Bratton's brand of leadership.

"We saw it in LA, in Boston, and here in New York — he's very good at community monologue, showing up and talking," Bandele told VICE News. "But holding a community barbecue is not the same as actually preventing police misconduct."

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