When New York City police commissioner Bill Bratton's resignation was announced Tuesday, it marked another successful stint atop America's largest police department for the veteran cop. But the man is dipping his beak back into the private sector amid swirling corruption probes and fresh policy demands from Black Lives Matter activists in a city with a dense history of racially charged police killings.
Bratton started his 46-year career in law enforcement as a beat cop in Boston, eventually heading the city's department. In New York City, where he will continue running the show until next month, he climbed the ranks to become commissioner under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in 1994. During that first stint atop the NYPD, Bratton helped popularize the "broken windows" approach to policing, which holds that going hard after minor or even petty crimes like vandalism can reduce more serious and violent offenses like rape and murder. The approach remains highly controversial among academics and activists alike, though Bratton's fans point to massive drops in NYC crime rates in the 1990s as evidence of its genius.
The commissioner's first stint in New York was also marked by pushing the department toward a data-driven system called "COMPSTAT," which tracks crime at the hyper-local level and has since been embraced nationally. The two approaches—and subsequent plunges in violent crime—helped make Bratton America's first modern superstar cop, landing him on the cover of TIME in 1996. (The magazine appearance is often rumored to be the reason Giuliani forced Bratton out that same year.)
In 2002, Bratton became the chief of the Los Angeles Police Department and the only person to have ever held the top position in both LA and New York. There, he was tasked with reforming a troubled department enduring federal oversight and earned some praise for engaging with critics early and often.
In between stints as America's most famous police boss, Bratton traversed the so-called revolving door typically associated with politicians like Eric Holder, who famously and controversially worked for Wall Street–friendly law firms before and after serving as US attorney general. The mixed career brought some scrutiny to Bratton when Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed him again in 2013; at the time, he was tied to multiple companies trying to partner with the department, like ShotSpotter, a series of sensors that help police locate where a gun has been fired. The commissioner stepped down from all three positions at great financial loss, though ShotSpotter was adopted by the department last year.
Bratton will reportedly move to a gig at Teneo, a global consulting firm whose success has rested in no small part on its close ties to former president Bill Clinton.
Although Bratton is known as a remarkably successful cop, one offshoot of his broken-windows philosophy has been "stop and frisk," a tactic used heavily in the city's outer boroughs and deemed unconstitutional in 2013 for basically consisting of racial profiling. Since then, the NYPD has required beat cops to hand out receipts when stopping and frisking, which revealed officers often can't articulate why they stop the people they do.
Critics also say broken windows was instrumental in the 2014 death of Eric Garner. The 43-year-old black man, suspected of the quality-of-life crime of selling illegal cigarettes, was killed after being placed in a chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, who is white. A searing video of the encounter helped galvanize the then-nascent Black Lives Matter movement.
Today that movement is looking increasingly like a nascent political party. On Monday, more than 50 groups associated with BLM released a list of demands that include reparations for mass incarceration and the demilitarization of police. Around 200 protestors also occupied City Hall Park in New York holding signs with messages like, "We see police get away with murder" and demanding Bratton be fired.
Bratton will pass the reins to NYPD chief of department James O'Neill––a move unlikely to quell activists's concerns given his long tenure as a uniformed cop. And while this week's long-planned protests almost certainly had nothing to do with his resignation, there is some precedent for Bratton at least being sensitive to a changing cultural landscape. He first applied for the police chief job in LA right after the Rodney King riots before taking his name out of the running because the political climate called for a black candidate.
O'Neill, meanwhile, has been instrumental in getting the NYPD to move toward a model of neighborhood-based policing. In the fall, 51 percent of precincts will have implemented his approach, de Blasio told reporters Tuesday, and the success of his tenure will rest in large part on bridging the gap between people of color and police.
Of course, given that some senior NYPD officers are currently under investigation for allegedly accepting money, diamonds, and sexual favors in return for police escorts, cleaning house might need to take priority.
"O'Neill is completely capable of taking over the department and moving forward," says Joseph Giacalone, a former NYPD detective sergeant and professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "But remember, he's taken over a department where the entire upper echelon is suspected or being suspected of taking bribes and gifts. He has his work cut out for him."
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