NYPD Confidential - An Inside Look at the New York Police Department
Home Page
All Columns
Contact Leonard Levitt
Search this site
Printable versionSend to a friendEmail Leonard Levitt

A Case for Sherlock Holmes

January 28, 2013

Bill Bratton appears to be all over the map these days.

Working in the private sector in New York after leaving the Los Angeles Police Department, he landed a well-publicized consultancy last month with the troubled Oakland Police Department.

He is also telling mayoral candidates in New York that he is available again to head the NYPD.

Last week, after the disclosure that Britain’s Home Secretary intended to change the law to allow foreign candidates to head police agencies in the U.K., British newspapers suggested that Bratton might become Commissioner of the Metropolitan [London] Police.

Bratton sounded amenable.

His name had surfaced two years before, following urban riots and the unfolding of the Rupert Murdoch newspaper hacking scandal which implicated the Metropolitan Police’s top officials. But he had been blocked from applying because the law forbade foreigners to head British police agencies.

Last week Bratton told Britain’s Daily Mail: “There are three Western police agencies that have great significance in international policing — London, New York and Los Angeles…

“In more than 30 years as the chief of police in three of America’s most troubled cities, New York, Los Angeles and Boston, I have learned lessons and come up with initiatives, many of which work and some of which may be applied to your situation.” [Confidence, rather than modesty, is Bratton’s trademark.]

With all these possibilities, where Bratton goes next remains a mystery.

First, his Oakland consultancy is transient. It will end in a couple of months.

The idea of his returning as police commissioner in New York is filled with pitfalls. The mayoral front runner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is the lone candidate who has not met with Bratton.

In fact, she seems partial to Bratton’s rival and longtime antagonist, current NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, saying the next mayor would be “incredibly lucky” if Kelly remained.

Bratton’s best shot may lie with former comptroller and current Democratic mayoral candidate William Thompson, who narrowly lost to Mayor Michael Bloomberg in 2009. Thompson has met with Bratton and has announced he would not keep Kelly.

On the Republican side, there is Joe Lhota, a former top aide to Rudy Giuliani, who seems about to enter the mayoral race. Sources say there have been overtures between him and Bratton.

But politicians are perfidious. What they say during an election can change when they become mayor.

Then there’s the Metropolitan Police job in London.

Although Bratton recently made what a friend called “a hush-hush” trip to London, another person close to Bratton said the Metropolitan Police job is problematic, the possibility of his being hired exaggerated by the British media.

“As of now, the job isn’t open,” says that person. “It doesn’t exist. Someone was appointed two years ago. The newspaper articles make it out to be more of an option for Bill than it really is.” That may or may not be true.

We now offer some history and perspective on Bratton. Along with Kelly, who preceded him at the NYPD, Bratton is one of the titans of 20th century policing.

He revolutionized two law enforcements agencies in New York. First was the Transit Police, then a step-child of the NYPD. He then did the same to the NYPD, where morale was shot and crime had spiraled out of control, with over 2,245 murders in 1990.

He later proved a success in Los Angeles, attacking that city’s most worrisome crime problem: gangs.

[Despite making similar claims about effecting change in Boston, he wasn’t in any job there long enough to effect change. In fact, he had a special pension bill for himself passed by the Massachusetts legislature because he hadn’t remained in any job long enough to qualify for a state pension.]

With Giuliani’s imprimatur, Bratton brought in his own NYPD team, led by Chief of Department John Timoney, Chief of Patrol Louis Anemone, and Transit lieutenant Jack Maple.

They established the crime-fighting systems known as COMPSTAT, which led to dramatic drops in all categories of crime and which continue today.

Last year’s number of murders citywide at just over 400 is a testament both to Kelly and to Bratton.

Bratton’s success and his barbed criticisms also sowed the seeds of his rivalry with Kelly, whom Giuliani dismissed when he became mayor. Kelly never forgave Giuliani for dismissing him. He never forgave Bratton for taking the job that he felt he deserved.

But Bratton lasted only two years at the NYPD. He tangled with Giuliani over who deserved credit for the city’s dramatic crime drop. Giuliani forced him to leave after Time magazine placed Bratton, not Giuliani, on its cover. To this day, he has offered no credible public explanation for Bratton’s departure.

Bratton was forced to take what he said he never would: what he called a “Joe Blow” security job in the private sector — for far less money than the million-dollar salary he had envisioned.

His successor, Howard Safir, spent much of his four years as commissioner denigrating Bratton’s accomplishments, at one point calling him “some airport cop from Boston.”

When crime continued to fall more sharply than during Bratton’s two years, Giuliani declared that Safir was “the greatest police commissioner in the history of the New York City.”

Bratton, meanwhile, proved frustrated in the private sector. His heart was in policing.

He also proved to be no politician. In 1997 he toyed with running against Giuliani, but abandoned that when he saw he had little chance of winning.

In 2001 he threw in with Democratic mayoral candidate Mark Green, who promised to bring him back as police commissioner.

Instead, Green, then the front-runner, lost to Bloomberg, who brought back Kelly. Kelly has now headed the NYPD for the past 11 years, the longest tenure of any police commissioner in the city’s history.

Bratton then accepted the top job in the LAPD, where he remained for seven years.

Meanwhile, he and Giuliani patched up, or at least papered over, their differences.

In 2008, as Giuliani sought the Republican presidential nomination, he made a stealth visit to Los Angeles to meet with Bratton. What they said to each other has never been disclosed but the two have not bad-mouthed each other since — at least not publicly.

As successful as Bratton may have been in Los Angeles, his heart remained in New York. Nothing in LA equaled his table at Elaine’s restaurant on the Upper East Side where celebrities from all walks of life, from Henry Kissinger to Shirley MacClaine, sought his attention.

But Elaine has died. So has Bratton’s most recent Kroll consultancy job in the private sector. “It didn’t work out,” said a friend. “And Bratton needs a paycheck.”

Bratton is now on his own. Some might even call it another Joe Blow security job.

Now let’s say a miracle occurs — and Bratton is offered the top police jobs both in London and in New York. Which one would he accept?

People who know him well are divided. “His ego wouldn’t allow him to turn down London,” says one.

“He can’t turn down the NYPD if it’s offered,” says another.

Maybe we need to bring in Holmes's sidekick Dr. Watson to solve the Bratton mystery.

Edited by Donald Forst

« Back to top

Copyright © 2013 Leonard Levitt