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Some Bratton History, Then and Now

December 14, 2015

As NYPD commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani two decades ago, Bill Bratton came in like gangbusters. Trying to stem an astronomically high homicide rate — nearly 2,000 killings a year under Mayor David Dinkins — Giuliani and Bratton fought crime 24/7. Echoing Winston Churchill’s wartime cadences, Bratton declared: “We will fight for every house in this city. We will fight for every street. We will fight for every borough.”

At Police Plaza, Bratton dumped the old guard, brought in his own team, installed CompStat, changed an NYPD culture in which officers had all but given up fighting crime, and instead insisted on accountability. After two years on the job, homicides had dropped under 1,000 a year. Bratton had achieved national stature, and his face appeared on the cover of the Jan. 15, 1996, issue of Time. The magazine story credited him with the improvements. With virtually no mention of Giuliani, it led to Bratton’s firing.

As he now completes his second year since returning as commissioner, his accomplishments under Mayor Bill de Blasio have been more modest — but in a much different city.

Under Bratton’s predecessor, Ray Kelly — who served for 12 years, the longest tenure for a police commissioner in city history — homicides plummeted to 335 by 2013. But Kelly had raised the number of stops under stop-and-frisk to a high 685,000 in 2011 — mostly young black and Hispanic men who had committed no crime.

Although a federal judge ruled the random stops unconstitutional, Kelly and his supporters — primarily the stridently right-wing NY Post — maintained that the high number of stops was the direct cause of city’s low crime rate. Just as in 1993 Giuliani had run against Dinkins’s homicide rate, de Blasio in 2013 ran against Kelly’s stop-and-frisk. In so doing, de Blasio demonized the police department.

We don’t know the specific terms of engagement between de Blasio and Bratton, but Bratton lobbied hard for the commissioner’s job. Initially, de Blasio seemed to have set the parameters. Whereas Giuliani had permitted Bratton to select his top staff, Bratton’s first deputy and chief of department — one Hispanic, one black, one whom Bratton distrusted, the second whom Bratton did not know — were selected by the mayor. It took Bratton a year to rid himself of both.

For the first time in 20 years, the mayor’s priority was not reducing crime. It was reining in the police and easing tensions between the department and minority communities. Bratton easily accommodated himself to the idea. With crime at its lowest levels in NYC since the 1950s, Bratton called this “the peace dividend.”

His most visible effort was reducing the numbers of stop-and-frisk, which Kelly had begun reducing in 2012 and 2013 after political fallout. Kelly, however, refused to publicly acknowledge the reduction, fearing it would appear as if his policy had been improper or that he had done something wrong. Bratton continued its decline. By the end of 2014, after a year in office, the number of stops had tumbled to 45,787.

And guess what? Crime remained at record lows. Homicides, which hit a low of 333 in 2014, have gone up a marginal 5 percent in 2015. To date, that’s an increase of 17 homicides. According to figures in the latest the NY Civil Liberties Union report, that is 33 percent lower than in 2011.

Stop-and-frisk’s declining numbers also corresponded with a drop in gun violence — countering Kelly’s claim that the practice was critical for recovering guns. Between 2011 and 2014, shootings fell from 1,510 to 1,162. Based on current figures, in 2015 they are expected to be down 23 percent from 2011 numbers.

By then, a new dynamic had unfolded. In his first year, de Blasio got off to a rocky, if not horrific, start with the NYPD. Following the police “chokehold” death of Eric Garner in 2014, he wrapped himself around the department’s longtime antagonist, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and encouraged marches by anti-police protesters.

Many in the NYPD felt the mayor had inadvertently created the climate that encouraged a deranged Baltimore man to travel to New York and assassinate police officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu. As a result, a small but visible group of officers turned their backs on de Blasio at the funerals for the two cops.

This has placed Bratton in a new and unexpected role — as a buffer between the mayor and the police — as well as between the mayor and the middle- and upper-class white residents and business community.

In July Bratton issued his declaration of independence from the mayor, saying he wouldn’t stick around much past the 2017 election. As homeless people have become more visible, Bratton criticized the mayor’s homeless policy. More recently, he blamed the deaths of Liu and Ramos on the protesters who demonstrated against department policy.

Twenty years ago, Giuliani fired Bratton with no credible public explanation two months after Time’s cover story.

Politically, de Blasio doesn’t appear to have that option. For better or worse, he’s stuck with him.

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