One Police Plaza

Bill Bratton: Past or Future?

December 2, 2013

This Tuesday, December 3, marks the 20th anniversary of Rudy Giuliani’s naming Bill Bratton as New York City’s 38th police commissioner. It now seems possible that mayor-elect Bill de Blasio may name Bratton as the city’s 42nd.

Consider what has occurred over the past ten days:

bullet On November 22, Bratton and his wife, Rikki Klieman, spent three-plus hours at dinner with de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, at Convivium Osteria, a joint in Park Slope where an order of “Chuleton de Buey a la Parilla con Patatas al Horno” [a 48-ounce grilled ribeye for two with roasted potatoes] goes for $82.

The dinner, which was reported by the NY Post, may have satisfied de Blasio’s concerns that he and his potential police commissioner share the same “vision” for the NYPD. It may also have satisfied de Blasio’s promise that his wife would help vet his key appointments.

bulletOn Thanksgiving Day, Bratton received the endorsement of none other than Rudy Giuliani, who had backed de Blasio’s Republican opponent for mayor, Joe Lhota. Lhota had promised to keep current commissioner Ray Kelly, who, right after de Blasio’s landslide election, told Playboy magazine that de Blasio had, in effect, lied to and betrayed him.

Did Giuliani’s endorsement signal support for Bratton from the city’s far right voices such as the Post? Or did Bratton’s endorsement from the racially polarizing former mayor signify the kiss of death for him with de Blasio?

bulletThen, on Saturday, a picture of Bratton — with none of de Blasio — appeared on the front page of the New York Times. The story’s headline read: “In naming Top Police Official, De Blasio May Signal Change.”

If Giuliani were still mayor, that picture would have gotten Bratton fired before he set foot in Police Plaza.

Indeed, after Bratton’s picture appeared on the Jan. 15, 1996 cover of Time magazine, with barely a mention of Giuliani, Giuliani did fire him.

Meanwhile, in the past few days, little has been heard from Chief of Department Philip Banks, Bratton’s apparent rival for the police commissionership.

Banks, who is the NYPD’s highest ranking black officer, appears to be favored by Kelly, who has granted him a freedom Kelly never gave his predecessor, Joe Esposito: freedom to address the media.

[A third candidate, First Deputy Rafael Pineiro, who is supported by the NYPD’s three disparate Hispanic groups, appears to be a non-starter.]

So what can we conclude from all this? First, that Bratton has closer relations with the media than does Banks.

Second, if de Blasio actually does appoint Bratton, New York City will retain its image as a practical, adaptable town whose voters are willing to believe just about anything.

De Blasio won a landslide victory on his promise of “change” vis-à-vis the police department. His promise came amidst a federal court decision that Kelly’s Stop and Frisk policy, totaling five million stops of young black and Hispanic men, virtually none of whom had committed a crime, was racist and unconstitutional.

You want real change, you appoint a black or Hispanic police commissioner who has acknowledged — as has Banks and other non-white officers — that he, too, has been stopped and frisked for apparently no reason other than that he is black or Hispanic.

You want real change, you appoint someone who is personally familiar with the historically “black track” positions like Community Affairs or the School Safety Division to which black commanders have been relegated instead of being given true leadership positions.

What change does Bratton offer? Under Giuliani, he practiced an aggressive form of policing that was responsible for the dramatic decreases in crime that Kelly continued and improved upon. Bratton called it proactive policing. Stop and Frisk was a part of it.

Like just about everyone else in law enforcement, Banks included, Bratton has called Stop and Frisk essential to smart policing.

Referring to Kelly’s five million stops of black and Hispanic young men who had committed no crime, Bratton has said he did not blame the policy of Stop and Frisk. Rather, he blamed Kelly’s tactics, which went haywire.

Thomas Reppetto, the police department’s unofficial official historian, said that Bratton would police the city the same way he had under Giuliani.

“Remember that Bratton’s differences with Giuliani were not in police philosophy. When Giuliani dismissed him, it was not over any difference in policy. The difference was who got on the cover of Time magazine.”

So what’s going on here with de Blasio? If Giuliani made a bold move 20 years ago in appointing Bratton, how does the mayor-elect sell change to New Yorkers by reappointing him?

Did he find Banks and Pineiro — the only two other candidates he says he interviewed — so weak that he felt he had no other choice?

Or maybe he realized that, despite Kelly's abuses relating to Stop and Frisk, Kelly kept crime low and terrorists at bay, and that’s all that most New Yorkers care about.

If de Blasio does appoint Bratton, then change within the NYPD will be that of style rather than substance. Not that there isn’t something to be said for style.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg allowed Kelly to become the most powerful police commissioner in the city’s history. He made Kelly accountable to no one. With the help of the media, which went into a post 9/11 swoon, Kelly was treated like a demi-god .

And Kelly acted accordingly. Take this year’s third-quarter crime statistics, showing that the number of people stopped and frisked fell to 20,000 from 105,000 a year ago, with no appreciable rise in crime.

This might indicate that Kelly has largely reformed Stop and Frisk. Kelly, however, refuses to acknowledge any reform, because “reform” implies he had once done something wrong.

But whereas Kelly ruled by fear and threat; whereas he defied gravity by insisting that loyalty runs only uphill, Bratton governs collegially. His ego may be larger than his hat size but he has none of Kelly’s meanness. Ask him about himself and the first thing he will say is, “Life is good.”

Unlike Kelly, he has encouraged and supported his top aides who have gone on to lead police departments in other cities. John Timoney, Bratton’s First Deputy, ran departments in Philadelphia and Miami as did Chief Pat Hartnett in Hartford. His spokesman John Miller became chief spokesman for the FBI.

Whatever change does come to the NYPD will be fueled as much by de Blasio as by Bratton.

Although no one knows for certain, it is unlikely de Blasio will become the racially polarizing mayor that Giuliani was. Nor is it likely that he will view himself as the police commissioner, as Giuliani did.

Nor does it appear that he will play the ingénue in police matters as Bloomberg did, abdicating his mayoral responsibilities by failing to supervise Kelly.

The two unanswered questions are these: first, does Bratton want the job badly enough that he will control his self-destructive urges and park his ego at the door to City Hall?

He managed to do just that in Los Angeles, where he was eminently successful as chief of the LAPD for eight years, and none of his Giuliani-like problems appeared. He’d apparently learned that overshadowing the mayor can be a risky business.

But this is New York, and, as Bratton’s first term as commissioner revealed, New York can be intoxicating.

Hence, the second unanswered question: should Bratton’s old habits reappear, how will, or even will de Blasio be able to manage him?

Edited by Donald Forst


Copyright © 2013 Leonard Levitt