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Bill Bratton's Legacy Is Mixed as He Leaves NYPD, Police Observers Say

By Murray Weiss | September 16, 2016 7:26am
 Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton speak about monthly crime numbers during a press conference at NYPD headquarters Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016.
Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton speak about monthly crime numbers during a press conference at NYPD headquarters Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016.
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DNAinfo/Ben Fractenberg

NEW YORK CITY — When Bill Bratton steps down as NYPD commissioner Friday, he leaves behind a mixed legacy — with a second stint at the helm of the largest police force in the country marked by a historic drop in crime as well as a notable rise in anti-police sentiment.

Some view him as one of the greatest police administrators in modern history who crafted strategies that drove down crime here in New York City and in other big cities across the nation. He oversaw the creation of CompStat, a statistics-driven approach to tracking major crime that's become an indispensable tool for police and an important data source for the public. And he cleaned up NYC in the 1990s, after many had written it off as a crime hub.

Others will blame him for his policing tactics, commonly known by the term "Broken Windows," which critics say exacerbated a breach in trust and respect between the NYPD and New Yorkers, particularly those in communities of color who they say have felt an unequal brunt of enforcement.

“He is the father of modern policing, with a very large footprint, and he has defined a way forward, and not just for New York,” said Richard Aborn, president of the Citizens’ Crime Commission, a nonprofit that studies policing.

“But the race issue is clearly a large issue still in America, and you can’t claim success merely on reduction of crime,” he said. “You have to have respect from the community.”

For his part, Aborn believes Bratton, who returned as the city's top law enforcement officer in January 2014, has put in motion a technology-driven strategy of “precision policing” that targets “criminal elements” to keep crime down — without alienating minority communities with blanket enforcement actions.

Not everyone is as optimistic.

Thomas Reppetto, a longtime observer of American policing and the NYPD, says Bratton’s successes in the 1990s when crime was out of control “can never be taken away.”

“What happened in New York in the 1990s was fundamental,” he said. “Before then, most people, including police chiefs everywhere, did not believe that the police could do anything about crime in the long run.”

But by 2014, when Mayor Bill de Blasio took office and appointed Bratton NYPD commissioner again, people no longer fully embraced the 1990s strategies.

“I think Bill Bratton is by far and away the foremost police administrator in the country, with a specialty in crime fighting, and as an articulate spokesperson on the intricacies of policing,” a former top police official said.

“But Bratton came back for an encore, and the audience had changed, and they were not quite as receptive.”

De Blasio won the mayor's race campaigning against intrusive police tactics such as stop-and-frisk, where hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers were frisked by the police each year, and other elements of the "Broken Windows" philosophy, where police crack down on minor offenses to prevent more serious crime.

“By any measurement, ‘Broken Windows’ is racially biased policing, and we are devoted to tarnishing [Bratton's] legacy,” said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project advocacy group.

“We acknowledge the city is a better place because of ‘Broken Windows,’ but there is no way to explain away the numbers showing the approach overwhelmingly impacted minorities and has fostered distrust and antagonism toward the police."

But Bratton, who has spent four decades in law enforcement, has been hailed for his work reducing major crime in racially torn Los Angeles, where he won over some of his harshest critics while serving as commissioner for seven years.

He's tried to accomplish the same here by not only continuing steep reductions in stop-and-frisk, but also by pushing the NYPD to embrace social media, particularly Twitter, and by projecting a more community-friendly approach to policing with patrol officers getting to know the neighborhoods they cover.

And during his watch over the past 30 months, serious crime in New York has fallen to new record lows, with fewer arrests of misdemeanor offenders, particularly for marijuana possession and other quality-of-life violations. 

Yet he's had tense times with the city's police unions, which reached heated levels after two NYPD officers were executed in their squad cars amid protests against police policies.

He has also had to contend with constant oversight and openly critical assessments from the NYPD’s new inspector general, as well as the city’s Department of Investigation commissioner, who are mayoral appointees.

While he publicly insists that the mayor has given him all the money and equipment he has asked for, including hiring 1,100 more officers, it took negotiations with City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to force the city's hand.

One longtime de Blasio adviser said he believes Bratton came back to the NYPD “to complete his legacy."

"He wanted to keep crime down, have no terror attacks, and show that he was the person who could do the best job on race," he said. "And now he has implemented major changes in how the NYPD goes about doing its business."

But the verdict on how that works out rests with his hand-picked successor, James O’Neill.

“There is no doubt the homicide rate and crime rate have dropped dramatically and New York City is transformed,” said Roy Richter, president of the Captains Benevolent Association. “Whether or not we can ultimately realize the ultimate peace dividend, that has yet to be determined.”

Bratton oversaw his final CompStat meeting Thursday. He was asked whether over his 45-plus year career in law enforcement he had any disappointments.

"Any disappointments are more than offset by the satisfaction of what’s been accomplished," Bratton told reporters. "I had the opportunity to come back and see them come to fruition."

Bratton Retirement Letter Dated 9-14-16