Bill Bratton talks L.A. police, George Floyd and his memoir
Over his three-plus decades running police departments in Boston, New York City and Los Angeles, Bill Bratton branded himself as America’s top cop. At the time, that was generally a good thing: He won accolades for overseeing big-city police departments during a historic decline in crime throughout the U.S., ushering in changes that reshaped how the job is done and confronting the LAPD’s history of racism and abuse a decade after the Rodney King beating. Throughout, he was an improbable blend of progressive reformer and ideologue, someone who didn’t hesitate to call out the failures of the profession and individual cops while also insisting that aggressive, data-driven policing would lower crime and improve race relations.
Today, of course, things are more complicated and fraught. Since the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop, American policing has become as polarizing as politics at large. With his new book, “The Profession,” Bratton weighs in with what he freely admits is his large ego and loud voice. With assistance from co-author Peter Knobler, he revisits his career with an eye toward explaining and defending his approach. And he attempts to wrestle with the current moment, arguing that Floyd’s killing has set policing back decades while sticking to his long-held, but now highly controversial, belief that a civil society depends on robust enforcement.
Bratton spoke with The Times last week about the movement to defund the police, the responsibility and the burden of his profession and what’s become of old boss Rudy Giuliani. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
One response to George Floyd’s death was rejection of police reform, which, opponents argued, only perpetuates a racist system. Still, reform is needed.
It’s a timely book.
It was originally scheduled to come out before George Floyd was killed. Thank God we weren’t ready. I would argue so much of what is out there about policing has been from the other side. This is from an inside policing perspective.
The headline in the New York Post this morning is about the return of the squeegee guys who cleaned windshields at red lights. In 1994, I came to New York when Giuliani was mayor and he told me, “We’ve got to get rid of the squeegee pests.” So here we are. This is what the book is about; in some respects, we’re right back where we started. In the ’70s, it was the depolicing, decriminalization and deinstitutionalization. In 2021, what are we talking about? We’re talking about defunding, we’re talking about decriminalization of many of the laws we used to work with and, in many respects, we’re talking about deinstitutionalization. But this time, instead of emptying out the mental institutions, we’re emptying out the prisons. It’s deja vu all over again.
Is that disheartening to you?
It’s the optimist in me that I see this as a real opportunity. In many respects, this crisis is worse than back in the ’70s or back in the ’90s. The good news is we’ve learned so much in the last 50 years. I would argue that in 2016, when I was leaving policing, we had arrived at a good place. And it all blew apart with George Floyd. We had not realized how thin the scab was over the race issue.
So much of the book is a defense of policing…
I don’t see it as defending the police. I don’t think they need defending. I’m advocating for their importance, their essentiality. Almost everything that I have advocated for, created, implemented in Boston, New York twice, L.A. is now under attack. I wanted to make sure that my voice was not lost.
Reading the book, one thing that jumped out is how policing in America goes through cycles of progress and setbacks or crisis. Do you think it will always be like this?
Policing is like medicine. It’s a practice. It’s never going to arrive at a final destination. We’re still wrestling, for example, with what the appropriate police role should be with the mentally ill, the homeless, the drug-addicted. And that’s 50 years after those responsibilities were first dumped on us in the ’70s.
There isn’t a police chief in America who wouldn’t like to get rid of that responsibility, but I’ll predict for you that most of it is not going to be taken away, because they won’t fund it. If that’s the case, then train us better how to deal with it.
The George Floyd protests have brought forward discussion about having the police step back from mental health calls. The LAPD had already been moving in that direction.
You mentioned Giuliani earlier. In the book, you say he is not the man you knew in the 1990s.
Giuliani was smart. He was hard charging. And from what he did as U.S. attorney, I saw him as a man with great integrity. He was a man with a big ego. I have a big ego, so I understand people with big egos. And I honestly don’t know what happened to him. The Rudy I knew would never subjugate himself to anybody. Whether it was him trying to get back in the game or to make money, as he was going through a very expensive divorce ... Whatever happened, he became a caricature of himself.
Throughout your career, and again in the book, you’ve rejected the idea that crime rates are driven up or down by larger societal and economic forces. Police, you believe, are the deciding factor. After years of declines, violent crime is rising again in L.A., New York and elsewhere. Why?
Basically, the police are being handcuffed. Handcuffed in the sense that because of the abuses of some, Derek Chauvin [the now former officer convicted of murdering Floyd] and others, police are not trusted by the community to effectively enforce laws.
And it’s also the continuing failure of governments to deal with the emotionally disturbed, the homeless, the drug addiction problem. Government is failing very badly at that. And who ends up being the net catching all of that debris? The police.
I would say that we have the formula. We know what works. We should build on that formula, rather than some of the mistakes we’ve made in the past. These are incredibly tough times. But, God, we have the opportunity to get it right. I wish I was a little younger, to get back in the game.
You write that George Floyd’s killing was “100% a murder,” but you also say there is no epidemic in the U.S. of police killing Black men. That puts you at odds with many who see this as a systemic problem. Do you think any good has come out of the country’s reckoning last summer?
Certainly. I think Blacks, to borrow from [Los Angeles community leader] Sweet Alice [Harris], are being seen, being heard. Look at the societal change in the last year. And, going forward, we hopefully will evolve in a better way. And I really believe that out of this chaos, out of all this turmoil, we’ll come out the better for it.
Walter Mosley, Luis Rodriguez, the coiner of #BlackLivesMatter and others sketch a hopeful future for L.A. and the U.S. after George Floyd protests.
But you also say the damage done to policing has been dramatic.
A tremendous, tremendous amount. And, so it’s going be a matter in some respects of the phoenix rising from the ashes. But we’ve got a very strong phoenix in those ashes. In Los Angeles, the LAPD is a minority majority department, and there’s a very heavy Latino influence. You’ve got a lot of gay officers. You’ve got a much stronger foundation now to build on. But I’ve never seen morale as bad as it is at this moment, and it’s having an impact on recruiting new officers.
I arrived in Los Angeles in 2002. Starting a few years before that, until effectively the George Floyd demonstrations, there were no large-scale, racial disturbances in Los Angeles. Think about that in the city of Los Angeles, nearly 20 years where things had quieted down. And I felt very good about that, because it was a lot of work that we had done. So similarly, coming out of the turmoil this time, maybe we can go forward.
Love a good book?
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.