Bill Bratton brings his brand of policing back to New York
Weeks before he was selected to be chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, Bill Bratton was already at work, making the rounds among the city’s black leaders.
One of his calls was to John W. Mack, then president of the Los Angeles Urban League and a man who viewed the LAPD as “an occupation force in our community” prone to “brutality and racism.”
The men met for two hours in Mack’s office. Bratton mostly listened as Mack explained the chasm of distrust and hostility that defined relations between the city’s police and minority communities.
“I told him he had a big mountain to climb because there was a lot of anger and outrage,” Mack said.
Bratton’s seven years leading the LAPD was marked by aggressive, data-driven policing and a significant drop in crime.
But less heralded were his overtures to minority communities and courtship of some of the department’s harshest critics. He took over a department still reeling from racial tensions and the Rampart corruption scandal. When he left, he had succeeded in transforming Mack and other skeptics not just into supporters but partners in his drive to reduce crime.
Bratton, 66, will probably need a repeat performance of this deft touch when he takes over the New York Police Department — an agency he headed once before from 1994 to 1996. Though crime in New York has plummeted at rates similar to L.A.'s, tactics used by police have come under fire, particularly the “stop and frisk” policy that critics say unfairly targets young minority men.
Bratton was selected the new police commissioner by incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio, who ran on a platform of ending the stop and frisk policy.
Andre Birotte, the U.S. attorney for Los Angeles, said he expects Bratton to begin in New York the way he did in Los Angeles: reaching out to police critics and focusing on police officer tactics. He added that his work in L.A. offers a road map.
“There’s always been tensions between communities of color and the LAPD,” said Birotte, who served as inspector general for the L.A. police commission when Bratton was chief. “Bill Bratton did a very good job of going to those communities, reaching out to those members, hearing those concerns and complaints and making changes in both good times and bad.”
In Los Angeles, Bratton doggedly pursued a strategy of bringing critics, such as Mack, into the fold. Mack joined the police commission, which oversees the LAPD, and appeared frequently by Bratton’s side in public. Another sharp critic, civil rights attorney Connie Rice, remembered with a chuckle how she defensively confronted Bratton when he arrived in L.A.
Ticking off the names of his predecessors she had taken to court over police abuses, she told him, “‘I’m going to sue you, too.’ And he said, ‘No need, come inside.’ And I did.”
“He co-opted us, and he co-opted us into the mission of … the cultural transformation of LAPD,” she said.
Doing the same in New York will be difficult.
The stop-and-frisk policy, which eased the criteria for when officers can detain and search a person, has become divisive. The practice led to a federal class-action lawsuit against the city, which alleged police relied on racial profiling in choosing whom to stop. Most of those detained were black or Latino, and most never were charged with crimes. A judge this year ruled that the manner in which police practiced stop-question-frisk was unconstitutional. Although the city has challenged that ruling, de Blasio is expected to drop the appeal.
The NYPD also has continued to come under intense scrutiny in recent years for allegations it abused its authority by spying on Muslims after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
And though Bratton was unabashed in his wooing of critics in Los Angeles, his track record on racial profiling in the department was more complicated. The LAPD does not have a stop-and-frisk policy like the NYPD’s, but Bratton was dogged by traffic-stop data that some said showed inequalities in how black and Latino drivers were treated by officers compared to white drivers. The department also came under fire for how it investigated allegations of racial profiling and the fact that it never found an officer guilty of the charge despite thousands of complaints.
When a set of traffic-stop data raised questions not long after Bratton took over in L.A., he took a neutral stance. Though he argued the figures were inconclusive, he acknowledged that “many members of the minority community believe that the department does indeed engage in racial profiling. That’s the perception. We have to deal with that.”
In later years, however, Bratton became increasingly defensive. He lashed out at a Yale researcher who found racial inequalities in traffic stops and staunchly rejected the idea that the hundreds of people who leveled profiling accusations against officers each year indicated a widespread problem. Commissioners, including Mack, grew fed up with Bratton’s explanation that racial-profiling investigations inevitably would be inconclusive because it was impossible for investigators to know whether an officer was motivated by racial biases.
Bratton himself reflected on the similarities between the current friction in New York and what he encountered in Los Angeles in 2002.
“We have a situation in the city at this time which is so unfortunate, and I had my most recent experience in Los Angeles to match it up against,” he told reporters. “At a time when police and communities should be so much closer together … that is not the case in so many communities in this city. That is unfortunate, but it can be corrected.”
Bratton said he had “the great fortune of being involved in an effort in Los Angeles that was successful in bringing a police force that was literally at war with its African American community … to a position now … where there has been incredible improvement in those relationships.”
“That can happen and will happen here in New York City,” he said.
Times staff writers Kate Mather and Joe Serna contributed to this report.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.