Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic , by William Bratton with Peter Knobler. Random House, 329 pages, $25.
How did we manage without Bill Bratton? How did this out-of-control city go about its business before Bill Bratton came to our rescue-not once, but twice?
And how will we get by now that this abrasive and memorable publicity addict has been dispatched to what must be a painful, thoroughly undeserved and clearly regrettable exile?
Consider what New York was like before Mr. Bratton brought his flat A’s to town. According to the former Police Commissioner, we “couldn’t walk from [our] apartments to the subway without getting aggressively panhandled or threatened or worse … [We] couldn’t walk to work without seeing men and women using the streets and the sidewalks as outdoor toilets. [We] couldn’t stop [our] car at a traffic light without some guy smearing their windshield with a filthy rag and demanding a dollar for his efforts.” Boy, times were tough back then, although I seem to remember driving the full length of Staten Island’s Hylan Boulevard, a major artery with approximately 679 traffic lights, before Mr. Bratton’s arrival and not once was I shaken down by a squeegee man. Bad timing, I guess. Anyway, in Mr. Bratton’s view, “When I got there, [New Yorkers] had just about given up.” Yes, just as we gave up in the 1970’s and the 1930’s and the 1840’s. Giving up on New York is a local pastime with which Mr. Bratton is not as familiar as he should be.
Mr. Bratton has written a combined memoir-police manual called Turnaround , which purports to tell nothing less than how “America’s top cop reversed the crime epidemic.” He indeed may have written some version of that story; unfortunately, it’s hard to know, for it is buried in impenetrable chapters apparently designed for self-improving police officers. The heavy sledding probably is unavoidable, since the sort of police work Mr. Bratton describes in detail concerns management techniques (“Once a crime pattern has been identified, an array of personnel and other necessary resources are promptly deployed to deal with it”) and not, say, true-crime heroics.
When Mr. Bratton writes about himself, however, this book becomes a lot more entertaining. As was clear when he was competing with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani for the title of Municipal Savior, the man is an unabashed egomaniac. In Turnaround , he delights in telling you of his amazing insights (and he does have many), of his scrappy determination to change the policing profession, of his improbable yet inevitable rise to fame and good fortune, and his utter confidence that he was and is a man for the moment. It was said of Winston Churchill, another man with a well-endowed ego, that he truly believed that only he could lead Britain to victory in World War II. On nearly every page of Turnaround , Mr. Bratton suggests a similar view of his role in the war on crime. (“The N.Y.P.D. … had the reputation as the greatest crime-fighting machine in the history of policing, but the big blue wall was a lot of blue smoke and a few mirrors,” he writes of the pre-Bratton Police Department. If that weren’t enough, he adds: “I had gotten the sense … that the N.Y.P.D. was a culture of its own, very resistant to creativity. It certainly did not take the crime issue seriously.”)
Now there’s a perspective you haven’t heard before: Until Mr. Bratton’s arrival, New York’s Police Department didn’t take the crime issue seriously. Makes you wonder what all those men and women in blue did all day during the last 100 years or so. (Insert gratuitous doughnut joke here.)
If you doubt Mr. Bratton and his key aides saw themselves in Churchillian terms, consider this passage, in which the colorful, cantankerous and ubiquitous Jack Maple offers the following analysis of Bratton-style policing: “Timely, accurate intelligence; rapid response; effective tactics; relentless follow-up-that’s what won the Battle of Britain and that’s how we were going to win the battle of New York,” Mr. Bratton writes.
This kind of chest-thumping rhetoric can be tiresome, as are some of Mr. Bratton’s unkind references to his honorable predecessor, Ray Kelly. To vary the World War II analogy, if Mr. Bratton is the George Patton of the war on crime, he clearly sees Mr. Kelly as its Mark Clark-the unfortunate commander whose hesitation and by-the-rules mentality led to disaster and near defeat on the beaches of Salerno. Mr. Kelly deserves better from Mr. Bratton, as he suggests when he credits Mr. Kelly for cracking down on squeegee men and trying to reorganize the department.
His anecdotes from Boston are rich; he was there for the school busing riots of the 1970’s and he analyzes that epic confrontation with telling details and a good bit of indignation. And he is candid about his ambition even then. He admits to plotting and maneuvering to move through the ranks in Boston.
For a New Yorker, though, the heart of the book and the most readable part of the story is Mr. Bratton’s account of his war with City Hall, Mr. Giuliani and his various aides-especially communications director Cristyne Lategano, referred to as City Hall’s “Madame Defarge” and “Dragon Lady.” And it is here, in the book’s final 100 pages, that Mr. Bratton, Mr. Maple, John Timoney, John Miller and other members of the Bratton brain trust win our sympathy and make us forget all the self-congratulating and credit-taking in the book’s previous pages.
Mr. Bratton’s descriptions of Mr. Giuliani’s temper tantrums, usually touched off because he hadn’t gotten enough credit for some Bratton-Maple-Timoney initiative, are wonderful. Writing about his aides, he says: “They had devised a system to gauge just how irate the Mayor was supposed to be: the phone-book scale-how many phone books they should put down their pants before they went to the mayor’s office to take their beating. They had phone-book meetings and double phone-book meetings, white-page meetings and yellow-page meetings and yellow- and -white-page meetings!” With Mr. Bratton’s plan (along with at least some good luck) bringing down the crime rate to levels unheard of in a generation, the N.Y.P.D.’s top brass found that “most of what was getting in our way was City Hall.”
New Yorkers know what happened next, but Mr. Bratton tells the story well and makes his points subtly. In hindsight, of course, a clash between the Mayor and the Commissioner was inevitable. Each of the men had so much in common-mainly, a fervent belief in his own historical importance-that a long-term partnership hardly seemed likely.
Still, though, it should be a Mayor’s job to make sure that brilliant people, however combative, however crotchety, remain in public service. But Bill Bratton, Jack Maple and John Timoney, men who were born to do police work in New York, are now otherwise and elsewhere employed, driven out by the Mayor himself because, essentially, they were too good at their jobs.
Like many a glad-handing political consultant, Bill Bratton seems the type willing to take credit for a sunny day in summer. Still, there’s no arguing with results.
Unless, of course, you’re Rudy Giuliani.