Police Commissioner Bill Bratton once again touted decreases in crime in a speech this morning, but acknowledged that even as the city has gotten safer, anger at the police department he leads has grown—threatening public safety.
“Public safety without public approval isn’t public safety,” Mr. Bratton said during a sweeping speech to a welcoming crowd at an Association for a Better New York at the New York Hilton in midtown.
Mr. Bratton’s speech comes as the city has been gripped by protests in response to a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the death of Eric Garner, a black Staten Island man who died as the officer sought to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The July death has sparked renewed tensions between minority communities and police, and has led some to criticize Mr. Bratton’s “broken windows” theory of policing, which targets small crimes in an effort to prevent large ones.
But today the police commissioner said the anger seen in the city’s streets pre-dates his tenure in the department and has been growing over the last four years, even as the city has gotten “safer and safer.”
“And that anger, let’s face it, defined last year’s election. And it’s defined the protests that have occurred around the nation over the last two weeks, and it’s certainly is defining the current debate and demonstrations in this city,” he said.
Indeed, the fractured relationship between communities of color and police was a centerpiece of last year’s election, with Mayor Bill de Blasio pledging to reduce the use of the stop and frisk technique that advocates, and a federal judge, have argued unfairly targets black and Hispanic men. But with the death of Garner and others, the anger has yet to subside.
“As someone who has devoted my life to public safety, 44 years in the business, it was hard to see that anger. On its face, it’s hard to make sense of it. Crime is down, isn’t it? Isn’t that what police are paid to do? Disorder control? Isn’t that what police are paid to do?” Mr. Bratton said. “Fear is down—ah, but there is the rub, as Shakespeare would say. Fear of crime is down. But not fear, or anger, at the police and government—particularly in the city’s minority neighborhoods. In the parts of the city that need us most, we need to regain that community trust.”
While he openly acknowledged the divisions in the city, and the need for police to be retrained and improve relationships, Mr. Bratton also offered a strong defense of his policing strategy. He said police go where the 911 and 311 calls come from, places under a cloud of poverty and unemployment and crime—which are also “largely neighborhoods of color.”
He cited the example of marijuana arrests—which occurred disproportionately in communities of color, though whites also smoke marijuana in high numbers. The city is now ending arrests for possession, but will still arrest anyone smoking in public, which is usually brought to an officer’s attention via a complaint from the community. That’s not racial policing, he said, but responsive policing.
He emphasized that unlike the overuse of stop and frisk, broken windows is based on probable cause—responding to crimes witnessed or called in to police. The key, Mr. Bratton said, is to ensure that the laws are being fairly applied in all communities.
Ending broken windows policing, its architect said, is simply not an option.
“Broken windows, and make no mistake about it, is essential to the safety of this city. It’s a large part of what brought this city back in the first place,” Mr. Bratton said, to applause from about half the crowd.