At a Tumultuous Time, Bill Bratton Says Goodbye to the NYPD

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton stands with Mayor Bill de Blasio today.

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton stands with Mayor Bill de Blasio today. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Police Commissioner Bill Bratton will retire from his post leading the NYPD in September, leaving policing at a time when the field he revolutionized is at the center of a roiling national debate and marking the biggest departure yet for the de Blasio Administration.

“I wish I had words. I wish I had words for what this man has achieved,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said today in City Hall’s Blue Room. “I think you can spend years and years researching and analyzing you won’t get it all.”

Bratton, 68, had served in the role since 2013, and it his second time leading the department—he rose to national fame when he presided over a drop in crime in the 1990s,  popularizing the “broken windows” theory of policing and rolling out CompStat, a system for tracking crime patterns. Bratton will take a private sector job with Teneo, a firm that advises CEOs. He be replaced as commissioner by the department’s current deputy chief, James O’Neill.

“This city, this department, will have a seamless transition—and there has never been a time in American policing history when that is more important than now,” Bratton said today. “Because as we go forward to face these crises of race in America, crime in America, fear of terrorism in America, in the midst of the turmoil of this presidential election, there is no police department that is better prepared to face all that we are going to have to face in the future.”

Bratton has provided credibility on crime for de Blasio, a progressive Democrat whose campaign denounced the NYPD for stopping and frisking too many people of color and called for reform of the department. When the mayor-elect announced his appointment, it seemed he would be a kinder, gentler version of the commissioner de Blasio had so often criticized, Ray Kelly: Bratton read from a children’s book that had inspired him to be a cop and projected a tough-on-crime stance while also rejecting the over-use of stop-and-frisk and emphasizing a need to work with the community. Under Bratton’s tenure, crime has continued to fall, allowing the mayor to push back against a narrative of rising disorder from his foes.

But over time, Bratton was also frequently a political liability for de Blasio. His focus on broken windows policing—stopping smaller crimes in an effort to prevent larger ones—earned him the ire of many of those same activists who protested stop-and-frisk alongside the mayor, particularly after Eric Garner was killed when police tried to arrest him for selling untaxed cigarettes. The mayor and Bratton frequently disagreed in public (sometimes while standing next to each other at the same press conference), and no other administration official seemed so free to undercut him.

Bratton has always indicated he’d not stay on for a second term, but first told the mayor about his plan to imminently retire on July 8 during a conversation in the commissioner’s office, both men said today—despite several instances since then when the pair played coy about his departure, including an interview with WNYC last week in which de Blasio dismissed it as a hypothetical. (De Blasio said personnel matters require “discretion.”)

The announcement comes one day after the most recent public disagreement between de Blasio and Bratton: over an interaction between police officers and Michael Blake, a black state assemblyman who said police roughly tossed him against a gate for inquiring about an arrest. De Blasio apologized, while Bratton refused to do so. And outside City Hall today, Occupy Wall Street inspired protesters have set up camp calling for Bratton’s firing, citing a myriad of issues and hoisting Black Lives Matter banners.

Blake—and Rev. Al Sharpton—today both said they did not believe the demand for an apology played any role in today’s announcement of Bratton’s retirement.

Bill Bratton and his wife, Ricki Kleinman, shortly before they encounter protesters outside City Hall.

Bill Bratton and his wife, Ricki Kleinman, shortly before they encounter protesters outside City Hall. (Photo: Jillian Jorgensen for Observer)

And de Blasio offered a “110 percent” guarantee that the announcement, hastily advised this morning, had nothing to do with those protests. Bratton also said he was not leaving because of those issues.

“The issue of race and community relations, we’re on a journey. But it’s not a journey unique to New York City. It’s a crisis in America at this moment. The national election is revolving around it. I would argue that we are farther along in New York City than in most places,” Bratton said. “I’m leaving with reluctance. I wish I had more time, chronologically, to say around three or four more years to work on the issues that are gonna take that long to straighten up. I don’t have that type of time.”

That journey—and the bumps along its way—was on display for Bratton when he walked out of City Hall with his wife, Ricki Kleinman. A protester who managed to get inside the City Hall gates screamed at the commissioner that he was a “racist.” Outside the gates, a crowd of protesters chanted “Hey, goodbye,” as they got into an SUV.

Bratton has had critics not just in the activist classes, but in government, too. Among them is Councilman Ritchie Torres, who had pushed for the passage of legislation that would require officers to identify themselves and inform people of their right to deny a search without a warrant. Bratton had opposed that legislation, leading to a deal with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to enact changes internally—but Torres said he hoped the change at the NYPD would mean new life for his legislation, calling Bratton “the single greatest obstruction to the Right to Know Act.”

Torres said he was taken aback by the timing of the departure but called it a “positive development,” that he hoped would yield “a more unifying commissioner.”

“The concern I’ve had is the commissioner’s personality has gotten in the way,” Torres said. “He felt the need to weigh in with social commentary.”

Indeed, it was at those times that his differences with de Blasio were on the starkest display. They disagreed on rap music (Bratton dismissed rappers as “thugs” after a shooting at a hip hop concert), on protesters (Bratton drew a line from police reform demonstrators to the man who shot two police officers in December 2014), on the Black Lives Matter movement (Bratton said the protesters “accomplish nothing”).

In addition to Bratton’s retirement coming at a difficult time for police forces nationwide, it also comes at a difficult time for de Blasio—who faces re-election in 2017 amid swirling investigations, including one into corruption at the NYDP (which began before but continued under his tenure). The mayor has seen several high-profile staff members depart in recent months, while potential primary challengers are beginning to position themselves as they seek an opening to enter the race.

But Bratton heaped praise on the mayor, calling him “extraordinary” and “truly a partner, a friend and a leader.” O’Neill, too, had nothing but kind words for his new boss. That praise might help de Blasio on a day when he was hounded by the department’s rank-and-file union over pay raises.

“The mayor has given the NYPD everything we have asked for and everything we have needed,” O’Neill said.

Chief of Department, and the next commissioner, James O'Neill.

Chief of Department, and the next commissioner, James O’Neill. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

O’Neill brings the type of experience that should please those who may view de Blasio as soft on crime—but it remains to be seen whether he will quell some of the NYPD’s most fervent critics, given his close relationship to Bratton. But there were already some efforts, it seemed, to distance the department from the more controversial aspects of Bratton’s tenure. The mayor and O’Neill conspicuously avoided using the phrase “broken windows,” even when asked about it, focusing instead on new ideas for “neighborhood policing.”

While O’Neill frequently speaks at press conferences, he comes to the role of top cop with a decidedly lower profile than Bratton, whose big personality and love of the spotlight have caused him trouble with mayors before.

It was basking in the glow of lower crime—and not leaving enough room there for Rudy Giuliani—that led to Bratton’s departure from One Police Plaza back in 1996.

But today, Bratton took pains to differentiate this goodbye from that one. He recalled being given his goodbye gifts by the last New York City mayor he worked for, without mentioning a name.

“One of the gifts he gave me was a key to the city. He didn’t tell me he had already changed the locks,” Bratton said. “For the next 20 years, I was locked out, in some respects, from this city and this police department. When I came back, the mayor gave me a new key.”

Will Bredderman contributed to this story.

At a Tumultuous Time, Bill Bratton Says Goodbye to the NYPD