On July 6, 1994, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Rudy Giuliani released a manifesto. Titled “Police Strategy No. 5: Reclaiming the Public Spaces of New York,” the document took scholarly aim at the menace of quality-of-life crimes: “Aggressive panhandling, squeegee cleaners, street prostitution, ‘boombox cars,’ public drunkenness, reckless bicyclists and graffiti have added to the sense that the entire public environment is a threatening place.”
It’s a sign of just how far the city has come that nearly all of those ills (except for reckless bicyclists, dammit!) have all but vanished from visible view, to the point where “real New Yorkers” lament them wistfully.
Bill Bratton, who announced his retirement suddenly this afternoon, deserves as much credit as anyone for the amazing drop in crime in New York and consequent rebirth of this great city.
This publication—and the great city it serves—owes a debt of gratitude to an exemplary public servant.
The credit is not his alone. Despite his big personality and flashy style—late-night dinners at Elaine’s when it existed and a solo cover on Time magazine were thought to have speeded his exit from New York City the first time—Bratton’s success during both tours as commissioner of the largest police force in the nation relied on others. From Mayor David Dinkins, who selected him to head the Transit Police, to Giuliani, who empowered him to actually put into place the innovative techniques they were studying, to Mayor Bill de Blasio, who imported him back from L.A., a smart decision, but a controversial one, given growing resistance among de Blasio’s base to the “broken windows” policing and stop-question-and-frisk tactics that Bratton helped pioneer. Bratton also had help from below and identifying talent was among his gifts. By promoting people like the late Compstat legend Jack Maple and identifying James O’Neill, who will now succeed him, Bratton observed one of the most important leadership principles—grooming other leaders.
Speaking of credit, Bratton hasn’t always been as generous as he might have been. His attitude toward Giuliani, who made him the star that he became, was obnoxiously dismissive, and he’s been oddly unwilling to recognize the achievements of Ray Kelly, who twice preceded him.
That’s a strange blind spot for a police innovator who leaves a legacy of reform and effectiveness that has improved millions of lives, not only in New York City and Los Angeles, but in cities nationwide that borrowed strength from Bratton’s refusal to surrender to the “ungovernable” narrative gripping big cities in the early ’90s.
According to one of Bratton’s successors, Bernard Kerik, who served as Mayor Giuliani’s third commissioner, Bratton’s achievements this time around are even more impressive because of the mayor he serves.
“Bill Bratton’s job was made 10 times more difficult working for de Blasio. De Blasio’s lack of support for the men and women in the Police Department and his constant racist insinuations have done nothing but demoralize and degrade the men and women of the NYPD, which has made Bratton’s job so much harder.” The former commissioner also showered praise on the man who looks to be the new leader. “Jimmy O’Neill is a great choice for a replacement, given that he has been in the department through the aftermath of 9/11, and has dealt with the domestic and international terrorism issues, community relations issues and other controversies. He is also extremely well respected, as was Joe Esposito, his predecessor who is now the commissioner of the office of emergency management. O’Neill’s going to have a difficult job dealing with the mayor’s rhetoric while keeping the cops motivated and inspired to do their job.”
We wish Bill Bratton the rest and relaxation and Time magazine covers he richly deserves. This publication—and the great city it serves—owe a debt of gratitude to an exemplary public servant.