Bratton's 'delicate balance': Fight crime, win over past NYPD critics

William J. Bratton attends a press conference in William J. Bratton attends a press conference in which Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio announced that Bratton is to serve as New York City's next Police Commissioner on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013 in Brooklyn. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

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When he took over as NYPD commissioner in January, William Bratton would tell anyone who would listen about the words of his policing idol, 19th century British statesman Sir Robert Peel, who said that the measure of a cop's success was the "absence of crime and disorder."

By most measures, the city is safer now than it was even a year ago, let alone in 1994, when Bratton was Mayor Rudy Giuliani's first police commissioner. Murders are at a pace to come in at fewer than 300 this year, compared with 335 recorded in 2013, the best results in the modern era.

Now Bratton is trying to reassure the public and the City Council that recent high-profile crimes and an increase in shootings -- notably in public housing areas -- are not the start of a broader trend.

"Each of us are responsible for keeping the city safe," said Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Fresh Meadows), who is on the council's Committee on Public Safety. "If we are unable to keep the city safe, then we're going to be held accountable."

The commissioner "is tasked with this sense of urgency around shootings, but to not deal with it heavy-handedly," added Councilman Robert Cornegy (D-Bedford-Stuyvesant.) "It's a delicate balance."

Bratton has been mindful of that balance since Mayor Bill de Blasio hired him. The previous commissioner, Ray Kelly, presided over a steady reduction in crime for 12 years under Mayor Michael Bloomberg even as the NYPD's ranks shrank by 6,000. But minority communities and civil liberties groups protested Kelly's reliance on the controversial stop-and-frisk crime-fighting tool.

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Repairing relationships

Bratton has put a high priority on repairing the relationships that soured under Kelly, winning praise for openness from such diverse constituencies as police unions and the New York Civil Liberties Union, as well as much of the council. After 12 years of Kelly's top-down management style, Bratton also has brought a looser, more collegial leadership to the NYPD, ranking veterans of 1 Police Plaza said.

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A recent Quinnipiac poll shows Bratton is popular. But the same poll -- taken after the shocking murder of a 6-year-old boy in a public housing elevator and more shootings -- showed public confidence in the NYPD's performance slipping and a majority siding with the council's call during recent budget negotiations for 1,000 more cops. The council's final agreement with de Blasio calls for shifting 200 cops from desk duty to street duty.

"It [the shooting increase] is not citywide," said Thomas Reppetto, former head of the Citizens Crime Commission. "If it's in pockets, [the NYPD] can handle it. If it is citywide, we are in trouble."

Bratton insists he can get the job done with smart deployment of existing resources. He talks about "re-engineering" the NYPD and utilizing strategic concepts such as "predictive policing." He has pursued a strategy of bridge building with communities and stakeholders -- principles he explained in a management book he co-authored two years ago titled "Collaborate or Perish."

"At the moment, we are in very good relations with everybody," Bratton recently told reporters. "A lot of what I have been focusing on, and what I want to reinforce with all of you, is collaboration -- collaboration within the department and collaboration external to the department.

"Nobody is fighting with us," he said.

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That approach has been widely praised.

"He needs to establish communication and trust," said Sergeants Benevolent Association president Edward Mullins. "His collaborative game plan is a very smart move."

 

Accepting oversight

Bratton's disagreement with the council's push to expand the police force of 35,000 was a civil one, with a commissioner who, unlike Kelly, accepted the oversight they placed on the NYPD to review its practices and policies. Bratton worked with similar monitors as Los Angeles' popular police chief from 2002 to 2009.

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"The tone overall of your leadership, despite it being early, is completely very different than what it was before," Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said at a March 21 hearing. "The fact that you see community as an asset and a tool for effective policing is in and of itself really worlds apart from where we were."

Bratton's day-to-day approach as commissioner is to hand more authority to subordinates to meet their responsibilities. "I am known as the great delegator," Bratton once said.

A slender man with a thick Boston accent, Bratton, 66, is often seen schmoozing at social functions, sometimes accompanied by his TV personality wife, Rikki Klieman.

If he doesn't know the answer to a question at media briefings -- a rarity with Kelly -- Bratton says so and has an aide respond. His desk is said by an aide to be uncluttered with papers and files.

Bratton is gaining a reputation as a willing listener -- to unions, council members, street cops and people in minority communities. He plans to have all 77 precincts poll 200 citizens to ask them essentially how the cops are doing.

NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said that under Kelly the NYPD refused to participate in any public forum if her group was there. That has changed.

"The openness and the access is a breath of fresh air," Lieberman said.

Police unions are still in a honeymoon period with Bratton, even though they lack contracts and the raises the commissioner says they deserve.

Patrick Lynch, president of the largest union, the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, said he and Bratton talk about 10 times a week on matters affecting the rank-and-file.

He recalled how the commissioner asked to join a Feb. 26 memorial event for Officer Edward Byrne, who was slain by drug dealers in 1988. After the ceremony, Bratton stayed and chatted with officers, which made a deep impression on them, Lynch said.

"This was a very unhappy organization," Bratton said last week, in part because of "management practices."

"The happier the cops are, the more confident they feel, is going to be crucial," he added.

 

Policing for quality of life

Bratton hasn't made drastic policy moves. But his cops are more aggressively going after subway panhandlers and graffiti -- tactics in line with his long-held view that quality-of-life crimes must be addressed and one that has its critics, including the NYCLU.

Some of Bratton's managerial shuffles seem aimed at morale. One chief to go was Charles Campisi, who led the Internal Affairs Bureau. He was followed by Phil Pulaski, chief of detectives.

Campisi's unit -- never a favorite of rank-and-file cops -- was viewed by in-house detractors as obsessed with small offenses, though it also helped make arrests involving ex-cops in a recent disability fraud case. Pulaski, seeking to standardize procedures, imposed paperwork demands and had a sharp-elbowed management style that alienated subordinates, union officials said. Neither Campisi nor Pulaski could be reached for comment.

"Detectives are quite encouraged by the changes so far, especially in the detective bureau," said Michael Paladino, head of the Detective Endowment Association. "We are looking forward to future changes with the re-engineering process."

Some 19 working groups of police officials have been pulled together to study re-engineering ideas ranging from changes in the overall organization of the NYPD to its uses of technology, training, integrity control and its enforcement strategies. Results are expected in about three months, Bratton said.

Predictive policing uses algorithms on data to anticipate crime spikes and deploy cops -- a next-generation of CompStat, the data analysis system Bratton helped pioneer in 1994.

Counterterrorism, which involves about 1,000 officers, is one area where Bratton treads carefully. Kelly's highly regarded approach has been credited with giving the city a strong reaction force and a sophisticated technological screen to deter nuclear, biological and chemical attacks. But Bratton recently disbanded the mostly inactive "demographic unit," which was criticized for surveillance of Muslims.

Under Giuliani, Bratton's battle cry was to take the streets back from the criminals. The murder rate was almost 2,000 a year and serious crime was at or near all-time highs.

He and Giuliani quickly drafted eight strategies to get guns and drugs off the street. In Bratton's two years, murders declined 21 percent and serious crimes more than 20 percent. It accelerated a historic change, which continued through Kelly's tenure, from levels of crime that not only plagued the city but also had come to define it since the 1960s. Once-ruined neighborhoods were reborn, population grew and business prospered.

Bratton also remembers the bad old days and vows they're not coming back.

"You may recall during the most recent mayoral campaign predictions of Armageddon," Bratton said in a speech at a policing forum last month. "Well, the city continues to get safer," he added. "Is it where we want to be? No, where we want to be is to reduce crime even more."

With Emily Ngo

CORRECTION: The date of the City Council hearing at which Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito complimented Police Commissioner William Bratton was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.

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