New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton was asked Tuesday if his officers take a "hands-off" approach to demonstrators who jam roads and bridges.
"We do, quite frankly," Bratton said.
Lawsuits stemming from the mass arrests during the 2004 Republican convention and the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement, Bratton explained, ultimately cost the city millions of dollars in court settlements and many days of depositions by top brass.
"When you lock up 500 or 600 people all at the same time, you don't have what the courts require to successfully prosecute," Bratton told his questioner, a guest at an Association for a Better New York breakfast. "I'd rather deal with some traffic congestion, initially."
Nearly a year into his second turn in the job, Bratton, 67, walks a thin blue line between the need to show police restraint in the wake of the Eric Garner case and pressure to keep crime down.
Reflecting that balancing act, Bratton carefully rounded out his latest remarks about traffic disruptions.
He and Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro are "watching closely" to ensure emergency vehicles are not delayed amid protests. He's "working closely" with stores targeted by demonstrators, he said. And as reaction "remains largely nonviolent," he mentioned "several assaults on my officers, [and] one broken window that I'm aware of."
Bratton first evoked the critical tensions of the moment in his half-hour stump speech.
"Public safety without public approval isn't public safety," he said. "The challenge is this: How do we win back the trust from the city's minority populations? How do we build new relationships with the areas that are still afflicted with too much crime, and too much poverty, too much unemployment?"
At the same time, he vowed to keep up the "broken-windows" policy of pursuing small infractions to head off bigger ones, which he has long pushed and which he credits for crime drops beginning in the 1990s. "Broken-windows, and make no mistake about it, is essential to the safety of this city," he declared amid scattered applause.
During Bratton's first tenure 20 years ago, the public would rarely see fatal police confrontations. Now they can be caught raw on cellphone cameras and quickly posted on the Web.
For Bratton, or any police official, the ability of the world to be watching plays a role in the tension between public safety and public approval.
During his speech, Bratton didn't cite the reportedly accidental shooting in an East New York stairwell of 28-year-old Akai Gurley by a rookie cop, but talked about training challenges that "loom large."
"We've developed a real field training program for the first time in many years in this department," he said, a plan to be detailed soon, pairing rookies with seasoned officers. While he said it "won't happen overnight," because it involves thousands of officers, it will provide "a far better grounding" for those starting out, Bratton said.
"Even if the NYPD wasn't facing the challenges I've described, we'd be looking for ways to improve," he told his audience before moving on.
Correction: A previous version of this column misidentified the fire commissioner.