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NYPD’s William J. Bratton steps away after decades of service

NYPD Commissioner William Bratton got a gift of candy from the mayor at their final meeting together at City Hall in Manhattan on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016. (Credit: Newsday / Matthew Chayes)

At about 3 p.m. Friday, William Bratton is scheduled to walk hand-in-hand with his wife, Rikki Klieman, out the doors of Police Plaza for the very last time as police commissioner. Striding through a phalanx of officers, the couple will finally be whisked away in an antique police car.

Bratton, 68, is retiring Friday as the city’s 42nd police commissioner, 32 months after taking a over a department in crisis — slammed by critics over an aggressive stop-and-frisk policy and accusations of excessive force.

He leaves amid a continuing drop in crime and a reined-in stop-and-frisk policy with significantly fewer New Yorkers approached on the street by officers. But his departure also is accompanied by criticism: Police-reform advocates say his efforts at repairing the department’s tarnished image over stop-and-frisk have not gone far enough, and police union leaders have said Bratton’s close ties to Mayor Bill de Blasio hurt his standing among the rank and file.

Bratton leaves after 45 years of public service. He will re-emerge next in the private sector in a job with the global consulting firm Teneo Holdings.

“I think I have done my share,” Bratton said recently when asked why he decided to leave government service.

The commissioner took a victory lap Thursday, telling his commanders in his final Compstat meeting that he is leaving with great satisfaction: Serious crime continues to go down 76.5 percent from 1993.

“You are the best, you are the finest,” Bratton said as he left the room at Police Plaza to a standing ovation.

But like many days in his tenure, Thursday didn’t end for Bratton without some last-minute drama.

In the early evening, Bratton appeared in a familiar role — standing before a wall of television and still cameras — at a Midtown news conference to discuss a meat cleaver attack Thursday afternoon by a 32-year-old man on an off-duty NYPD officer.

Eventually, Chief of Department James O’Neill, who will assume the NYPD’s leadership role after Friday, stepped forward to continue to give reporters updates as Bratton receded into the background to listen.

It was likely the last appearance for Bratton in an up-front role with the NYPD, which he headed twice — two terms separated by his seven years as the police chief in Los Angeles. His legacy is one that many criminal justice experts said is filled with major accomplishments and challenges.

Despite a record-breaking drop in crime under Bratton’s predecessor Ray Kelly, the department appeared under siege as Bratton assumed his new role in 2014.

Morale was low and critics accused the department of discriminatory treatment of minorities through stop-and-frisk tactics. Muslims charged they were victims of illegal surveillance. Bratton decided to change course, drastically cutting back on police stops.

“I think simultaneously driving stop-question-and-frisk from [a yearly] 600,000-plus to 25,000 while also driving down crime, at a time when no one thought possible, are significant achievements,” said Richard Aborn, chairman of the Citizens Crime Commission, about Bratton’s tenure.

Bratton put aside the “flood the zone” concept of policing used under Kelly. In its place, he adopted a more precision-targeted approach that reduced the number of sometimes-troublesome encounters with ordinary, law-abiding members of the public, Aborn said.

The result appears to be a smoothing of some of the choppy waters in the relationships between cops and minority communities, Aborn added.

With his collaborative and chatty ways, Bratton’s style represented a major sea change from Kelly’s brand of centralized, top-down leadership. Bratton embraced technology and built a positive relationship with de Blasio and the City Council. If necessary, Bratton would stand firm after the council proposed measures he thought were intrusive on police management. He would eventually agree to some compromises without any new laws put in place.

O’Neill, 59, an NYPD cop since 1983, will be sworn in at a private ceremony Friday with a public event scheduled for Monday.

Under Bratton, O’Neill shined and rose steadily to chief of patrol before his promotion to his current post. It’s in his most recent role that O’Neill has become the architect of the highly- touted neighborhood policing program, a concept viewed as the NYPD’s strategy for earning the trust of minority communities.

The Brooklyn-born O’Neill is the first NYPD commissioner to ascend the ranks weaned on Compstat, the department’s groundbreaking computerized system pioneered by Bratton that tracks and analyzes crime.

Aborn believes O’Neill is a “cop’s cop,” on good terms with de Blasio, and well-suited to move the NYPD forward

“Jimmy, he really does understand the NYPD inside and out, really understands you have to change,” Aborn said.

Change, of course, is one thing the NYPD had to master when de Blasio took office in January 2014 after essentially campaigning against the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk tactics and supporting hard-line City Council members who pushed through measures such as an inspector general for the NYPD.

Detractors predicted the city would see an increase in crime and generally lawlessness as rank-and-file officers made fewer arrests out of a fear of getting sued or winding up on YouTube.

“The fact that he took the job indicated he was opposite of risk-averse, in having a reputation to put at risk and walking into an environment that was very high risk,” said Professor Franklin Zimring of University of California at Berkeley’s School of Law about Bratton’s decision to team with the politically liberal de Blasio.

After 2 1⁄2 years, serious crimes in the city continue to drop. As of Sept. 11, homicides numbered 242, down 3.6 percent from 2015. Shootings were down 12.7 percent. Overall major felonies have decreased 2.4 percent. It is a record that Zimring said was “astonishingly good,” standing in contrast to Chicago, where killings so far this year top 500.

Bratton was seven months on the job when Eric Garner died after a confrontation with cops on Staten Island. The city medical examiner found that an apparent chokehold used by officers, notably Daniel Pantaleo, contributed to Garner’s death.

A Staten Island grand jury declined to indict Pantaleo, and the city was racked by protests. But New York was spared the violence seen in other cities, and Zimring, in a study to be published next year, found that historically, the NYPD was the “cleanest” in terms of shootings of civilians.

But Bratton’s emphasis on quality-of-life enforcement, his keeping Pantaleo on the force on modified status and other issues have turned off some vocal critics like Robert Gangi, head of the Police Reform Organizing Project.

“He has been an enormous disappointment,” said Gangi of Bratton.

Ed Mullins, head of the sergeants union, also voiced disappointment with Bratton, saying his closeness with de Blasio tarnished him and undercut his legacy from his time as the commissioner under Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Legal experts also have criticized Bratton for keeping police disciplinary records secret, as well as what Donna Lieberman of the New York Civil Liberties Union said is his stubborn commitment to quality-of-life policing.

O’Neill will face his share of significant issues. Morale, a recent Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association survey found, is still a problem.

His policy of quality-of-life or “Broken Windows” enforcement also discriminates against minorities, said Gangi, a claim Bratton has disputed. Then there is a lingering federal probe of corruption among some ranking officers.

Asked Thursday what his advice was for O’Neill, Bratton answered, “have fun.”

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