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How Boston’s Bill Bratton is making over the NYPD

Thanks to the police commissioner, an idea hatched in ’70s Boston is rolling out in 21st-century New York.

On Patriots Day, Bill Bratton was in Boston, where he once walked a beat.
Dina Rudick/Globe staff
On Patriots Day, Bill Bratton was in Boston, where he once walked a beat.

IT IS A THURSDAY AFTERNOON and, in the Executive Command Center on the 14th floor of One Police Plaza in New York City, one of the most important persons in the Police Department right now is holding court.

She is not a cop. She is an heiress with three Harvard degrees and a deputy commissioner. Most important, she is a technology savant. Jessica Tisch is sitting there, fighting a cold, surrounded by cops with bars on their shoulders and ribbons on their chests, and she is explaining the advantages of paperless data storage.

Bill Bratton, the man who gave her the job, is sitting at the head of the long black table, looking over his eyeglasses, listening. Tisch says she is going to eliminate mountains of paper, to move everything from traffic citations to murder reports to the cloud. Digitizing the personnel files alone, which take up the most space, will allow the department to close massive amounts of hard storage. But the biggest change is that cops on the street will be freed from the tyranny of paperwork, clicking off reports on tablets in their squad cars in a fraction of the time required by the old system.

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“So this will happen in our lifetime?” Bratton asks.

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Tisch nods her head solemnly and says, “Yes, sir.”

Bratton sits up and smiles. “Jessie,” he says, “I’m pulling your leg.”

He isn’t an impatient man, Bill Bratton. He can wait for change. But, then, not for long. This is Bratton’s second ride at the rodeo that is the NYPD. He grew up in Dorchester, and he learned about policing on the streets of Boston. Since 2014 he has been back on Broadway, on the biggest policing stage in the world.

As New York’s police commissioner between 1994 and 1996, Bratton presided over historic drops in crime. He was so good at his job, so popular with ordinary New Yorkers, that his boss, then mayor Rudy Giuliani, saw a Brutus in the making and got rid of him. (Giuliani has since become a big fan and endorsed Bratton for this job when it was revealed that Mayor Bill de Blasio was considering him. Rikki Klieman, Bratton’s wife, tells me that she and her husband today are friendly with Giuliani and his wife.)

Bratton with then New York mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1995.
Clark Jones/AP/file 1995
Bratton with then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1995.
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De Blasio, who grew up across the Charles River from Bratton in Cambridge, brought Bratton back last year, handing him what Bratton’s longtime aide John Miller says is a challenge far more difficult than he faced in the mid-1990s, when Times Square was a cesspool of anarchy, when 2,000 people were murdered across the five boroughs every year.

Since coming back, Bratton has made New York safer. Last year, the city reached a new low record of 333 murders. He has made the NYPD effective. Now he’s got to make it accepted, especially in the poorest neighborhoods of the city, where cops are both needed the most and disliked the most.

To do so, he is going back to the future, rolling out a patrol plan modeled on one he introduced to the streets of Boston in the late 1970s. The idea is that by keeping cops to the same streets, the same neighborhoods, they will become part of the communities they serve. As ordinary people get to know them, those ordinary people become the eyes and ears of the NYPD.

A key difference between Boston 35 years ago and New York today is the technology, now as important to good policing as a gun belt and a radio. And that’s where Jessica Tisch comes in. She is creating a system that will allow each of the 35,000 police officers in New York City to carry a smartphone, each of the department’s 6,000 squad cars to carry a tablet.

No more rushing back to their desks to file reports or to pull files. Each day, each week, cops will spend hours more outside, in the neighborhoods, instead of inside the precinct houses. The idea is so simple, so full of common sense, it might just work.

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WHEN HE WAS A young Boston police officer in the early 1970s, Bill Bratton’s first assignment was walking a beat in Mattapan. It was a neighborhood in flux, changing quickly from heavily Jewish to heavily black.

“Everything I needed to know I learned walking that beat,” he says. Veteran officers pulled him aside and imparted wisdom. Every day he spoke to local residents and shopkeepers. Then came a reorganization, a revolution in law enforcement culture: 911 technology changed the way policing was done.

“We were all put into cars chasing 911 calls,” he says. “The walking officers just disappeared.” So did that familiarity, that human touch, the mutual trust and respect that came with the everyday interactions facilitated by walking beats.

By the late 1970s, Bratton was a lieutenant, based in District 4, covering the Back Bay and the Fenway, and he had an idea. The neighborhood was changing, crime increasing. And the number of so-called quality of life crimes — loitering, panhandling, public drinking — was rising dramatically. He began assigning officers to regular beats, tasked with combating disorder. It was community policing before they called it that.

“What we tried to do was what Sir Robert Peel did in London with the English bobby,” Bratton says. “The goal was not to just respond to crime and disorder but to prevent it from happening in the first place.

On his first day, in 1982, as Boston’s police superintendent-in-chief, Bratton addresses a group of officers.
Justine Ellement/Globe file
On his first day, in 1992, as Boston’s police superintendent-in-chief, Bratton addresses a group of officers.

The approach worked so well in District 4 that Police Commissioner Joe Jordan appointed the then 32-year-old Bratton to superintendent, number two in the department, and instructed him to introduce the patrol plan citywide.

But then two things happened. First, tax cuts hollowed out the Police Department. “We shut half the stations, laid off 25 percent of the force,” Bratton says. “It set us back 10 years.”

Then, for the first but not the last time, Bratton’s boss got nervous about his innovative, attention-getting protege. Jordan demoted him, and Bratton left to run the MBTA police, the first in a series of leadership positions that eventually saw him take over the NYPD, the nation’s biggest police force, in 1994.

During his first tour as New York commissioner, Bratton presided over unprecedented drops in crime. Success today will almost certainly look less dramatic on paper, if only because crime has already dropped so far in the last 20 years. But that’s not what Bill de Blasio primarily brought him in to do. Today Bratton is tasked with making the police force more accepted in the black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods that account for half the city’s population. (According to the NYPD, just slightly more than half the force is Caucasian, more than a quarter is Hispanic, about 15 percent is African-American, and 6 percent Asian-American.)

“The racial nature of the divide is undeniable,” Bratton tells me, sitting in the back of the black Ford Expedition known as Car One early in the year. “The biggest challenge is that the neighborhoods where our approval is the lowest are the same neighborhoods most plagued by violent crime. They’re the ones that need us the most.”

It doesn’t help that morale among cops is also low. It got worse after widespread protests following a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a cop in the so-called choke hold death of Eric Garner, who had been stopped for selling loose cigarettes on the sidewalk. And it hit bottom when two police officers were assassinated in their patrol car in Brooklyn. Some cops turned their backs on de Blasio as he spoke at one murdered officer’s funeral, asserting the mayor created a perilous climate for cops.

Even as Bratton negotiated all that, sticking up for both his force and his boss, he kept his eyes on the prize, a complete re-engineering of the department, the focal point being the creation of a patrol plan that will put more cops in small, defined areas. “For many years now we’ve been asking our officers to engage with the community, but we’ve never given them the time to do it,” Bratton says. “The new patrol plan will give them that time.”

While Bratton has provided an old Boston blueprint for his new patrol plan, he is leaving the fine-tuning and implementation to Jim O’Neill, the chief of the NYPD. O’Neill says his plan will reduce the number of specialty roles and increase the number of officers patrolling the same small areas. Officers will have new expectations, from following up on past crimes to meeting regularly with neighborhood groups. The pilot is up and running in four precincts: two in Manhattan, two in Queens. If it works, with measured results, it will expand citywide in just a few weeks.

The chief is confident it will work. When I suggest that cops are notoriously averse to change, O’Neill smiles. “Some of them might not like it,” he says, shrugging, “but they’ll do it.”

Bill Bratton and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appear at a December 2014 news conference.
Craig Ruttle/ AP/ file 2014
Bill Bratton and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appear at a December 2014 news conference.

THE NEW PATROL PLAN will not change Bratton’s oldest policing philosophy. Some of his critics say he holds too tightly to the so-called broken windows strategy of targeting quality of life crimes and misdemeanors, that he is too cavalier about the grievances it creates in some neighborhoods. They point to Eric Garner, who was first approached by police officers for a relatively minor offense.

But Bratton refuses to budge on broken windows and thinks his critics confuse it with the controversial tactic known as stop, question, and frisk, which alienated huge swaths of young people of color across New York. With Bratton at the top, those stops dropped to fewer than 46,000 in 2014; the high was close to 686,000 in 2011.

Bratton insists broken windows is the most egalitarian form of policing, that the nuisance crimes that wouldn’t be tolerated in affluent neighborhoods like the Upper East Side should not be considered acceptable in poor neighborhoods like Brooklyn’s Brownsville. “It is supported among all races,” he says.

He points to a poll that Quinnipiac University conducted last August after Garner’s death, gauging attitudes of New Yorkers toward the policy. (There were 1,021 respondents.) While 90 percent of African-Americans and 71 percent of Hispanics said there was no excuse for the way police dealt with Garner, support for broken windows remained high, with 56 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed among African-Americans, and 64 percent in favor and 34 percent opposed among Hispanics. Among whites, 61 percent said they support broken windows and 33 percent oppose it.

Bratton also disputes the suggestion that the approach leads to violent confrontations like the one that ended with Garner’s death. He said force was used in fewer than 2 percent of the misdemeanor arrests in 2014.

George Kelling, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and former fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard who pioneered the broken windows approach with the late Harvard political scientist James Q. Wilson, remains a close confidant of Bratton’s, one of his most trusted mentors.

A few months ago, Kelling and Bratton retired to Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side for a corned beef sandwich. The commissioner reminisced about the popovers at Anthony’s Pier 4, the restaurant on Boston’s waterfront that he regularly returned to until it closed two years ago.

Kelling has encouraged Bratton to stick with his approach, saying it has gotten an unfair rap. “For a variety of reasons, broken windows got equated with a lot of arrests,” Kelling says. “In fact, it’s a highly discretionary activity that has to be agreed to with the community.”

He believes the new patrol plan will increase community support for this kind of enforcement and that the police will be in a better position to know exactly what social disorders in their particular sectors cause the biggest problems. There will be, he says, a demonstrable police-public consensus.

CRAMMED INTO A SMALL OFFICE on the 14th floor, the civilian analyst mainstays of Bratton’s brain trust busy themselves on laptops. Robert Wasserman and John Linder have worked with Bratton at almost every stop since Boston. Wasserman says Bratton’s second tenure is much different than his first in the 1990s. “The strategy back then did not [revolve around] engaging the community,” Wasserman says. “This time we have to bring the community in, in a big way. We want the community to share with the responsibility.”

But isn’t it harder, after Eric Garner, after Ferguson, after the assassinations of the two cops in Brooklyn, after the open revolt of cops against de Blasio? Wasserman shakes his head. “Bill sees crises as opportunities,” he says. “This is an opportunity to show things can be done a different way, the right way.”

Beyond the devices and the cloud that will set cops free from their desks, the NYPD is developing technology that Bratton believes will make officers more accountable and therefore more popular in the neighborhoods where they are now distrusted. Body cameras are being used in a pilot program in seven sections of the city, with the goal of putting them on all cops.

The data storage costs are formidable, maybe as much as $73 million a year. But compared with the $212 million in settlements and judgments against New York City police in 2014, it starts to look like a bargain. At a command staff meeting, Bratton’s deputies acknowledge there are still unresolved privacy concerns. But Bratton urges them to press forward. Studies have shown, and Bratton believes, that misconduct claims against police will decrease as body cameras create accountability and transparency.

The NYPD also has 600 Tasers in the field, and Bratton wants to deploy more, giving additional police this less than lethal option. He insists the NYPD is the most restrained big-city police department in the world. The city’s 35,000 police officers discharged their weapons just 80 times last year.

Leaving the Mandarin Oriental at Columbus Circle after giving a speech, Bratton goes to shake the hands of a pair of off-duty cops named Andrew Dossi and Aliro Pellerano. One of them is wearing a sling. A few weeks earlier, the two had finished their shifts at the 46th Precinct in the Bronx when a radio call came in for an armed robbery of a local deli. When they responded, a gunman shot both of them. The gunman wasn’t shot, but he was arrested.

“Those two cops are lucky to be alive,” Bratton says. “And so is the guy who shot them.”

Inside the legendary Apollo Theater on West 125th Street in Harlem, community activist Lenora Fulani is hosting 400 newly appointed officers and 400 people — most are teenagers and young men and women — from the neighborhood for a conversation. Some of the introductions are awkward, but everyone seems sincere.

Some of the people in the theater had marched in protest after the grand jury in Ferguson, Missouri, refused to indict the cop who shot 18-year-old Michael Brown. Some of them marched after the grand jury in Staten Island refused to indict the cop who was accused of choking Eric Garner. And now some of them were willing to talk to the cops.

“We need to go beyond protest and concentrate on dialogue,” says Fulani, a developmental psychologist and the director of a leadership and enrichment program for minority youth in New York that has expanded to several other cities. “There’s a lot of friction between these two groups, but a lot of commonality.”

Like people across the country who feel that reports of young black men dying at the hands of police are taking over the evening news and their Facebook feeds, Fulani is tired of violence, tired of the rancor. She seems willing to give Bratton and the new approach a shot.

First Deputy Police Commissioner Ben Tucker, Bratton’s number two, is walking around the theater, shaking hands, slapping backs. Like Fulani, Tucker is African-American, and he has a foot in both worlds. He believes the new patrol plan, and new emphasis on engaging with neighborhoods at the grass-roots level, will work because, at its essence, it gets both sides looking beyond prejudices and stereotypes. “It’s amazing,” he says, “what human beings can do when they talk to each other.”

When Bratton was police chief in Los Angeles, he and wife Rikki Klieman, a lawyer, became friendly with a community activist in Watts named Sweet Alice Harris. Every Christmas, Bratton and Klieman attended a toy giveaway that Harris organized. During a lull at one of those events, she turned to them.

“Chief,” Harris said in a drawl that betrayed her native Alabama, “you know why we like you and Rikki so much?”

Bratton shook his head.

“Because you see us,” she said. “You don’t look past us.”

Bill Bratton thinks of her often, and he thinks she was onto something.

“The divide between the police and the communities they serve is about our failure to see each other,” he says. “I want our cops to see the people they serve. I want the people they serve to see our cops. It’s what Sweet Alice says about seeing us. We’re all us.”

More coverage:

Another Bratton revolution for the New York City police

Drop in New York police arrests continues for a second week

Prosecutors halt use of breathalyzer results amid review

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. Follow him on Twitter @globecullen. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.