About a month ago, I was sitting with Bill Bratton and his wife, Rikki Klieman, the lawyer, in an Italian restaurant called Bello at the corner of Ninth Avenue and West 56th Street in Manhattan, looking for something more than the fine scaloppine saltimbocca.
I was trying to figure out if the 66-year-old Bratton really wanted to come back to the future, back to a job he first got 20 years ago, as New York police commissioner.
Bratton talked about having one more big job in him, about having the energy, the fire in the belly, and so then the only question was whether the incoming mayor, Bill de Blasio, would give him a shot.
On the way to the bathroom, I watched one of the waiters hand another a plate and heard him say, “This is for the commissioner’s table.”
In New York, Bill Bratton never stopped being thought of as police commissioner by many. New Yorkers considered Bratton’s departure after two years of historic drops in crime as merely a leave of absence, made necessary by Rudy Giuliani’s unbridled ambition and fear that Bratton was getting too much credit for all the good news coming out of One Police Plaza.
So now, in New York, the incoming mayor is a guy who grew up in Cambridge and the incoming police commissioner is a guy who grew up in Dorchester.
(Insert Yankees joke here.)
Still, there’s nothing funny about the state of police-community relations in some New York neighborhoods. De Blasio swamped his Republican opponent while promising to rein in a Police Department that many think has failed too often to read the small print in the Constitution.
In neighborhoods where people are black and brown, there is a lot of resentment toward cops, especially about the propensity of some to stop and frisk young men of color without so much as a whiff of probable cause.
“This guy,” Bill Bratton told me Thursday of his new boss, a man with a biracial family, “is very serious about this. He appreciates the necessity of ‘stop and search’ in some instances, but it has to be done respectfully and constitutionally. A lot of New Yorkers feel that way.”
So, too, does Bratton.
In fact, his return as New York’s top cop does not remind him of his first stint in New York but what greeted him when he became police chief in Los Angeles in 2002. Race relations were at an ebb. Black politicians and neighborhood activists weren’t exactly thrilled at the prospect of a white Irish guy from Boston riding to the rescue.
But he won over skeptics quickly. I spent a week in LA and remember Constance Rice, a Harvard-educated civil rights attorney, telling me how impressed she was that Bratton appeared before well-heeled audiences in the San Fernando Valley and told them he was determined to reduce crime in the low-income, minority neighborhoods of South LA.
She was pleasantly surprised when Bratton ordered detectives to work nights and weekends.
It is noticeable how many prominent minority voices welcomed Bratton’s appointment Thursday.
Bratton is a known entity in New York, where, aside from his seven years in LA, he has kept a home while he and Klieman have kept a profile. He says 2014 will be much different than 1994.
“It’s a very different set of challenges,” he said. “We know what to do about crime. The big difference this time around is the emphasis on preventing terrorism, by organized groups and by lone wolves.
“And the new challenge — where the mayor is at — is understanding the importance of police dealing with race and ethnic issues, being the cutting edge on these matters. The mayor gets it. If you don’t get those things right, no matter how much crime drops, you won’t get the benefit of it.”
Broadway Bill is back. But his biggest challenges aren’t in Times Square. They’re in Brooklyn and the Bronx, in Harlem and Queens.
Broadway can wait.