Metro

Kevin Cullen

Another Bratton revolution for the New York City police

Juggling demoralized cops, a mayor in crisis, and the crushing burden of race

New York Police Commissioner William Bratton (right), with Mayor Bill de Blasio, wants to give officers more time to engage with the community.
Craig Ruttle/Associated Press
New York Police Commissioner William Bratton (right), with Mayor Bill de Blasio, wants to give officers more time to engage with the community.

NEW YORK — Bill Bratton, the city police commissioner, was getting his shoes shined the other day at a small shop at Columbus Circle when he noticed a couple of ne’er-do-wells hanging by the subway entrance, harassing the passersby.

As the shoeshine guy put a glossy buff on his black leather shoes, Bratton narrowed his eyes and observed their routine: The troublemakers had secreted their bottles in a nearby telephone kiosk. They made frequent trips to their stash, the booze fueling their obnoxious behavior.

Bratton called the One-Eight, the 18th Precinct, Midtown North, and in short order a couple of cops had broomed the vulgar sidewalk guys.

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“You can’t have men bothering people like that, in the middle of the city,” Bratton said.

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It was classic Bratton, whose remarkable run of top police jobs has taken him from Boston to the Big Apple to LA and now to New York again. Seeing the big picture, going after the small things. His “Broken Windows” philosophy of cracking down on the minor offenses that can lead to public disorder is under attack like never before, but he is holding firm to its essence.

He has endured a couple of months that would consume others. Protesters, already infuriated over the death of Michael Brown in Missouri, clogged the streets after a grand jury in Staten Island declined to indict a cop for the so-called choke hold death of Eric Garner.

In the wake of those protests, two cops were assassinated as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn. Then the open revolt, as cops literally turned their backs on Bratton’s boss, Mayor Bill de Blasio, holding him responsible for worsening a climate they see as open season on cops.

Bratton called out his own officers for disrespecting the mayor, especially when the focus should have been on their murdered colleagues. But he was also unafraid of openly disagreeing with the mayor, describing the deaths of officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu as a direct spinoff of the protests that followed the grand jury decisions, here and in Ferguson, Mo., not to indict cops in the killing of unarmed black men.

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One year after Bratton regained the reins of the biggest, most scrutinized police department in the world, he is engaged in a battle that is both epic and personal. Bratton 2.0 is about unfinished business, completing the job he couldn’t in the mid-1990s, when then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani pushed him out after concluding that Bratton’s ability to drastically cut crime and chaos had made him more popular than the mayor.

This time around, the drops in crime will inevitably be less substantial, incident rates having already fallen so far. Last year, overall crime was down 4.5 percent. But Bratton is even more focused on the disconnect between his department and the mostly poor communities of color where dissatisfaction with the police is twice that of other sections of New York.

“The biggest challenge,” he told me, “is that the neighborhoods where our approval is the lowest are the same neighborhoods most plagued by violent crime.”

Bratton faces two competing crises, one external, the other internal. Externally, it’s the divide between cops and the people they serve, especially those in poor neighborhoods.

“These are largely neighborhoods of color and the racial nature of the divide is undeniable,” he said.

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Internally, morale is low. An internal poll found that 85 percent of officers admitted that the threat of citizen complaints made them tentative on the street, that 70 percent fear they will be sued even if they carry out a lawful action or arrest.

‘My education as a cop was shaped by the older cops who taught and guided me.’

William Bratton, New York police commissioner 

“Our crises, the internal and the external, are intertwined and feed off each other,” Bratton said.

To change that, Bratton is changing the way rookie cops learn the ropes. Instead of pushing them onto the street to make arrests, he will team them with veterans, as he was when he was a rookie cop in Boston.

“My education as a cop was shaped by the older cops who taught and guided me,” he said.

More significantly, Bratton is instituting a new patrol model drawn up by NYPD Chief Jim O’Neill. It will reduce the number of specialty roles and increase the number of patrol officers, assigning them to much smaller areas within precincts.

Basically, it’s getting back to the beat cop paradigm, freeing them from the tyranny of responding to radio calls. Cops will learn, from the community itself, who the troublemakers are, reducing the need for the random stops and frisks that engender so much resentment.

“For years,” Bratton said, “we’ve been asking our officers to engage with the community, but we’ve never given them the time to do it.”

To create more time, Bratton will give all 35,000 cops a smartphone and all 6,000 patrol cars a tablet. This way, they won’t have to go back to the precinct house to fill out paperwork. Everything’s done in the field.

It is impossible to overstate the value of giving cops new gear. Bratton has done it at every stop. It engenders loyalty, especially at a time when cops are also being asked to do things differently. There are old Transit cops, who merged with the NYPD in 1995, who still carry the Glock handguns Bratton gave them 25 years ago when he insisted the Transit Police have better weaponry.

To do all this, Bratton has surrounded himself with some of the people who have been with him for most of his career, strategists who have followed him as he has moved from job to job.

The other day, in a small office on the 14th floor of One Police Plaza, two vital cogs of the old Bratton brain trust, Bob Wasserman and John Linder, were typing away on their laptops. Sitting with them, like an old sage, was George Kelling, the academic whose writings form the basis of the Broken Windows strategy that is Bratton’s bible.

Many critics of Broken Windows associate it with the controversial “stop, question, and frisk” tactics blamed for alienating so many, especially young men of color. Bratton defends its use, but says it has to be based on “a well-founded suspicion, not just a hunch.”

In the first year of Bratton 2.0, those stops dropped precipitously — from a high of 700,000 in 2011 to 45,000 last year — but the rate of arrests stemming from them has more than doubled, from 6 to 15 percent.

One of Bratton’s biggest frustrations is that so many critics paint the NYPD as out-of-control when statistics say otherwise.

“We are the most restrained big-city police force in the world,” he told me.

Last year, force was used in less than 2 percent of arrests, while the city’s 35,000 cops fired their guns just 80 times.

On Thursday, while he was unveiling the new patrol plan on the 36th-floor ballroom of the Mandarin Oriental, just around the corner from where he got those guys rousted from Columbus Circle, Bratton pointed to a cop named Celso Flores.

Just hours after the two cops were murdered in Brooklyn, Flores found himself staring down the barrel of a gun pointed at him by a teenager in the Bronx.

By all rules of engagement, Flores was entitled to shoot the kid. Instead, he took cover and yelled at the kid to drop the gun. The kid did.

“That’s the kind of cops we have,” Bratton told me. “A life saved, when emotions were at their highest.”

In some ways, Bratton is a victim of his own success and changing demographics. About half of New Yorkers weren’t living in the city when he first arrived at the NYPD in 1994, when Times Square was a free for all, when much of the city was dirty, disheveled, and scary.

Most people don’t remember how bad it was, or can truly appreciate how much better it is now.

Since 1993, major crime is down 75 percent, even as the population grew from 7.5 to 8.5 million. Last year, there was a record low for homicides, 328. In 1990, there was a record-high 2,245.

But it is other deaths, the death of Eric Garner, the police shooting of Akai Gurley in a Brooklyn housing project, and the deaths of unarmed black men all over the country that obscure those statistics. Bratton is too smart not to see that.

He made his reputation as a fixer, but now he’s a juggler, trying to keep his cops aggressive while having them make nice at the same time. He has to convince neighborhood skeptics that he has their interests at heart.

“There’s no question that what Bill is trying to do this time around is much harder and more complicated,” says John Miller, another of Bratton’s mainstays, who quit his job as a CBS correspondent to rejoin Team Bratton as the deputy commissioner in charge of intelligence and counterterrorism. “The last time around, it was to save the city. This time, it’s to save the job.”

The other day, Bratton and Kelling grabbed a quick corned beef sandwich at Katz’s Deli on the Lower East Side. On the ride back to headquarters, Bratton checked in on his 88-year-old father back in Weymouth, as he does every day.

“You sound good, Dad,” he said. “You sound strong.”

Kelling, pushing 80, sat in the back seat of the black Ford Expedition, talking about the complexities facing his old protege, trying to keep so many varied constituencies happy.

“Part of Bill’s success is he likes cops,” Kelling said. “He knows some of them can make mistakes or worse. But he knows most of them want to do the right thing. He likes them and they can sense that. I think they will rise to the challenge.”

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.