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Bill Bratton’s candor has boosted, busted his career

New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s comments angered mayor Bill de Blasio.
New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s comments angered mayor Bill de Blasio.(REUTERS)

This column was updated Dec. 24 at 2:48 p.m.

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said he knows critics see him as “the devil incarnate.”

But he won't back down from policies he sees as tenets of basic community policing, aimed, he insists, at making life safer for communities of color. Some allies of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio consider those policies racist — but, "I'm sorry, they're not," said Bratton in a telephone interview last week.

Nor is Bratton backing down from his belief that the murder of two NYC police officers "was a direct spin-off" of the street protests that followed the failure of two grand juries to indict in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner.

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"His words speak for himself," said Bratton of Ismaaiyl Brinsley, the man who carried through on his threat to put "wings on pigs" in retribution for the death of Brown or Garner. "To deny that is to deny the obvious."

Bratton said he knows that some of his recent comments angered some de Blasio supporters, but he said his relationship with the mayor is " very, very good… He gets it."

For Bratton, this is familiar turf. He's used to being the man in the middle of an angry police department, an angry community divided by racial issues, and a mayor trying to placate both.

"His entire career has prepared him for this moment," said Chuck Wexler, the head of the Washington-based Police Executive Research Forum, who has known Bratton since the 1970s, when Wexler was an MIT intern working for the Boston Police Department and Bratton, a Dorchester kid, was launching a police career. It was a time of great racial tension due to the forced busing of Boston schoolchildren. Bratton, a new sergeant, got a call about a bank holdup and possible hostage situation. After he encountered the man — who was black, according to Wexler — Bratton lowered his firearm and asked the robber to do the same. "He got him to drop the gun," said Wexler. "It was all about slowing things down, de-escalation."

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Over time, "race would become Bratton's defining issue," said Wexler, with Bratton's commitment to reducing crime by finding common ground between the police and communities of color.

But over a storied career, Bratton's methodology has had its skeptics — whether it's his adoption in New York of the broken-window theory of policing, where police confront minor crimes and nuisances as a way to reduce major ones; or by expanding stop and frisk, as he did as chief of the Los Angeles police from 2002 to 2009. Both policies disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos, critics say.

When he came to LA, racial tensions were high; it was a sensitive era, after police officers who beat Rodney King were acquitted. Bratton's expansion of stop and frisk was controversial, but he also got high marks for working on gang violence and police misconduct issues.

Say what you want about Bratton, he knows what he believes. And he's not afraid to say what he thinks or take credit — or blame for what he does.

When deBlasio appointed him police commissioner a year ago, Bratton promised he would bring "a new day" to policing.

Despite the fallout from protests after a grand jury failed to indict the police officer involved in the death of Eric Garner of Staten Island, and the tragedy of two murdered police officers, Bratton says he's delivering on that promise.

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"It's a new day in the sense that some of the issues that are causing so much anger and frustration are also being addressed," he said, citing his de-emphasis on stop and frisk.

He passionately defends the NYPD, yet acknowledges "we make a lot of mistakes. We are only human."

Police, he said, are on the front lines of the social fall-out from the great economic inequality that divides this country. This week, Bratton pointed out, the Dow topped 18,000, yet the gap between rich and poor is ever-widening.

"Until you walk in the shoes of a police officer trying to police these neighborhoods of deprivation, you don't know what it's like, " said Bratton.

As the NYPD mourns its dead, Bratton hopes the rhetoric on all sides ratchets down in a search for common ground.

"The devil incarnate" said he intends to lead the way.

Related:

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Two New York police officers shot dead in their car

After slayings of NYC officers, police across US on high alert


Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.