New York Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio announced his selection of Bill Bratton Thursday to serve as New York Police Commissioner come January. Given now-Commissioner Ray Kelly’s reputation for controversy over his treatment of minorities, all eyes will be on Bratton, who has served in this position once before under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, and has since headed up the Los Angeles Police Department.
Bratton is known as a superbly credentialed veteran who achieved a significant reduction in crime during his tenure under Giuliani. Crime rates also reached a historic low during Kelly’s tenure, but not without a raft of questionable police conduct under his watch, including fatal police shootings, aggressive stop-and-frisks deemed unconstitutional racial profiling, and a program to infiltrate Muslim communities. Here is what we know about Bratton on some of these key issues.
Bratton is decidedly in favor of stop-and-frisk. He has called it akin to chemotherapy, and essential to any functioning police department. But then again, so are most cops. The reason for controversy over the police stops in New York and several other cities is that they have become, as Bratton also points out, detached from the constitutional standard that limits how and when police can use the tactic. Bratton explains it this way:
Stop-and-frisk is an area where the police have to be very, very careful to ensure that they’re in compliance with the constitutional guidelines that authorize it, in Terry v. Ohio. And in dealing with the use of stop-and-frisk it is very important to address it in much the same way as the racial profiling issues of the 90s had to be addressed by police. Stop-and- frisk is the racial profiling issue, if you will, of the 21st century.
But Bratton did go so far as to double the number of stop-and-frisks in Los Angeles. Unlike in New York, he also increased the rate of arrests, which, if valid and focused on violent crime, suggests that the stops were more targeted to those suspected of criminal activity. His stops did have a disproportionate impact on minorities, although not one nearly as severe or widespread as Kelly’s. Bratton attributed NYPD “abuse” of the stop-and-frisk program to poor supervision and training. But he predicted that the federal court ruling finding NYPD engaged in unconstitutional racial profiling would be overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. Given Bratton’s mixed record on the tactic, it will be worth watching to see what if any changes he makes when he takes the helm.
Bratton says he does not tolerate racial profiling, and, as described above, aims to root out racial profiling in stop-and-frisks. But at least one American Civil Liberties Union study found that Bratton’s LAPD frequently conducted traffic stops based on race. In response, Bratton dismissed the ACLU as having a fixed position that the LAPD is biased. On other occasions, he has spoken in support of “profiling” of some form. He told the New York Times in 1999, ‘’Cops are profiling all the time, your good cops; unfortunately, now that’s developing a bad name. Whether they call it profiling, or street smarts, awareness — whatever the names might be — profiling is essential.’’ As an example of this, he cited the success of a program when he was a rookie in Boston in which they addressed a spate of stolen Lincoln Continentals by pulling over young black teens, while bypassing white businessmen who seemed likely to own such vehicles. He said they found a lot of stolen cars.
He has advocated for diversifying police departments to ease racial tensions, and wrote an op-ed calling for NYPD reform after the tragic police shooting of Amadou Diallo. He stated later, however, that he did not believe the officers involved in the shooting should be criminally charged.
Like most New York City public officials, Bratton wants to see stricter gun safety laws. He told the Wall Street Journal in January that he believes stricter laws on background checks, licensing, and permits are most crucial to reform. He also supports reductions in the number of rounds in a clip, and vied for Congress to confirm a permanent director to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (which it has since done). Bratton is more skeptical about assault weapon bans, pointing out that it will do little stop 350 million firearms already in circulation. And he supports longer prison sentences for gun crimes, a controversial policy given the bloated U.S. prison population.
Bratton is not in favor of marijuana legalization. In fact, in 2009, he called it a “disaster.” But has acknowledged in recent months that relaxed drug policies are inevitable, and that law enforcement is better served by focusing on regulation. “It’s phenomenal in a country that is so fanatical about ensuring purity of prescription drugs that the regulations governing marijuana are clearly laughable for their lack of effectiveness,” he told the Daily Beast in July. The new measures in Washington and Colorado aim to implement more rigorous health monitoring, although Federal Drug Administration oversight is impossible so long as marijuana remained federally illegal for all purposes.
Even before it became popular, Bratton was a supporter of smarter sentencing and less reliance on prisons. He supported a California ballot initiative to reform a “three strikes” law that imposed long prison sentences for a third offense, regardless of the severity of the offense involved. And he endorsed eliminating the 100-to-1 disparity between sentences for crack cocaine, more common among African Americans, and powder cocaine. (The Fair Sentencing Act ultimately reduced that disparity to 18-to-1.) He told the New York Times in January, “The United States has locked up so many people that it has the highest incarceration rate in the world, but we can’t arrest and incarcerate our way out of crime. We need to focus on preventing crime instead of responding to it.” He does, however, support longer sentences for gun crimes.
Bratton has thus far a exhibited a more restrained approach to post-9/11 surveillance than Kelly. While Kelly’s NYPD has undertaken widespread infiltration of Muslim communities regardless of particular suspicion of wrongdoing, Bratton has encouraged collaboration between federal agencies, writing after the Boston Marathon bombing that local officials appropriately fell into line under the leadership of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Bratton did mull a plan to create a Los Angeles-area map of Muslim communities “which may be susceptible to violent ideologically based extremism” in 2007, but he responded to outrage from the Muslim community by dropping the plan. Bratton hasn’t commented on the NYPD surveillance program.
More recently, Bratton has also lamented fear-mongering over terrorism when the real threat to our safety is the availability of guns, explaining on Meet the Press this summer, “We are safe, that’s the reality, safe from terrorism, safe from these events. … The tragic irony of this and the continuation of these types of incidents, and they will continue, is that you — the outrage is expressed against the perpetrator and the act is not then reflected in the part of the general public about wanting to do something about the instruments that are used to kill so many, the guns.”