Can Bratton’s New Policing Plans Heal the City’s Wounds?

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New York Police Department Commissioner Bill Bratton speaks at a press conference regarding two police officers who were killed on Saturday on December 22, 2014 in New York, NY.
Photo: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Remember Bill Bratton? For about six weeks the police commissioner was ubiquitous, mostly for unhappy reasons. Lately, though, Bratton has pretty much disappeared. The cops went back to work after a two-week slowdown. Crime has stayed low. Political scandals and meteorological-political nuttiness have filled the news pages.

All of which has allowed Bratton to retreat to One Police Plaza and quietly put the finishing touches on his yearlong effort to analyze and reengineer the city’s 35,000-member force. Bratton will unveil his plan Thursday morning at a speech to the New York City Police Foundation. The blueprint will include some previously discussed hardware components, like millions of dollars in new internet capabilities. And some of Bratton’s speech will be about organizational wonkery, changes that are unsexy but integral to how the force functions, including revamping major Bloomberg-era policing strategy.

We’re doing away with Operation Impact over the next year,” Bratton told me in December, when I asked him for a preview of his plan. Impact was a signature program of the Ray Kelly NYPD, deploying rookie cops for street patrols. “Impact was designed to deal with the steadily declining strength of the department in the Bloomberg years,” Bratton said. “The department lost 6,000 police officers that nobody noticed. Why? Crime kept going down. They offset some of the loss of officers with overtime, but also by taking a thousand kids every six months and doing exactly what Petraeus did in Iraq, surging.”

The flaw, in Bratton’s view, was that Impact devolved into a stop-and-frisk machine. “We will still have Impact in those 10 or 15 precincts that are still spiking in crime, or if they’re spiking,” he said, “but it will be using more seasoned officers. And the way they’ll be doing it will be different.”

That difference — in approach, in attitude, in policing style throughout the department — is the key to Bratton’s address tomorrow, and to whether he can achieve de Blasio’s central criminal-justice goal: continuing the NYPD’s anti-crime success without abusing the minority citizenry. It is also, by far, the trickiest element of Bratton’s mission. “Yes, crime is way down in the city, overall,” an NYPD insider says. “The problem is that the bad relationship between the cops and the community exists in the very places that still need the most attention — the pockets of high crime. But you can’t send in the Red Cross before the infantry.”

Bratton’s challenge is to aggressively attack crime at the same time he’s lowering the level of antagonism. “We did it in Los Angeles,” Bratton told me, “and we can do it here. We will do it here.” Then he smiled, slyly, and said everyone would need to wait until late January for additional details.

Creating a more nuanced, equally effective NYPD was already going to be difficult, given that Bratton was contending with two constituencies that felt embattled: black and brown New Yorkers and his own rank-and-file. But the day after that interview officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were gunned down. Then cops started turning their backs on the mayor. Hostilities have been reduced, yet shootings remain a stubborn hazard in some of the city’s toughest precincts. And the stakes for what the police commissioner says tomorrow have only gotten higher.