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Repeat Defender

After taming crime in Los Angeles, Bill Bratton has won over the skeptics who doubted his success in New York. But all he really wants is his old job back.


In the tumultuous days after 9/11, while his nemesis Rudy Giuliani established himself as a bona fide American hero, Bill Bratton, the city’s former police commissioner, stood very much on the outside. He was working with the private security group Kroll, and the closest he came to the action was helping to arrange for one of his clients to get some of its gold out from underneath a collapsed building near ground zero. “That to me was not meaningful,” Bratton says. “I used to be in charge. And now you’re one of 8 million. I had no role of significance.”

It’s one of Bratton’s favorite expressions and deepest desires—to have a role of significance. And in 1994, when Giuliani put him in charge of the New York City Police Department, he had just that. He came into One Police Plaza promising the impossible—to “reengineer” the NYPD and to reduce crime. Then he delivered, as the murder rate dropped 39 percent and the city became the safest it had been in a quarter-century. In the process, Bratton became a celebrity—a combination Lee Iacocca–Eliot Ness who fought criminals with management theory; Time put him on its cover under the headline FINALLY, WE’RE WINNING THE WAR AGAINST CRIME. HERE’S WHY.

Indeed, Bratton’s success as commissioner seemed to guarantee future roles of significance. His admirers speculated he might one day make an excellent mayor, and Bratton himself talked about parlaying his NYPD post into a Master of the Universe corporate post. “When I leave,” he said after about a year on the job, “I don’t want to go out as a consultant, I don’t want to go out as Joe Blow the security director.”

But Bratton’s success, or at least his desire to take credit for it, ultimately proved his undoing. He became embroiled in a battle of egos with Giuliani, and after just 27 months as police commissioner, the mayor forced him out. The Fortune 500 did not come calling, so Bratton took a series of Joe Blow security-consulting gigs. Meanwhile, the significance of his accomplishments came into question. As crime continued to fall in New York, prominent academics and politicians began to argue that larger societal forces, rather than police tactics, were really responsible for the drop—or, if the NYPD was responsible, then Bratton hadn’t been that instrumental in its success. “Bratton was good at public relations,” Giuliani told the Times in a typical bit of knife-twisting, “but I had to supply the substance. Three-quarters of his ideas were ideas we gave him.”

So in 2002, when the Los Angeles Police Department’s top job became open, Bratton saw a chance to redeem himself. “I’ve got to be honest, I was very reluctant to even interview Bill,” says Rick Caruso, who was then the president of the city’s Police Commission. “I was concerned about some of the things I’d heard about New York and Giuliani.” After ferocious lobbying by Bratton and supporters like Bill Clinton, he got the job, taking over a department that was, in some ways, even more vexed than the one he’d inherited in New York.

The LAPD was protecting and serving a city that had recently become the murder capital of the United States; it was also operating under federal supervision—called a consent decree—owing to a series of corruption scandals and civil-rights violations. “The potential for failure was very, very high,” Bratton says today. But over his next seven years as LAPD chief—the longest tenure Bratton has had at any of the six police departments he’s run in his career—he achieved results akin to those he had in New York. When he announced his resignation in August, violent crimes in Los Angeles had declined by nearly half and a judge had lifted the consent decree. What’s more, after years of being hated by Angelenos, especially minorities, the LAPD had a performance-approval rating of 83 percent, according to a Harvard study. Bratton was, as he told me, “leaving Los Angeles at the top of my game.”

He already has a new job, as the CEO of a firm called Altegrity Security Consulting, based in midtown. If the name sounds Joe Blow–ish, Bratton insists that its mission is not: The company is hoping to overhaul criminal-justice systems in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and other “post-conflict nations.” “Let’s face it, half the world was not democratic a few years ago,” Bratton says. “So here’s an opportunity to take a democracy that works—ours—and take the best practices and make a difference in the world.”

For all the big talk, though, no one expects that Altegrity will be Bratton’s capstone—least of all himself. His hair is slightly thinner and grayer, but at first glance, the 62-year-old Bratton doesn’t seem to have changed at all since his last tour of duty in New York: same Hermès ties, same Boston accent, same inexplicable devotion to Elaine’s. “Elaine’s got radar all over the city,” he says. “If we don’t stop in, we’re in trouble.”


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