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Repeat Defender


One of the things Bill Bratton learned in Los Angeles: how to get along with Al Sharpton.  

Most of all, he continues to have the same burning need for significance, and his stock has never been higher. His old boss, Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, hails him as “America’s top cop”; a California police official says Bratton is “as close as there is to a deity in our business.” Even a onetime critic like Steven Levitt, who in Freakonomics disparaged Bratton’s role in New York’s crime drop—instead attributing it to the legalization of abortion—is now a believer. “Someone who’s able to go to two different places and reduce crime dramatically in both of them? You have to give the guy some credit,” Levitt says. “If you asked me who I’d want as police commissioner in my city, I’d say Bratton.”

The New York Post has editorialized that he should challenge Kirsten Gillibrand in next year’s U.S. Senate race. There’s also constant speculation he’ll join the Obama administration. “Bill Bratton would make a great FBI chief,” Villaraigosa says. “I think he’d be a great secretary of Homeland Security.”

Not so long ago, Bratton would have been gunning for all those jobs. He’s never been shy about expressing his ambition. But now, for the first time in his life, Bratton seems hesitant. Sitting in the Altegrity conference room, he reflected on his career prospects. “I come out of Los Angeles with the idea that we made a difference in the quality of life in the city and that we made a difference in our profession and in our criminal-justice system,” he said, pausing to pick at a bagel in a brown paper bag. “Where do you go from there?” He sounded as if he genuinely didn’t know.

In the debate over whether policing is an art or a science, Bratton is a firm believer that it’s a science. His successes, he says, were attributable to two basic policing strategies: CompStat and “broken windows.” The former is the system Bratton and his NYPD deputy commissioner, the late Jack Maple, developed in 1994 that introduced computer analysis of crime patterns and strict accountability measures to modern policing. The latter is the theory first articulated by the academics George Kelling and James Q. Wilson in 1982, and later put into practice by Bratton with New York’s transit cops and then with the NYPD, that by cracking down on minor quality-of-life crimes—graffiti, fare-hopping, breaking windows—police can reduce serious crime as well. “There’s nothing going on in Los Angeles that’s different from what I did in New York,” Bratton says. “I have CompStat and I have very assertive cops making a lot of arrests.”

And yet it was Bratton’s willingness to adapt these strategies to two very different environments that accounts for his successes. In other words, he was as much of an artist as he was a scientist. One crucial adjustment was patience. In New York City, Bratton had commanded 38,000 cops and was able to flood multiple high-crime areas simultaneously with hundreds of officers. In Los Angeles, he had only 9,000 cops. “Throwing 50 cops at a problem in Los Angeles was really difficult,” says Kelling, a consultant to the LAPD during Bratton’s tenure. “It meant he couldn’t do everything at once.” So, while Bratton cracked down immediately on prostitution in Hollywood, cleaning up the city’s notorious skid row had to wait. “This was much more of a patient, unfolding enterprise,” says John Linder, a consultant who worked with Bratton in New York and Los Angeles. “He was not as worried about the immediate impact as he was in New York.”

“Everything we do today,” says a New York cop, “is simply a Bratton program that they’ve changed the name of.”

Los Angeles’s manpower shortage also forced Bratton to rely heavily on technology. CompStat itself has always been very 1.0. “It’s basically a computerized map,” says one Los Angeles politico. “You look at it and you think, This is the revolution?” But Bratton introduced more cutting-edge gadgetry to the department to create what he believes is a new model of crime-fighting called “predictive policing.” “We have advanced the state of gathering information and making intelligence out of it that on maps, we can track crime developing and evolving in real time,” Bratton explains.

Technology was just one area that needed improvement. The historic shortage of cops in Los Angeles had led to a destructive style of policing. “If you put cops out there who have no idea if backup will come in time to save their lives, they’re going to be hard-asses and propagate fear so that they can protect themselves,” says Linder. So Bratton worked with Villaraigosa, who was elected mayor three years after Bratton was hired, to pry more money from the City Council for almost 1,000 new cops.

All that fresh blood helped Bratton make his biggest adjustment, which was orienting himself to the minority community, something he didn’t have much experience with. In Bratton’s preferred telling, New York’s poisonous race relations in the nineties were the fault of his old boss. “Giuliani’s an incredibly astute politician, but on issues dealing with these racial sensitivities, there was a critical failing of his,” he says. The truth is that Bratton and his deputies weren’t all that cuddly themselves. Indeed, Bratton, who bristled at what he called “racial racketeers,” made a big show in his first week as NYPD commissioner of snubbing Al Sharpton.


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