But in Los Angeles, where race relations between the LAPD and black and Latino Angelenos made New York in the nineties look like Pleasantville, Bratton couldn’t afford to be disdainful. Instead, he courted prominent minority leaders who, according to Los Angeles councilman Eric Garcetti, “chew up police chiefs for a living,” becoming a regular visitor to restaurants in East Los Angeles and barbershops in South Central. “We went into Watts on a Saturday, and kids were in the park of a housing project, playing hip-hop at a picnic, and there was the chief sitting with them and eating ribs with them,” recalls Fred Booker, an African-American LAPD lieutenant who served as Bratton’s community-relations special assistant. “I’d never seen anything like it before.” Bratton even patched things up with Sharpton. “Al and I get along very, very well,” Bratton says.
For all his nostrums, Bratton’s greatest talent is his flexibility. Despite his ego, he has no trouble implementing ideas from others—whether it was “broken windows” from Kelling and Wilson or CompStat from Maple. And for all his vanity, he’s secure enough not to micromanage. “People usually like working for me because I do leave them alone,” he says. The secret of Bratton’s success is that he values success more than anything else.
It’s Mike Scagnelli’s NYPD retirement party (a “racket,” in department parlance), and more than 1,000 people have come out to honor the three-star chief at a restaurant in the outer reaches of Queens. “Bill Bratton changed the face of the New York City Police Department,” Scagnelli tells me. “Everything we do today is simply a Bratton program that they’ve changed the name of.”
The last line is a clear dig at the current NYPD commissioner, Ray Kelly, who’s been a rival of Bratton’s since the early nineties, when David Dinkins chose Kelly over Bratton as his chief. A couple of years later, the newly elected Giuliani dumped Kelly for Bratton. Kelly is said not to be fond of Bratton. Bratton professes admiration for Kelly—“We’re not buddy-buddies hanging out at Elaine’s, but you can’t argue with his success”—though he seems to take pleasure in ticking off the current commissioner. It’s a good bet he’s doing just that by turning up at Scagnelli’s racket.
“They’ll stand and applaud Kelly too,” says one partygoer as he waits his turn to greet Bratton, “but that’s the reign of fear. The NYPD is all about retribution, so you have to applaud the current commissioner. With Bratton, it’s the real deal.” In fact, just a few weeks earlier, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association named Bratton its man of the year, thirteen years after his 27-month tenure as NYPD commissioner. Kelly has never been so honored.
The next morning, as Bratton settles into his seat on the Acela, he’s still basking in the glow of the previous evening. “Scagnelli was very laudatory in his comments about me,” he says. “It’s nice to be thought of in that way. It’s pretty widespread in the NYPD.” For the next few hours, as we head toward Washington—where Bratton is scheduled to testify before a House Committee—I ask him about all the various jobs that his name gets attached to. He shoots them all down. Running for mayor or governor? “Not of interest. I’m not interested in a lot of the environmental issues, or all the other issues that a mayor or a governor has to spend their time on.” FBI director? “I don’t know anybody in federal government that’s happy. [FBI director Robert] Mueller has twenty-some-odd oversight committees. So his freedom of action is very limited. It’s brutal.” Homeland Security? “The best thing to do with DHS is to break it up.”
Bratton’s ego has survived intact. He stills feels the need to mention that his leadership skills are taught at Harvard, that Johnson & Johnson assigns his book to all of its top managers, that Barack Obama crossed a room to say hello a few years back at a Los Angeles party, and that seven people approached him on his recent flight from Los Angeles to New York to tell him how much they appreciate the job he did in their city.
But he also seems to have reached an understanding that being a cop is what he loves doing. The question is, where’s there left to go? “He wants New York again,” says a close friend. “It’s unfinished business for him.” Despite the friction with Giuliani, the memories are overwhelmingly good. In New York, there was Elaine’s and the helicopter rides and the Sunday dinners he’d have for his inner circle at his apartment. “In Los Angeles,” he says, “I’ve never had anybody from the department over to the house.” His tone gets wistful. “It was probably more fun in New York. We really had a good time—a very, very good time. They were Camelot years.”
Could there be a restoration? Before I can ask the question, Bratton brings up the possibility himself. “There are some people who want me to come back as New York City police commissioner,” he says. “And that’s not so far-fetched at all. If you were a candidate in the city running for mayor, and you’ve got one of the biggest names in American policing and somebody who had basically begun the process of making New York safe? They’ll all be knocking on my door.” More than anything, it seems, Bill Bratton wants his final act to be an encore.