Repeat Defender

Photo: Jeff Minton

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.”

One of the things Bill Bratton learned in Los Angeles: how to get along with Al Sharpton.Photo: Nick Ut/AP

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.

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.

Repeat Defender