When New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton leaves headquarters for the last time this month, the retiring 68-year-old lawman immediately takes a place besides Wyatt Earp and Elliott Ness among America’s legendary lawmen.
That sounds like a wild overstatement. But think about it.
Bratton’s innovative approach to policing has driven the nation’s crime rate to historic lows; changed the way Americans accept being constantly monitored, even videotaped in public. And it is also true that Bratton’s aggressive police tactics provoked the emergence of the biggest social justice movements of our time, the Black Lives Matter movement.
Even New York City’s famously liberal mayor, Bill de Blasio – often viewed as a critic of police - recently described Bratton as someone “whose contributions to our city and to law enforcement not only here, but across the nation are literally inestimable and extraordinary.”
Earlier this year while on a national tour for my new book about the political and cultural innovators who have created modern America, We The People, the most frequent I was asked was this:
“Why did you include Bratton among the legends such as Thurgood Marshall, Teddy Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan?”
Anyone doubting Bratton’s tremendous impact needs to take a look at recent history.
In 1994, when former NYC Mayor Rudy Giuliani installed Bratton as commissioner of the largest police force in the country, the city was losing population, business and tourists because of a rising crime rate.
Using cutting-edge computerized technology, increasing the number of police and using often invasive law enforcement tactics on the streets, Bratton solved the problem and created the model for the modern American policing.
His prime tool was a computerized statistical analysis program called “Compstat” – short for compare statistics. Bratton identified where crimes occurred, along with the arrests that were made. “We mapped arrest and patrol activity and compared crime incidents with police response,” Bratton and former assistant William Andrews wrote in a 1999 article for City Journal. “If the two didn’t match up, you knew you were doing something wrong.”
It has worked so well that virtually all major America cities, many with police forces now led by Bratton protégé’s, have copied the New York model and succeeded in driving down crime rates.
As Compstat moved across America, so did Bratton: working in the private sector and serving for seven years as LA’s Chief of Police before returning to New York in 2014 as Commissioner under de Blasio.
The big cultural change driven by Bratton’s approach is the public acceptance of police presence and constant police technology in a nation founded with a high value on privacy and liberty.
Bratton-style policing in the name of “Security” has won the battle between “freedom” and “security” that Benjamin Franklin and other Founding Fathers famously outlined in the run-up to the American Revolution. Security won out because it had Bill Bratton on its side.
His policing techniques would have probably shocked Franklin and Washington and Jefferson and Hamilton.
For example, in the Bratton mold, cities around the country today use a program called “Shotspotter,” a network of sound sensors that can locate gunfire even when there are no eyewitnesses.
Then there are the cameras. They are everywhere and accepted as tools to stop red light runners and protect high crime areas. There are 4,500 surveillance cameras in the New York City subway system. There are the 30,000 surveillance cameras set up throughout public schools where I live in the Washington, D.C. area, according to NBC.
Just this winter Bratton’s NYPD unveiled Compstat 2.0, a program that allows civilians to determine the frequency, date, time, and location of various types of crime in New York City. More departments also have access to facial recognition technology allowing them to search out suspects among citizens as they walk the street.
It is due to programs like these that, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, in 2013 the nation’s violent crime rate was the lowest it had been in forty-three years. In the 21 years from 1993 to 2014 there has been nearly a 50 percent drop in the rate of gun homicides in the U.S., according to Pew.
Bratton began his police career in Boston.
“I always wanted to be a police officer,” Bratton wrote in his 1998 autobiography.
After serving as a soldier in Vietnam, Bratton had no time for 1960s counter-culture: “When it became fashionable to be ‘anti,’ I never bought into that … I believed in order and conformity.”
It was that hard-edged, no-nonsense approach to law enforcement that made Bratton such an attractive choice to fulfill Giuliani’s mandate to restore law and order.
Between 1965 and 1990, New York’s violent crime and murder rates more than tripled. The police felt overwhelmed, reacting to one emergency or crisis after another. The NYPD gathered data on crime before the Bratton era. But it could be several months before the data was assembled and put to use.
People of good will can have honest disagreement about whether the ends justified the means in the Bratton-era of law enforcement. However, there is no disagreement that this kind of police power is a far cry from the world imagined by our Founding Fathers.
When it came to policing, early Americans were relatively lax. There were constables to punish criminals and serve warrants. There were “night watches” to patrol the streets. But police departments as we know them didn’t appear until the mid-19th century.
Additionally, with memories of British officials arbitrarily searching their homes, the newly independent Americans were wary of any type of government surveillance. Thus they passed the 4th Amendment, securing the ‘right of the people … against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Benjamin Franklin once argued: “Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
But I would wager that the nation’s original Founders would be impressed to hear that, due to Bratton’s innovative techniques, between 1990 and 2000 New York’s violent crime rate was more than cut in half.
There are current alarms over violent crime. In March national crime surveys found that twenty US cities exceeded the number of murders committed in the first three months of 2015.
In reality, most of the current violent crime is in specific neighborhoods, often poor, black and Hispanic and connected to gangs and drugs.
In fact, the nationwide violent crime rate has decreased during all but three years between 2002 and 2014. Violent crime dropped by 26 percent in those years, the murder rate fell by 20 percent, and the robbery rate dropped by 30 percent.
As Bratton leaves public office we can argue about his legacy but there is no argument that he already has a place in America’s history books.