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New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton speaks to new members of New York City's police department's graduating class during a swearing in ceremony at Madison Square Garden on July 1, 2016, in New York.
Analysis

The End of the Bratton Era

A new generation of chiefs favors a lighter touch.

A flood of predictable reactions — from police and protest circles — greeted the announcement Tuesday that New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton is leaving the post in September. The 68-year-old is the most influential American law enforcement executive in modern times, the author of policing strategies that have shaped relations between police and the communities they serve, for better and for worse.

Among the critics, the New York-based Communities United for Police Reform released a statement asserting that Bratton “was no reformer to communities impacted by abusive and discriminatory policing.” Civil rights attorney Darius Charney, who successfully sued the NYPD over its stop-and-frisk practices, wrote that Bratton leaves behind “a complicated legacy,” having begun to wean the NYPD off of the invasive stop-and-frisk, but having championed the “broken windows” school of policing resented by many minority communities.

On the other end of the spectrum, a legion of Bratton proteges and allies in academia said they did not expect his return to the private sector to end his influence as the most prominent member of a policing elite. The professional network of consulting firms and Harvard seminars that have groomed Brattonites for nearly 40 years will keep churning.

“He’s still a relatively young man. My guess is that we are still going to hear a lot of him,” said George Kelling, who had advised Bratton during the early 1990s when Bratton led the New York City transit police and then the NYPD. Kelling was part of the Bratton brain trust that developed the “broken windows” strategy, which instructed cops to target petty quality-of-life crimes as a way of preserving order.

Bratton the man became Bratton the legend during that era. His face made the cover of TIME magazine, which announced “finally we are winning the war against crime.” Bratton was praised for setting up Compstat, a crime-tracking tool that police chiefs have credited for contributing to the great crime decline of the early aughts.

Bratton’s star power created a rift between him and his boss, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. His first stint as New York’s police commissioner lasted for just 16 months. He moved to Los Angeles where he led that city’s police force for eight years. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recruited Bratton back to the city in 2013, and promised residents that the NYPD would scale back its aggressive style.

On Bratton’s most recent watch the number of annual police stops has dropped by the hundreds of thousands, and New York’s murder counts are on the decline, while cities like Chicago and Baltimore grapple with soaring gun violence. Despite those successes, the NYPD’s tenuous relationship with black and Latino residents has been slow to improve. Scores of Black Lives Matter protesters marched in front of City Hall Monday night and demanded that Bratton step down.

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Those close to Bratton insist that he was not susceptible to the political pressures that played a role in police leaders’ recent departures in Chicago, Baltimore, Oakland and San Francisco. It’s unclear whether his decision to leave was influenced by the ongoing federal investigation into possible campaign finance fraud by allies of the current mayor. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan charged three NYPD commanders on federal corruption charges in June.

“He’s been given a job offer that’s really good,” said Robert Wasserman, one of the commissioner's closest confidantes,. Bratton will lead a new security consulting division at Teneo, a global advisory firm that has close ties to Bill and Hillary Clinton. Bratton had hinted that his exit was imminent. In an interview with The New York Times last week, Bratton suggested that he had handpicked his successor: James P. O’Neill, the chief of the department, who built out Bratton’s neighborhood policing program.

With Bratton gone, along with like-minded chiefs in Baltimore and Chicago, policing insiders predict a next generation of law enforcement executives will build on Bratton’s legacy of data-driven, proactive policing but with a heightened sensitivity. “The mindset has evolved,” said David M. Kennedy, a criminologist at John Jay College of Criminal Justice whose violence reduction strategies have been embraced by Bratton and Bratton’s acolytes. “It has come to include, 'we are going to be constitutional. We are going to be just. We are going to be very conscious of the harms that policing can create and try not to create them'.”

“There’s a very strong appreciation of, and a commitment to, repairing relationships with communities, building trust, not doing inadvertent harm, and getting all of that right,” Kennedy said.

Among this younger generation, at a time when videos of police shootings go viral, it is increasingly common to hear talk of “de-escalation” and novel attempts at community engagement: police officers handing out treats from ice cream trucks and organizing dance-offs with school kids. “If you set yourself up as a police chief to be unapproachable, to me, it’s just not wise,” said Philadelphia Chief Richard Ross who is, at 52, a member of this next generation. “At the top, if you convey that sense of openness, I think it will have a trickle down effect with the public.”

That’s why, Ross explained, he told his 6,100 officers to refrain from arresting rowdy protesters during last week’s Democratic National Convention. Instead, cops handed out $50 citations while Ross walked with demonstrators asking how they were faring in the oppressive July heat. Ross noted that the handful of arrests were not made by his cops but by Secret Service agents, for trespassing into secure areas.

Ross said he subscribes to the notion that ego needs to be left out of policing. That is not a notion generally associated with Bill Bratton, whose celebrity mystique includes a security detail that keeps reporters and residents at a safe distance.