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Bill Bratton ran the New York City Police Department (NYPD) from 1994 to 1996 under the Giuliani administration. He is credited with helping to bring down crime in that city during his short tenure.
Bratton is now back in New York City after a stint running the police department in Los Angeles. He has vowed to make the changes that his boss — new Mayor Bill de Blasio — wants, including the overhaul of the controversial stop-and-frisk practice, which has been criticized for unfairly targeting minorities.
Still, Bratton defends stop-and-frisk, which he calls “stop, question and frisk.”
“You cannot police without it,” Bratton tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson. “If you did not have it, then you’d have anarchy.”
On how he plans to improve the relationship between residents and police
“We’re going about it in several ways. One of the most significant directions we’re going is to reduce the number of ‘stop, question and frisk’ stops by the members of the department. This is a campaign commitment by the newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio. And his selection of me as his police commissioner was that we both believed that there were too many stops in years past and that the city would be better off with fewer stops.”
On the need for ‘stop, question and frisk’
“Stop, question and frisk is a basic tool of policing — not only American policing, around the world. But in United States, it’s defined by the Terry vs. Ohio Supreme Court decision back in the 1960s, which articulated when police can stop and for what purpose. So every police department in America every day does it.”
“The way it was practiced here for the last number of years is that it was overused. And it’s the overuse that then created the negative reaction to the basic policy itself. And the confusion about whether you can police with or without it. You cannot police without it, I’m sorry. It’s — if you did not have it, then you’d have anarchy, being quite frank with you.”
On what went wrong with ‘stop, question and frisk’ in New York City
“A system was devised where twice a year when we graduate our recruit classes, which number in excess of 1,000 officers, that those officers would be surged or assigned into the 10 or 12 highest crime neighborhoods, effectively to make up for the fact that those precincts had lost a lot of full-time officers that normally would have been assigned there when the department had almost 41,000. The problem with that is that those officers, while the most recently trained, were the least experienced. And they were put into neighborhoods where they were, from my perspective, inadequately supervised — there’d be one sergeant covering 10 to 12 of these officers, who were assigned in pairs. And so if they were making stops — and they were encouraged to be very active in making stops — if they were doing it incorrectly, if they were not doing it according to the law, if they were not doing it according to policies and procedures, very often there would be nobody there to correct that inappropriate or incorrect behavior. And so the habits of a 20-year career form very quickly in that first year. So I think that policy, while it’s a sound policy, in its implementation was where the flaws occurred.”
On translating New York City’s success in lowering crime to other major U.S. cities
“There is no one-size-fits-all. It’s a combination of things. Much the same as a doctor looking at patients, each patient is different — how much medicine you use for what illness. So that’s where good mayors and good police chiefs come in to play, in terms of what is the appropriate level of the size of the police force, what is the appropriate activities they engage in. Essential in all instances is to get community cooperation, support and trust. So that’s one of the reasons why in New York there’s so much attention being focused on reducing the stop, question and frisk activities, because particularly in the minority neighborhoods of the city — and unfortunately those areas of the city that have the highest crime rates are some of our minority neighborhoods — that you need the trust, cooperation and collaboration of community residents to really have an impact on crime. Police can’t do it alone. You can’t arrest your way out of the problem.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, a study out today from the ACLU of New Jersey finds that only a quarter of police stops in Newark end in an arrest or a summons. In other words, three-quarters of the people who are stopped and perhaps frisked have done nothing wrong. The study will no doubt renew the debate over stop-and-frisk in Newark.
That debate is also raging, as we've heard, in New York City, where the new Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to reduce the use of the practice. His new police commissioner, Bill Bratton, will be on the front lines of that effort. Bratton has a long history leading major police forces in this country. He was the commissioner of the LAPD from 2002 to 2009. He ran the Boston Police Department for years before that. And he had a short stint as commissioner of the NYPD under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Now he's back, and Bill Bratton joins us from his office in New York. Welcome to HERE AND NOW.
COMMISSIONER BILL BRATTON: Pleasure to be with you, thank you.
HOBSON: Well, let me talk about what you have said in your first days on the job. You said that you want to re-establish a better trust, a better relationship with the citizens of New York, especially in the minority community. And I wonder how you plan to do that.
BRATTON: Well, the term we're talking about is legitimacy; the idea that if the public does not support the police, no matter how good your efforts to reduce crime, that the element of trust is essential to having that reduction in crime felt and appreciated.
So we're going about it in several ways. One of the more significant directions we're going is to reduce the number of stop, question and frisk stops by the members of the department. This is a campaign commitment by the newly elected mayor, Bill de Blasio. And his selection of me as his police commissioner was that we both believed that there were too many stops in years past and that the city would be better off with fewer stops.
HOBSON: Fewer but not zero stop, question and frisks.
BRATTON: That's correct. Stop, question and frisk is a basic tool of policing, not only American policing, around the world. But in United States, it's defined by the Cherry versus Ohio Supreme Court decision back in the late 1960s, which articulated when police can stop and for what purpose. So every police department in America every day does it.
HOBSON: Although as you know, even some stop, question and frisks in mostly minority neighborhoods in New York City are going to bother a lot of people there. There are many people who think the whole policy is flawed.
BRATTON: Well, that's because the way it was practiced here for the last number of years is that it was overused. And it's the overuse that then created the negative reaction to the basic policy itself, and the confusion about whether you can police with or without it. You cannot police without it, I'm sorry. It's - if you did not have it, then you'd have the anarchy, being quite frank with you.
HOBSON: Well, you have pointed the finger at new recruits as part of the problem, that you want to put these new recruits with seasoned officers in these cases.
BRATTON: That's correct. In New York City, as part of the effort to deal with the fact that the department lost over 6,000 officers over the last number of years, that's the equivalent of about 50 or 60 police officers for each of the city's 77 precincts, that a system was devised where twice a year when we graduate our recruit classes, which number in excess of 1,000 officers, that those officers would be surged or assigned into the 10 or 12 highest-crime neighborhoods, effectively to make up for the fact that those precincts had lost a lot of full-time officers that normally would have been assigned there when the department had almost 41,000.
The problem with that is that those officers, while the most recently trained, were the least experienced. And they were put into neighborhoods where they were, from my perspective, inadequately supervised. There'd be one sergeant covering 10 to 12 of these officers, who were assigned in pairs. And so if they were making stops, and they were encouraged to be very active in making stops, if they were doing it incorrectly, if they were not doing it according to the law, if they were not doing it according to policies and procedures, very often there would be nobody there to correct that inappropriate or incorrect behavior.
And so the habits of a 20-year career form very quickly in that first year. So I think that policy, while it's a sound policy, in its implementation was where the flaws occurred, in that those officers were not adequately supervised. And putting your least experienced officers into your highest-crime neighborhoods, in retrospect, I don't think that's the way to go, and we are in the process of attempting to change that.
HOBSON: One of the other big initiatives that the administration has been pushing is to reduce traffic deaths in New York City. Of course, it has been noted that after that announcement was made, the mayoral caravan was caught going over the speed limit and also driving through stop signs in a residential neighborhood of Queens. Do you think that people will follow stricter enforcement of these traffic laws and even of jaywalking in New York City? Is that possible?
BRATTON: The public will support the idea of stricter enforcement, more enforcement of the speeding, red light violations, that type of activity. The issue of jaywalking is more complex in a city as populated, as you will, as New York is, with eight and a half million people. So the effort is being focused on the activity that causes most of the serious injuries and deaths, and that is right-hand turns and right light and speeding violations in the city.
So you can't police everywhere all of the time. So you try to focus on where the problems are, the most significant. And in New York City, it's right turns on red that - because unlike many cities where you have all stops all directions at pedestrian lights, in New York City you'd have traffic chaos if you tried to do that.
So cars turning right on even a green signal are going into a walk sign for pedestrians. So it requires an extra degree of caution as you are making right turns. And then speed and stoplight violations have been seen as a factor in a lot of our accidents, our serious accidents here in New York City.
HOBSON: We're speaking with Bill Bratton, New York City's new police commissioner. A lot more to talk about, including the debate over whether we're giving up too much privacy in the name of security. Stay tuned. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's get back to our conversation with Bill Bratton, the new commissioner of New York City's police department. Before the break we were talking about Mayor Bill de Blasio's new initiative to reduce traffic accidents in the city. Here he is announcing that plan, which is called Vision Zero.
MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO: I want to emphasize that we are making this statement just two weeks into this administration because we think there is an epidemic here. There's been an epidemic of traffic fatalities, and it can't go on, and the time to start change is now.
HOBSON: Now Commissioner Bratton, you were right behind the mayor when he made that announcement. But as we talked about, there has also been a call for an increase in tickets for jaywalking. But when it comes to reducing traffic deaths in New York, don't you think it's mostly about the drivers rather than the pedestrians?
BRATTON: A combination of both, being quite frank with you. But the driver has the advantage of he's in a two-ton vehicle, versus the pedestrian has really no protection. And under our laws, the pedestrian has that right of way in those crosswalks. And so that's the effort on the driver, driver education, driver enforcement. And so far this year we're experiencing a decrease in fatalities, which is a good sign to start the year off with.
HOBSON: Commissioner Bratton, I have lived in all of the cities that you have been police commissioner in, and I have to say that when you look at Boston, Los Angeles and New York, I felt by far the safest in New York. I felt absolutely safe walking around that city even at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning. I did not think I was going to be mugged or anything would happen to me. Why is that? Why is New York, why does it feel so much safer than those other cities?
BRATTON: I think one is the police presence. Two is the sheer numbers of people on the street or in the subway systems at all hours of the day and night, that the city also made a concerted effort to address issues that cause fear, the so-called broken windows, the aggressive panhandling, street-level drug narcotic dealing, prostitution.
So a lot of the things that if left undeterred, as they were in New York in the '70s and '80s but were finally addressed in the '90s, that if you can reduce not only the actual crime but the so-called signs of crime or broken windows, you can have a very significant effect on the way people feel about their personal safety.
And you are correct that New York is proportionally safer than either Boston or L.A., two cities, which like New York have seen significant declines in crime, and in fact all three cities among the safest in the United States.
HOBSON: But why hasn't that worked in, let's say, L.A.? Why doesn't it feel as safe as New York? Wouldn't the practices that you've just talked about that have happened in New York translate well to Los Angeles?
BRATTON: Well, they would. I have a high degree of intimacy with Los Angeles, where gang crime is down 60 percent, gang homicides, from what it was. But L.A. has the issue of gang crime that New York does not have. New York has smaller issues with what we call crews, but the levels of violence don't approach some of the levels that you see and read about in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles also has a very small police force, with 9,700 officers. To have the equivalent of what I get to work with here in New York every day, you'd need 18,000. So it's a city where the visibility of police is much less apparent than it is here in New York.
Similarly for Boston, even though Boston has proportionally a good size police force for its population, the visibility of police still does not equal what you would see routinely here in New York.
HOBSON: Well, so is that the answer for cities that at least can afford to do that, just bump up the size of the police force?
BRATTON: No, there is no one-size-fits-all. It's a combination of things. Much the same as a doctor looking at patients. Each patient is different; how much medicine you use for what illness. So that's where good mayors and good police chiefs come in to play in terms of what is the appropriate level of the size of the police force? What is the appropriate activities they engage in.
Essential in all instances is to get community cooperation, support and trust. And so that's one of the reasons why in New York there's so much attention being focused on reducing the stop, question and frisk activities because particularly in the minority neighborhoods of the city, and unfortunately those areas of the city that have the highest crime rates are some of our minority neighborhoods, that you need the trust, cooperation and collaboration of community residents to really have an impact on crime.
Police can't do it alone. You can't arrest your way out of the problem. We have clearly come to understand that community policing, with its emphasis on partnership between police and community, its focus on the problems that are creating fear and disorder. And lastly, it's a strong embrace of the idea that the goal of police should be to prevent crime, not the measure of success on how they respond to it. All those things come into play.
HOBSON: What do you think is the matter with Chicago, then, which had 415 homicides last year, which was well more than New York City, which has a population three times the size?
BRATTON: Well, you take a look at Chicago this year, that their crime rates are going down dramatically. The gang violence in Chicago, like Los Angeles, has strongly entrenched gangs that are very violent. But if you look beyond the aberration of that year or two where they were in the front page of most American papers, I think you'll find that Garry McCarthy, the superintendent out there, is doing a great job of turning that around.
The media reporting of that hasn't caught up to the media reporting of the increase they had the previous year, but even the previous year increase seemed more dramatic because in the previous years to that, the crime had been down dramatically in Chicago. So you really need to take it in the totality of context. You can't just take one year at a time. You need to look at the trending, and you need to look at the broader picture, if you will, rather than the snapshot.
HOBSON: What are your thoughts on the debate that's going on right now over surveillance versus safety? And you're obviously in a city that is probably the primary terrorist attack target in this country. Where do you see that balance between surveillance and privacy?
BRATTON: Well, in public space that you have no expectation of privacy, according to the Supreme Court, and in cities like New York, you're going to see more and more camera systems put in place both by the public sector, as well as the private sector. Those systems are phenomenally helpful in solving crime and in preventing it.
The issues of what police can survey, as they relate to terrorism, increasingly we're seeing more court guidance on those issues, the idea being that even in that area, there is a need to have some degree of surveillance, but you need to do it in a way that it is always operating within the law and never outside the law.
HOBSON: Commissioner, if we talk to you in a year, what would you like to say you've accomplished in New York?
BRATTON: One, that the city has remained free of a terrorist attack and that the low crime rates that the city has now experienced for 20 years are continuing. And my expectation is that's what we will be able to report.
HOBSON: You miss anything about L.A.?
BRATTON: L.A. in the sense of miss the department, certainly, great organization, miss a lot of the friends and relatives and miss my son and his wife and the two grandkids, who are still living out there.
HOBSON: I thought you would say the weather, but apparently not.
BRATTON: Oh no, I like the four seasons. As long as I don't have to shovel it, I'm very happy back here in the East Coast.
HOBSON: Bill Bratton, the new police commissioner for New York City. Thank you so much for joining us.
BRATTON: Thank you, pleasure being with you.
HOBSON: So Meghna, I guess that means that the commissioner of the NYPD gets somebody to shovel the snow for him.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
He's getting his dose of winter this year.
HOBSON: Well a lot there to talk about. You can weigh in at hereandnow.org. What do you think of stop, question and frisk? And do you think it's possible to get New Yorkers to stop jaywalking? You can let us know at hereandnow.org. You can also tweet us @hereandnow. I am @jeremyhobson.
CHAKRABARTI: I'm @meghnawbur.
HOBSON: And this is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.