MANHATTAN (CN) — As NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton leaves office amid controversy over his “broken windows” legacy, Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced his successor James O’Neill as the “architect” of a new tactic: “neighborhood policing.”
The surprise announcement occurred at noon on Tuesday, on the second day of a small but feisty demonstration of Black Lives Matter activists calling for Bratton’s resignation, an end to his signature policing strategy and other systemic reforms.
If the protesters thought they shook City Hall, they would have been disappointed by Bratton’s hero’s send-off in the Blue Room. The mayor effusively praised and embraced the exiting police chief, and the changes within the NYPD represented less an institutional earthquake than a changing of the guard.
O’Neill, who takes over as commissioner in September, served as Bratton’s former chief of department, and he will keep on much of his predecessor’s team. The old guard includes Bratton’s deputy Ben Tucker and current housing chief Carlos Gomez, who will take over O’Neill’s current position the force’s first Latino chief of department.
All of these changes, the mayor insisted, had been carefully planned for weeks and had “110 percent nothing to do” with the demonstrations.
On July 8, the mayor said, Bratton confided that he intended to transition into the private sector, and he wanted to keep his career change a secret until his new employer Teneo, an advisory firm for CEOs of global corporations made an announcement.
“We had a heart to heart, a very personal discussion about life, about family,” de Blasio told reporters. “You know, I like him so much. It was a conversation where you want to say, ‘What about the team?’ But he has served so much of this city and this nation.”
As de Blasio struggled to recall what Bratton said, the police chief finished the mayor’s sentence: “There’s never a good time, but there’s a right time.”
Affectionately resting his hand on Bratton’s shoulder, the 6-foot-5 mayor likened his relationship with Bratton to a basketball team where one player can throw the other a “no-look pass.”
“I wish I had words for what this man has achieved,” the mayor said. “You can spend years researching and analyzing and you won’t get it all.”
De Blasio’s wholehearted endorsement of Bratton’s legacy — and open fondness for the man — has upset many of his progressive critics, who view the Boston-born police chief as a symbol of a discredited crime-fighting model.
In his first stint as New York’s top cop in the early 1990s, Bratton championed a then-obscure, decade-old theory of criminology called “broken windows.” The thesis lumped petty offenses like graffiti, public urination and subway fare evasion into a category of “signs of disorder” that invited more serious crimes into a neighborhood.
The first police chief to act on this theory, Bratton rolled out zero-tolerance policies for so-called “quality of life offenses.” He then mapped out crime hotspots through CompStat, a statistical crime-modeling program created by his late deputy commissioner Jack Maple.
For decades, both programs became staples in the NYPD’s arsenal, and crime plummeted in New York.
“We remember what the city used to be like,” de Blasio said, noting that crime spiked at more than 2,000 murders the year before Bratton’s appointment in 1991.
“Quality-of-life offenses almost went without notice, they were so common,” the mayor said. “Bill Bratton and Jack Maple, may he rest in peace, changed that for all of us, but there’s so much more to be done to that model. It wasn’t enough to just end the bad. We have to start working toward the good.”
Though New York City became undeniably safer from violent crime, the cause for this trend remained an enduring source of controversy.
Crime rates dropped across the United States during the same years, even in cities like San Diego, Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Houston that never adopted Bratton’s methods.
For its critics, the “broken windows” strategy came to be associated with rampant civil rights violations of black and Latino communities, including through the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program. A federal judge radically restrained the program before de Blasio took office in a ruling finding that the program violated the constitutional rights of hundreds of thousands of mostly minority New Yorkers.
Many were suspected only of minor offenses like possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Since de Blasio ran on a platform of reining in the stop-and-frisk program, many of his supporters bristled when he tapped Bratton to reform it, but the two agreed to comply with a federal judge’s order to restrain the civil liberties-addled program.
Taking credit for the decline, Bratton said: “We’ve reduced stop and frisks by phenomenal amounts — [they] said it couldn’t be done.”
“We continue to reduce crime at the same time,” he continued. “We have reduced our use of force, our civilian complaints, and we launched the most innovative and far-reaching community policing program New York has ever attempted, and it will succeed this time.”
Dubbed “neighborhood policing,” Bratton and de Blasio described the program as one that the new commissioner designed to repair relations with police officers and communities.
“As the architect of neighborhood policing, [O’Neill’s] creating a model that I believe we’re going to make work here,” the mayor said. “I believe it’s going to change this city. I believe it’s going to become a model that’ll be looked at around the country because it really answers what people are aching — everyone’s aching for it.”
The reputation of the old broken windows model took a bruising in June after the NYPD’s inspector general found no link between quality-of-life enforcement and violent crime rates.
Black Lives Matter protesters, who have formed an Occupy Wall Street-style occupation near City Hall, want the mayor to scrap it, but de Blasio vigorously defended it, even if he was reluctant to call the theory by name.
“I very much believe in quality-of-life enforcement. Let me be 100 percent clear about this,” he said. “Long before I had the honor of knowing Bill Bratton or any of the other members of this time.”
De Blasio’s office has been the subject of federal investigations that recently implicated three of Bratton’s top-ranking officers in a lurid corruption indictment, replete with allegations involving a prostitute, private jets, and bribes delivered via Christmas elves.
When asked if the probe had to do with his departure, Bratton said that he helped Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara clean house within the force, and the prosecutor dispelled any speculation by calling New York’s exiting top cop “a great leader of the finest police force in the world.”
“For his strong stewardship of the NYPD during these challenging times for law enforcement, every New Yorker owes him a debt of gratitude,” Bharara said.
Bratton said his successor will have to address the “issue of race and community relations,” which he called “a crisis in America at this moment.”
That crisis waited for officials following the conference just outside City Hall, as protesters greeted Bratton’s departure with chants of the “Goodbye Song.”
“Na na na na, Na na na na, hey hey hey, goodbye!” they shouted, circled by police outside the gates.
One activist, Madel Hidalgo, held a sign with a checkmark next to “Fire Bratton” on a list of the group’s other demands. The as-yet-unfulfilled wishlist included “Reparations” for those affected by police brutality and “Divest + Reinvest,” to allocate the NYPD’s $5.5 billion budget toward poor communities.
After hearing news of his resignation, Hidalgo said, “I ran over here, and I was dancing on the train.”
Unimpressed with the promise of “community policing,” Hidalgo said that she was aware of early implementation of the program in Washington Heights and Crown Heights, where it was tested.
“It’s more having more [police] presence, which means scaring more people of color,” she said. “That’s all I see.”
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