Published in the May 2015 issue of Harper’s Magazine, “Beyond the Broken Window” explores former New York City police commissioner William Bratton’s influence on the “Broken Windows” theory of community policing, which includes the controversial stop-and-frisk policy. Subscribe to Harper’s Magazine for access to our entire 166-year archive.
After leaving the LAPD in 2009, Bratton took on a string of lucrative private-sector jobs before returning last year to his former post as police commissioner in New York.
The city’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, was elected on a platform of repairing community relations, and his criticism of stop-and-frisk and other heavy-handed policing methods had been central to his campaign. As the architect of many of these policies, Bratton seemed a strange pick to be de Blasio’s top cop. But during the mayoral race, de Blasio’s political opponents and the tabloid media had suggested that he would return the city to pre-Giuliani crime levels. (After his inauguration, the New York Post warned of the return of the dreaded “squeegee men.”) By tapping Bratton, de Blasio showed that he understood how much his progressive agenda depended on fighting this perception.
Bratton’s embrace of intelligence-led policing, meanwhile, received almost no attention. But in New York City, Bratton has continued on the path he forged in Los Angeles. He has declared that the NYPD will adopt predictive policing, telling the City Council last year that “it is real and it is here.” He says 2015 will be the “year of technology” for the department — all officers will be issued smartphones and tablets that connect them to intelligence and law-enforcement databases. Among his key initiatives, Bratton announced the formation of the Strategic Response Group, a heavily armed police unit of some 350 officers who would be dedicated to the dual missions of counterterrorism and public-protest response. (After widespread condemnation, the department backpedaled and decided there would, in fact, be a separate unit dedicated to protests.)
The law-enforcement issue that has most occupied the attention of New Yorkers since Bratton’s return, however, has been the death, last summer, of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was approached on Staten Island by NYPD officers who suspected him of illegally selling loose cigarettes. After Garner argued that he shouldn’t be arrested for the infraction, one of the officers placed him in a choke hold that killed him. The incident was caught on video, including Garner’s repeated plea of “I can’t breathe.” That kind of suppression policing prompted George Kelling, one of the originators of the Broken Windows theory, to denounce the zero-tolerance approach as “zealotry and no discretion — the opposite of what I tried to preach.” After the Staten Island district attorney decided not to prosecute the officer, thousands of residents took to the streets in protest, placing Bratton, along with de Blasio, squarely between an angry public and the police rank and file, who stood in solidarity with their colleague.
The furor over Garner’s death has led to calls for a return to community policing in its original sense: working with neighborhoods to understand and meet their needs. But in our conversation, Bratton remained unapologetic about the brand of policing that set the stage for Garner’s encounter with the NYPD. “Broken Windows,” Bratton told me, “is probably the most vivid example of community policing there is.” He also defended his support of stop-and-frisk, arguing that the policy makes for sound policing so long as it is carried out responsibly. “The mayor and I are in lockstep on this,” Bratton insisted. “He campaigned on scaling back what he viewed as an overreliance on stop, question, and frisk, and we’ve done that.” Once again he drew an analogy between crime and disease. “Both can be deadly,” he said. “The question is how to prevent them while doing minimal harm. Of course, doctors say, ‘First, do no harm.’ There is always a risk of doing some harm to prevent greater harm.”