Few police chiefs in the U.S. have had the level of influence of William J. Bratton in the law enforcement forces. For better or worse, his emphasis in combating small, quality-of-life crimes helped reduce crime somewhat while it also increased tensions with communities of color, which endured a high percentage of the detentions.
Bratton announced his retirement as New York City Police Commissioner, putting an end to a 45 year-old career that took him from Boston to New York to Los Angeles and back to New York. Every step of the way he left his mark as an enforcer of the “broken windows” theory, which seeks to combat crime by going after small offenses which affect the quality of life, to keep things from deteriorating further.
In Los Angeles, where he benefited from being seen as not an LAPD insider, Bratton managed to clean up a whole police department that was put under federal supervision after a string of violence and corruption scandals. There, he made some changes that helped restore, at least momentarily, the trust of communities of color. He also implemented CompStat, which he had already developed in New York, which used statistics to better control and make the police work more efficient.
While the “broken windows” strategy gave initial good results against crime, over time it went on to deteriorate the police relations with the African-American and Latino communities, which suffered a disproportionately high percentage of stops.
The case of Eric Garner, who died at the hands of a police officer in Staten Island in 2014, is an example of this dynamic. Garner was detained for selling cigarettes, a minor offence under the “broken windows” preventive concept. The violence used by the officers in this case led to Garner’s death and a new crisis between the police and the African-American community.
At some point there were attempts to see Bratton as a reformist, but he definitively was not. His tenure and retirement highlight the need for a police department closer to the communities, so the tensions created under his watch can be mended. Now it is the time for a reformist to step in.