With the official news that the resignation of Police Commissioner Bill Bratton is imminent, New York—and the nation—has an opportunity to reconsider the philosophies of urban policing which originated under his tenure and have become emblematic of law enforcement.
As one of the most visible public figures in U.S. law enforcement, Bratton’s legacy is well known to be synonymous with broken windows theory: the idea that increasing penalties incurred from non-violent offenses decreases overall crime. But broken windows remains a theory that to this day has not been proven to be based on any statistical truth.
Many hail Bratton for drastically lowering the city’s crime rate; he was hired by Rudy Giuliani back in the '90s and eventually clashed with the mayor over who exactly was responsible for the decrease in overall crime. Criticism of Bratton’s legacy tends to center analysis of his “predictive policing” database, CompStat. CompStat is a surveillance database mapping crime in real time in New York City, one that has been duplicated in police departments across the nation as a blueprint for law enforcement. Because it maps crime in real time and supposedly allows police to stop crime from happening, CompStat provides the rationalization behind “stop and frisk.” Not only did Bratton increase penalties for non-violent crimes, he made day-to-day interactions with police more hostile.
Not only did Bratton increase penalties for non-violent crimes, he made day-to-day interactions with police more hostile.
One of the most visible deadly instances of broken windows policing was Eric Garner’s murder, where police escalated an interaction that began because Garner was selling loose cigarettes. The lethal choke hold—an illegal tactic—applied by officer Daniel Pantaleo was captured on film by Ramsey Orta and ignited an anti-police brutality social movement.
Eric Garner’s murder was just one of many in a long-standing legacy of controversial police killings that became synonymous with Bratton’s reign, starting with Nicholas Heyward Jr. in 1994. Heyward Jr. was a young black boy who was playing cops and robbers with friends in the Brooklyn Gowanus Houses when officer Brian George shot him in the stomach and killed the 12-year-old boy. Under Bratton’s reign as commissioner, the NYPD was rampant with so many allegations of abuse and misconduct that at one point, Amnesty International sent a team to investigate.
In addition to his crime surveillance database, Bratton materially changed the landscape of policing by swelling the ranks and funding of the NYPD. It was under his tenure that New York became what many understand as an open air prison, pioneering devices like the “mobile surveillance tower.” It was under Bratton’s tenure that drones and other militarized devices were integrated into policing, lending the NYPD the air of an occupying army.
Bratton’s term was also distinguished by the systematic criminalization of poverty under the banner of “law and order”—a phrase and philosophy Donald Trump, a New York native, has touted repeatedly. Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group for the precariously housed and homeless, filed a complaint in May with the city’s Commission on Human Rights stating that the NYPD had engaged in “a concerted effort to disrupt East Harlem’s community of street homeless people by ordering them to ‘move along’ when they violated no laws and were merely present on streets, sidewalks, and in other public spaces.” When the homeless “refuse to comply or express disagreement with the order, officers often threaten or carry out arrests, ticketing, removals to psychiatric hospitals, or destruction of their property.”
As he announced that he was stepping down, Bratton emphasized the need for a smooth transition, referring to “race in America” as a crisis that threatened to boil over and disrupt the so-called order his police force has maintained. But the salient question is: for whom has Bratton maintained order? The lives of the black people who have died at the hands of police will never be “ordered” and neither will those of their families.
The NYPD has terrorized communities under Bratton for decades. His replacement, Jimmy O’Neill, has inherited a profound distrust that has been relentlessly cultivated from many communities in the city. Policing doesn’t need to continue on the way it has; the NYPD does not need to act like an occupying force. But unfortunately, the force is only growing larger and more deadly due to Bratton's design.