The Profession: a Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America
by Bill Bratton with Peter Knobler
Bill Bratton was sworn in as a Boston police officer in 1970 and rose to become chief or commissioner of six major police departments in three different states. He deserves a lot of credit for dramatically reducing crime, most notably as New York City Transit Police chief in the early 1990s and as commissioner of the NYPD in the mid-1990s.
Chapters two through six cover Bratton’s career through his first stint as NYPD commissioner until his falling out with Mayor Giuliani—basically a retelling of Bratton’s first book, Turnaround. Chapter seven covers his years as chief of LAPD; the writers were sloppy with the details in this chapter. Chapter eight is about Bratton’s second turn as NYPD commissioner under Mayor de Blasio.
The remainder of the book deals with contemporary issues related to race, implicit bias, terrorism, and the defund-the-police movement. I imagine Bratton wrote this book out of frustration with the anti-police climate and the resulting unraveling of 25+ years of crime reduction. It is extremely informative and he offers a valuable perspective. I read all 476 pages with great interest.
Central to his approach was that policing disorder not only improves quality of life, but it also reduces violent crime. This is the essence of Broken Windows theory. Bratton (along with Jack Maple) is also one of the architects of CompStat meetings, where precinct commanders are held accountable for addressing crime in their districts.
“When people say we should abandon Broken Windows, as far as I’m concerned they are talking about abandoning the overreach of Broken Windows, and I agree. Zero tolerance, for instance, was never what Kelling and Wilson had in mind. Arrests were to be a last resort. ‘Broken Windows was never intended to be a high-arrest program,’ Kelling said. It was designed to use the threat of discipline as a means to influence behavior. A central tenet of Broken Windows is that fear and disorder matter. One of Kelling’s most deeply help convictions, as it is mine, was that the role of police should be negotiated between the communities and the police. Zero tolerance is a toxic idea, and it did tremendous damage.”
Stop, Question, and Frisk
“As I’ve said, under Kelly, numbers had become too much the drivers. Many commanders who ought to have been evaluated based on their efforts, leadership, and management felt they were being judged only on their numbers. Quality was trumped by quantity…. The numbers ceased to be a means to an end and became an end in and of themselves… Overemphasizing reasonable-suspicion stops through CompStat was a significant mistake.
“From their high of 694,482 in 2011 [under Commissioner Ray Kelly] stops fell to… 22,939 by the end of my first year. By 2017, the NYPD had recorded 12,004 reasonable-suspicion stops, a 98.27 percent drop from 2011. Crime still fell.”
“Among the most recent advances is the introduction of precision policing as an organizing principle for the complexities of structuring, managing, motivating, and leading a modern police agency. Its two most important components are focused crime-and-disorder enforcement and neighborhood policing. As I’ve explained, they recognize that: a) the violent criminals who damage communities are a small percentage of the population; and b) working with the far larger percentage of the population who strengthen communities reinforces the fact that public safety is a shared responsibility. Precision policing depends on active collaboration between police, political leaders, and the public.”
“Neighborhood policing worked in ways that community policing never did because it did not forget that the police exist to prevent crime and disorder. Rather than making community relations the primary goal, it worked to achieve good relations as an outgrowth of making people safe. It sought common ground on local ground, by anchoring the same police officers to the same sectors within precincts, and making officers responsible for those sectors day in, day out, becoming intimately involved with their people, problems, and potential.”
The 44-page chapter on terrorism includes interesting stories of how terrorist plots were intercepted, sometimes by chance and sometimes by intelligence. In the course of investigating a gas station robbery, the Torrance police department (in Los Angeles county) uncovered surveillance notes about “modes of attack” on several targets including US Army recruiting stations, LAX airport, and the Israeli Consulate. The chapter also emphasizes the importance of cooperation between local police departments and the FBI.
War on Cops
“Every viral video that came along added another thousand people to the next demonstration on the streets of Manhattan, and this became what the New York Post called a ‘War on Cops.’”
“In the days after Ferguson, crowds marched down the street screaming, ‘What do we want? Dead cops! When do we want it? Now!’ That’s not apocrypha, that’s on videotape… That is hate speech, that is riot speech, and two weeks later [NYPD officers] Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu were dead in a squad car, murdered by a man from Maryland.”
It is important to note that Bratton acknowledges “George Floyd’s murder—and it was 100 percent a murder—was one of the worst things I have ever seen done to a person by a police officer.”
Defund the Police
“I would divest the police of such social service responsibilities as dealing with the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicted—but only when excellent programs have been designed and are in place at agencies specifically empowered and able to fulfill them… But we are not there; we’re nowhere near… You can’t defund the police before you make those investments… NYPD goes on an emotionally disturbed person call every 4 minutes, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.”
“Criminal justice reform has failed miserably.” Bratton writes about district attorneys and the New York state legislature making it more difficult for the police to do their job and easier for criminals to commit crimes, with predictable results. “What seems to have been lost in the anger and rhetoric is the fact that as recently as 2019, the NYPD has reduced crime in New York City to its lowest point since the Dodgers played in Brooklyn.”
Bratton is conspicuously silent about the newly elected district attorney in Los Angeles county, George Gascón, whom Bratton had promoted to deputy chief of the LAPD in 2002. As of June 3, 2021, seventeen cities have passed votes of “no confidence” in Gascón.
Bratton, Bill, and Peter Knobler. The Profession: a Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America. New York: Penguin Press, 2021. Buy from Amazon.com
Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. I received a review copy of this book.