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Commentary: Cities safer, cops improved thanks to Bratton

By Michael J. Jenkins William "Bill" Bratton began his first tour as commissioner of the New York Police Department in the midst of headlines demanding "Dave, Do Something," referring to soon-to-be departing Mayor David Dinkins, who presided over sky-high crime rates in the city.

By Michael J. Jenkins

William "Bill" Bratton began his first tour as commissioner of the New York Police Department in the midst of headlines demanding "Dave, Do Something," referring to soon-to-be departing Mayor David Dinkins, who presided over sky-high crime rates in the city.

Bratton was the first police chief of a major metropolitan area to embrace the strategies of broken-windows guru George Kelling, and, for the next 25 years, he led progressive police reform in New York, Los Angeles, and across the nation.

In New York in the mid-1990s, crime was reduced, as Bratton aggressively linked his department with social service agencies, local businesses, news media, and his police personnel to prevent threatening signs of physical and social disorder.

New Yorkers no doubt will reach their own conclusions about Bratton's effectiveness, but the fact is that murders in the city were cut in half during his initial tenure. Other violent and property crime categories dropped more precipitously than in any comparable city. And urban police departments were given a model for positively engaging with the community.

After some time in the private sector, Bratton moved on to Los Angeles, where he was charged with leading the department through an eight-year consent decree, sparked by a made-for-Hollywood scandal in which a prestigious and under-the-radar police unit was caught acting like the very street gangs it was meant to curtail.

Halfway through his tenure, a consensus arose that the city had to "do something" about LA's notorious Skid Row - a violence- and drug-infested 50-block area near downtown. Bratton mustered local missions, the city council, the ACLU, and business owners to come up with appropriate standards for implementing quality-of-life policing. I witnessed firsthand the lasting crime and disorder reduction and legitimacy-building effects of these efforts as I walked the Skid Row beat with an LAPD sergeant in 2010. By the time Bratton left LA, Connie Rice, who made a career out of suing the LAPD on civil rights issues, wrote a flattering op-ed piece on his service.

During his last term as NYPD commissioner, Bratton again displayed his skill in bridging the gap. Facing the heat of renegotiating a union contract, the ambush of two police officers, and clamorous protests from the Black Lives Matter movement, Bratton met with and listened to aggrieved parties, and acted on their concerns to allay police and community fears and stem a deeper police-citizen divide in the NYPD.

Unfortunately, the chasm between poor urban communities and their law enforcement officials seems as wide as ever, as we witness in horror recent violent killings of police by citizens, and citizens by police.

Some have suggested that broken-windows policing is at least in part at fault for the increased tension and violence, and they base this belief on their perception of an unfair focus on minorities in poor communities, particularly young black men. These folks no doubt will bid good riddance to Bratton.

This view ignores factual evidence to the contrary, which is why Bratton and others have resisted pressure to abandon broken windows and have maintained the approach as an integral ingredient in modern community policing.

Bratton was at the forefront of academic and practitioner movements toward community policing, policing to enhance quality-of-life, intelligence-led policing, constitutional policing, and collaborative policing. Much of his visionary approach has now become normal operating procedure across the nation. The results are that these police now have frameworks for improving community relationships in neighborhoods where it has been historically difficult to do so.

It is no easy task serving the interests of not only your department, but also community groups, politicians, and advocacy groups, so I am not surprised that Bratton has his critics.

In New York and elsewhere, Bratton is viewed as a cop's cop. His progressive approaches do not overshadow the raison d'être that abides in the cores of both Bratton and the institution of U.S. policing - a relentless pursuit of eliminating crime and bringing criminals to justice. And it is this core that critics of policing today seek to reform.

Many of the problems police deal with stem from the unforgivable failures of education, mental health, and economic systems. But to this day, when all else fails, we still call the police, and the police show up. They are often the only face of government that many people encounter.

Politicians and police chiefs come and go, but the people who serve in blue are continuously called to "do something," and Bratton has devoted his career to helping them do it better. At the least, current and future police leaders he's mentored will remember him favorably. Bill Bratton's fingerprints will be found on American policing for generations.

Michael J. Jenkins is associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Scranton and co-author of "Police Leaders in the New Community Problem-Solving Era." @michaeljjenkins