Reprinted from WE THE PEOPLE: THE MODERN-DAY FIGURES WHO HAVE RESHAPED AND DEFINED THE FOUNDING FATHERS’ VISION OF AMERICA Copyright © 2016 by Juan Williams. To be published by Crown publishers, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, on April 5.
When a famous tough-on-crime prosecutor, Rudy Giuliani, became mayor of New York in 1993, he hired a police chief who had had success in restoring a sense of safety to the subway system—Bill Bratton.
The former Boston policeman arrived as head of the New York transit police system in 1990, when a record number of felonies—from outright assaults to snatching chains from passengers’ necks and petty theft—made a simple train ride into a hellish venture. Bratton had graduated from a technical high school in Boston, then served during Vietnam in the Army’s Military Police Corps. His first job out of the military was with the Boston police.
At thirty-two, just ten years after joining the force, he became second-in-command of the Boston police. An ambitious supervisor looking to advance further up the ranks, he developed a reputation as an attention seeker. When he boldly told a reporter he wanted the top job, the brassy display of ambition rankled his boss and got him demoted. What is clear about Bratton is that he did not fit the image of previous generations of head-busting, brass-knuckled Irish policemen. He was not willing to patiently wait for his turn to take charge according to the rules of seniority that kept the police a closed society, much like a fraternity. Instead, Bratton’s ambition opened him to any good idea and any effective manager willing to be loyal to him. In particular, he became interested in the idea of using new computer technology to see where crime was being committed and to track the identity of people regularly behind crimes. The old guard of policemen bucked when Bratton suggested that crime rates could be brought down by observing crime patterns with innovative computer technology. They saw it as a threat to their old way of doing business; Bratton did not care. He saw it as a way to make a name for himself and gain promotion.
Bratton was not happy waiting in line, and his ambition to run a police force led him to leave Boston. He won the job as chief of New York’s transit police and served from 1990 to 1992. During this time he first met Rudy Giuliani, the famed prosecutor who had narrowly lost a race to become mayor. In the big-city subways he put added staff behind an effort that began before he arrived to get graffiti off train cars and get the homeless out of stations. The idea was to demonstrate to the public and to the criminals that police had control of the subway system.
The theory that getting graffiti off the trains and kicking homeless people out of the stations could reduce crime had its roots in a seminal 1982 Atlantic Monthly magazine article by two academics, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The article, which set forth the “broken windows” theory of policing, made the claim that “disorder and crime are usually inextricably linked in a kind of developmental sequence. Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken.” When a community accepts small-time vandal¬ism, they let criminals know that real crime is acceptable too. Bratton convinced his force to approach crime as an interconnected web, where misdemeanors, such as homeless people begging in the subway, are connected to bigger crimes, such as robbery. Bratton’s tenure as head of the city’s subway police proved the theory’s success and rewarded his ambition. Crime on the subways dropped by 75 percent between 1990 and 1994.
During his time with the transit police Bratton reduced the number of police officials at headquarters, transferring more responsibility from division captains to sergeants accountable for crimes taking place in their zones. He also made his priorities clear to his team as well as to the public. His top priority was stopping robberies of subway travelers; second was discouraging people from jumping turnstiles to ride for free; and third was restoring a sense of civility and order to the subway riding experience. He wanted clear metrics for measuring the crime rate and his success at combating crime.
Bratton’s success with the New York transit system landed him the job he really wanted, as head of the Boston police. He left the transit job after only two years. Two years later, the always ambitious Bratton got an even better offer. In 1994, Rudy Giuliani, the newly elected mayor of New York, asked him to run the New York City police force, the largest police department in the country.
As New York’s top cop, Bratton made the crime statistics come alive with electronic, lighted maps of the city that revealed high-crime areas, the types of crime committed in various districts, and the time of day those crimes took place. The New Yorker headlined a 1995 story about Bratton “The CEO Cop.”
Bratton later described his system as motivated by his frustration with police officers “flying blind” as they tried to fight crime. Before Bratton, cops patrolled city streets somewhat arbitrarily, responding to—but not preventing—crime. In a 1999 article in City Journal, Brat¬ton and former special assistant William Andrews wrote, “The prevailing criminological wisdom held that the police couldn’t do much about crime and that police strategies and tactics didn’t really matter. . . . Po¬lice brass lurched from emergency to emergency, with no one looking at the overall picture.” Once Bratton took charge, he and his top aides developed weekly crime reports showing “felony crime arrest data for every precinct, comparing it with the totals for the previous week and the month- and year-to-date totals. ‘Compstat’ was the computer-file name of this report, a contraction of ‘comparison statistics.’"
With this new system Bratton instructed his command staff to com¬pare where crime was occurring with where most police officers were stationed. “If the two didn’t match up you knew you were doing some¬thing wrong,” wrote Bratton and Andrews. They added, “Compstat’s maps helped make sure that we were putting our resources where the problems were, and when they were happening. We could quickly assess whether new strategies and tactics worked or failed.”
Bratton’s statistical patterns translated into surprisingly effective policing strategies. If burglaries went up in a neighborhood, he brought in the warrant division to go after people with records for burglary who lived in the area. If there was a spike in car robberies, Bratton’s police set up car registration checkpoints to make it difficult for thieves to drive away. “It’s not too strong a statement to say that we reinvented police strategy in 1994,” wrote Bratton and Andrews.