If there's one line that illustrates the leadership quandary New York Police Department commissioner William Bratton finds himself in, it's this one: "I issue no mandates, and I make no threats of discipline, but I remind you that when you don the uniform of this department, you are bound by the tradition, honor and decency that go with it."

That statement, from a memo Bratton issued Saturday in advance of Sunday's funeral for Wenjian Liu, one of two cops killed by a gunman in December, underscores the challenge of Bratton's current job. In recent weeks, he has had to be both diplomat and advocate, the voice of both reason and recognition. He's had to condemn actions from an angry police force that literally turned their backs on Mayor Bill de Blasio in a show of protest, while still making sure their irritation is heard.

On TV talk shows, Bratton has said the protesting officers were "very inappropriate," yet at the same time recognized officers' disgruntlement following personal comments de Blasio and Attorney General Eric Holder made about race and police mistrust. "They feel that they are under attack from the federal government at the highest levels," he said on NBC's Meet the Press. "So, that's something we need to understand also, this sense of perception that becomes a reality."

So far, Bratton seems to have walked this fine line well — appearing, at least publicly, not to have lost support of the police, the mayor or the public. But does he have to choose sides, more clearly reprimanding officers who protest or more vocally speaking out on their behalf?

It would be easy to think the answer is yes. Our stereotypical "good leaders" take hard stances and principled postures —meting out tough discipline or enthusiastically championing the people they lead. It's understandable that some would be frustrated by what they see as unclear communication from Bratton. Especially in times of crisis, people want to know where their leaders stand.

Yet there is also a role, a particularly important one, for nuance in leadership. And as police commissioner of New York, Bratton serves the public as well as the police force. If he comes down too hard on protesting cops, he risks losing broader support or credibility among the rank-and-file. At the same time, if he advocates too strongly on their behalf, he would appear out of step with the reforms New York's police department needs and, if de Blasio's election is any test, the public very much wants.

He also would seem to disregard the second principle of Sir. Robert Peel, the founder of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829, whom Bratton has called a "great hero of mine": "The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions."

Denouncing the police officers' actions while simultaneously acknowledging the legitimacy of their feelings is, as Bratton himself has said, perhaps the best way to mitigate tensions. "If we can learn to see each other," he said at the funeral of Rafael Ramos, the other police officer killed with Liu, "to see that our cops are people like Officer Ramos and Officer Liu, to see that our communities are filled with people just like them, too—if we can learn to see each other, then when we see each other, we'll heal. We'll heal as a department. We'll heal as a city. We'll heal as a country."

For now, Bratton's nuance — and his effort to teach the two sides to "see each other" — should help unite the city more than divide it. And at this juncture, that should be the highest goal.

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