Bratton served as the top cop in all three cities, and in his telling, he built public confidence in law enforcement where his predecessors had failed. He titles the chapter describing his first term as New York City’s police commissioner “The Turnaround.” Continuing the theme, in Los Angeles, Bratton was “the only person in America who could turn the department around,” according to himself. Afterward he was happy to return for a second term as New York’s commissioner because he was “confident” that he could “right the ship of a great department.”
To be sure, Bratton has some bragging rights. The crime rate plunged in the cities where he served as chief. The problem with taking too much credit for this is that during this same time, crime fell across the country. Bratton suggests in the book, co-written by Peter Knobler, that the national trend showed that his “methods were adopted by more and more police departments.” For most of his career, Bratton has been the stern face of “broken windows” policing. The theory, popularized in an Atlantic magazine article by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, is that fear of crime is driven more by signs of disorder than by actual violence — which, even during peak periods of crime, only a small percentage of people experience. In this view, “order-maintenance” policing, including strict enforcement of quality-of-life crimes such as public drinking, prevents more serious offenses.
Bratton insists that there are important differences between broken-windows policing and heavy-handed tactics like “zero tolerance” and “stop-and-frisk,” but his gleeful description of his “fare-evasion minisweeps” on public transit undermines that distinction: “I put a sergeant and sometimes as many as ten cops in uniform and plain clothes at [high-traffic] stations day and night,” he writes, “and they collared a couple of dozen people at a time as the scofflaws came vaulting over. They cuffed them, lined them up against the walls . . . and waited for more. When their nets were full they marched the jumpers upstairs in a daisy chain and put them in wagons to be taken downtown for processing.”
Seriously? All that for what is roughly a $2 theft? For the record, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. put an end to the practice of locking up people for fare evasion; now they get tickets, just like people who commit traffic infractions — to Bratton’s great chagrin.
For all of his championing of technologies like CompStat that use data to predict violent crime, Bratton’s tone in “The Profession” is old school, more like the hard-boiled detective narrator of a police procedural than the intellectual chief who acknowledges an affection for Elaine’s, New York’s chic celebrity watering hole. The casual writing makes the book’s 450-plus pages of text go down easy, even if the reader’s reward is more war stories than insightful analysis.
Bratton is not a chief in the mode of Medaria Arradondo, the Minneapolis police leader who testified in favor of the prosecution in Derek Chauvin’s trial for the death of George Floyd. Bratton allows that that case was “100 percent a murder” but gives a qualified pass to some other cops who killed Black people in high-profile incidents, including Daniel Pantaleo, the New York officer who, in the course of arresting Eric Garner for selling a “loosie” cigarette, put him in a chokehold that killed him. That kind of neck restraint had been banned by the New York Police Department for decades, but Bratton notes that he “overruled several Civilian Complaint Review Board chokehold findings, largely around the idea of intent.”
Bratton demonstrates the same failure to hold cops accountable in the infamous episode when NYPD officers turned their backs in protest of Mayor Bill de Blasio as he attended the funeral of an officer who had been killed on duty. Bratton claims he was “furious” at the disrespect, but he informed his officers that “I issue no mandates and I make no threats of discipline” because he thought the right touch was “a velvet glove, not a hammer.” Hammers, apparently, are for Black and Brown civilians, not cops.
If “The Profession” is, as its subtitle promises, a memoir of “race,” Bratton has either a faulty recollection or an incomplete understanding of its dynamics, not only in policing but in his own career trajectory. One way of reading his narrative of more than 50 years as a law enforcement officer is as the story of a White man who was consistently allowed to “fail up” — in stark contrast to the African American chiefs who preceded him in New York and Los Angeles.
Early in Bratton’s career, as second-in-command at the Boston Police Department, his naked ambition threatened higher-ups, and he was demoted. “They intended to bury me,” he writes, but instead the Massachusetts governor appointed him to run the state’s transportation police department. Likewise his first term as NYPD commissioner ended with his resignation under an ethical cloud over a book deal and alleged acceptance of free trips from private citizens. But then the Los Angeles Police Department came calling, followed by the NYPD for a second term.
But recognition of his privilege is not the part of race that Bratton wants to focus on. He draws the reader instead to stories like the time when he walked through a crowd of demonstrators in Los Angeles holding signs that said: “Control your cops!” Bratton’s retort was: “I’ll control my cops if you control your kids!” His chilling statement seemed intended to convey blunt truth-telling, but instead it communicated a “by any means necessary” approach to crime-fighting that was as tone deaf in the post-Rodney King era in L.A. as it is in the post-George Floyd era now.
In Bratton’s dour view, activists in the movement for Black lives don’t appreciate the “long, complicated and sensitive arguments” about the causes of racial disparities in criminal justice, because “if you are Black, you see this through the prism of oppression.” But it’s Bratton himself who displays an almost willful ignorance of context, as in his qualified defense of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice, which a federal judge found to be racially discriminatory. Bratton concedes that under his predecessor the practice “had been taken too far,” but he maintains that it “was not based on race.” His sympathetic rejoinder is: “We were accused of targeting minorities, specifically instructing the NYPD to go after Black and brown people. That’s nonsense. We targeted criminals.” Never mind that of the more than 4 million people who were stopped between 2004 and 2012 — the vast majority Black and Latino — nearly 90 percent were not arrested for any crime.
“The Profession” is best read as a sometimes entertaining, sometimes terrifying history of policing pre-George Floyd. And the epigraph that begins the book — “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it, and those who study policing know we don’t study history” — is best read as an unintentional warning. Study this history so that it is never repeated.
A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America
By Bill Bratton and Peter Knobler
Penguin Press. 495 pp. $30