Cops have never been so blue.
“The morale has never been as low as it is right now in the 50 years I’ve been dealing with it,” says Bill Bratton, the top cop who transformed the police departments in New York and Los Angeles, only to watch much of that progress go up in smoke.
I Zoomed with Bratton about his new memoir, “The Profession,” the day after President Biden met in the Oval Office with George Floyd’s family, a poignant image that capped another year of intense debate and soul-searching about why Black Americans are still treated so differently by the police.
“In the case of Derek Chauvin, that one cop’s actions set policing back in the sense of public confidence, trust, race relations — set it all back 20, 30 years,” says Bratton, who calls Chauvin’s actions “100 percent a murder.” “In some respects, maybe further than that, back to when I started in 1970.”
In a flashback to the ’60s, this year has been graffitied with slogans like “Eat the rich and their piggies too” and “ACAB” (“All Cops Are Bastards”). The rage against the machine sometimes took peculiar form: Last summer saw scenes of young white women, some in Lululemon pants and others holding signs made from Blue Apron boxes, getting up in the faces of Black D.C. police officers to scream at them about race.
“Yes, but when they get assaulted on a Friday night after coming out of one of the bars, who are they going to call?” Bratton muses.
Sitting in a Manhattan hotel room, wearing a crisp white shirt, khakis, the Rolex his wife gave him and a ring that’s a replica of his N.Y.P.D. commissioner’s badge, Bratton, 73, remembers when Gotham was considered beyond saving. Now, with murder rates up by double digits in many cities, he warns: “Be careful what you wish for because, sometimes, it’s going to come and bite you in the ass. That’s effectively the ‘Defund the police’ movement. They got what they wanted. They defunded the police. What do they get? Rising crime, cops leaving in droves, difficulty recruiting. Now, they’re waking up to the fact that our cities are unsafe.”
It’s a maddeningly fraught subject and there are no easy answers. As Tim Arango wrote in The Times, a surge in violent crime amid a flood of guns “is prompting cities whose leaders embraced the values of the movement last year to reassess how far they are willing to go to reimagine public safety.”
In his book, Bratton defends the “broken windows” and “stop-and-frisk” policies, but says that, in New York, Michael Bloomberg as mayor and Ray Kelly as police commissioner amped up stop-and-frisk too much, letting it reach nearly 700,000 stops in 2011. Bratton says that the affected minority communities rightly “felt it was too much in a city getting safer all the time.” (During Bratton’s last year as Bill de Blasio’s commissioner, 2016, there were about 12,000 stop-and-frisk encounters.)
He also recounts how he turned around the mirrored-aviator sunglasses image of the L.A. police with the assistance of two African-American women, “Sweet Alice” Harris, a community activist, and Connie Rice, a lawyer who often sued the police — “the carrot and the stick,” Bratton fondly calls them.
“Sweet Alice brought police and community together at every one of her events in Watts,” recalls Bratton. “She provided an atmosphere, particularly for the children, where the police could be seen in a very different way, after 50 years of only seeing the police locking up brothers and fathers.”
As an adviser to Bratton, Rice helped train former gang members to quell the violence in their communities. She wrote in The Times in 2013 about her experience: “Mr. Bratton went into the Black community and didn’t leave. He courted Black leaders, attended church and community meetings and bonded with as many African-Americans up and down the social ladder as he could.”
“My time in L.A. validated that police could be the instrument to bring about racial harmony,” says Bratton. “They had a 50-year history of open warfare with the Black community. The idea was to keep the Blacks down in South L.A., just keep them from coming out and bothering the rest of us. The relationship was awful. They were oppressive, they were brutal, they were racist.”
Bratton has harsh words for the leaders of the Black Lives Matter organization, calling them “a bunch of Marxists.”
“I’ve been all my life behind the idea that Black lives matter, the individual, the race. But as far as Black Lives Matter, the organization, I think we are beginning to understand that some of their goals are very different than what most people think the goals are. It turns out that basically their founding was based on attacking the police,” he says, adding, “It will be very interesting also to understand what are they doing with all the money that they raise.”
He says that, even though Biden “went to the left to basically get elected,” his “relationships with the police over the years and with unions have been very good.”
Many people feel strongly that the 1994 crime bill, of which Biden was an architect, harmed Black communities. But Bratton says he believes the good outweighed the bad, and Biden shouldn’t have apologized for elements of the bill.
“Did it have some unintended consequences?” Bratton says. “It did. Building new prisons helped increase the number of people who go to jail. But hiring those 100,000 cops, there’s no denying that he and Clinton should take credit for it instead of running away from it. I certainly am very proud that I stood in the Rose Garden when it was announced,” he says, adding that “I think that bill was still very instrumental in helping to reduce crime in America that stayed down for the next 20-somewhat years.”
Bratton first ran the N.Y.P.D. in the mid-90s, as Rudy Giuliani’s commissioner, trying “to take back a city that was out of control.” After he appeared on the cover of Time in 1996 in a trench coat under the Brooklyn Bridge, his relationship to a petty Giuliani went kaput.
Bratton adds that Giuliani “had such awful relations with the Black community and the Black leadership, it really prevented police commissioners, myself included, from developing relationships that we would love to have made with the Black community.”
It must’ve been strange to watch Rudy devolve into a two-bit henchman for a former reality TV star, and to see the feds’ recent predawn raid of Giuliani’s home and office.
“As somebody who’s got a big ego, speaking about another guy with a big ego, I can’t understand how he allowed himself to be subsumed by Trump,” says Bratton. “He’s made a caricature of himself and he’s lost the image of America’s mayor because of the antics of the last two or three years.”
I ask about the hypocrisy of Donald Trump, claiming to support the police and then siccing the mob on the Capitol Police.
“We saw how pro-police that mob was, didn’t we?” Bratton says dryly. “I know a lot of the cops really liked Trump because they feel he stands up for them against a lot of progressives. I personally believe that he was encouraging that insurrection that day.”
Bratton says it’s “shameful and disgraceful” that Republicans on Friday blocked the bill to create a commission to investigate Jan. 6, adding that “without the Capitol Police, our country would have failed on that day.”
In the ’90s, Bratton came close to a bid for Gracie Mansion. Does he have a favorite in the mayoral race?
“I’m very disappointed with the field of candidates that a city as great as New York ends up with,” he says. “Eric Adams would be a strong supporter of policing. I’ve known him for 30 years. I think at the moment, he has the best chance.” Andrew Yang, he says, “doesn’t seem to understand the city, and talk about flip-flopping — he’s all over the place,” he says, adding, “some of his positions on policing are troubling.” About Ray McGuire, whom he says he’s known for a long time, “I think he could be very beneficial to the city as a mayor because he understands finances, and finances in years ahead are going to be very tough.” As for Kathryn Garcia, he says: “I worked with her. She is tough as nails. She’s a tough cookie.” The rest, he says, are “much too far to the left for my liking.”
And what about Andrew Giuliani for governor?
“Ridiculous,” he snaps.