Commentary Magazine


Turnaround by William W. Bratton

Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic
by William W. Bratton with Peter Knobler
Random House. 384 pp. $25.50

Though Democrats enjoy a five-to-one advantage among registered voters in New York City, the landslide reelection of Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani last November came as a surprise to no one. Nor was there much debate about the leading cause of his popularity: in four years Giuliani had presided over the nation’s most successful anti-crime campaign, illustrated most dramatically by a drop in the annual number of murders in the city from a high-water mark of 2,262 in the early 1990′s to fewer than 800 in 1997. Indeed, during Giuliani’s first term, felonies of almost every sort came down so far, so fast that New York is now regularly awarded the title of “safest city in America” in national surveys of crime.

In this much-anticipated book, William Bratton, Giuliani’s first police commissioner, gives us a vivid insider’s account of the innovative policing strategies behind New York’s transformation—as well as a deeply unflattering portrait of a mayor determined to take all the credit for restoring order to a city that many considered ungovernable.

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As an up-and-coming officer in the Boston Police Department in the late 1980′s, William Bratton was a leading advocate of the “broken-windows” approach to policing. Developed by the social scientists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson, this theory perceives a causal link between seemingly minor “quality-of-life” violations—vandalism, public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling—and more serious crimes. The pervasive sense of disorder created by such offenses, Kelling and Wilson argue, lead to increased fear and a breakdown in confidence in law enforcement that in turn give encouragement to violent criminals.

Bratton’s first large-scale application of the theory came with his brief stint as chief of the New York Transit Police in 1990-91 under Mayor David Dinkins. At the time, the most troubling “broken window” in the subway system was fare-beating. Until Bratton’s arrival, it had been regarded as a minor nuisance, but Bratton went after fare-beaters with a vengeance, deploying decoys and undercover cops and using roving booking vans to make sure that offenders were speedily processed. As he and his aides quickly discovered, many of the fare-beaters carried guns and had outstanding warrants for more serious offenses. Virtually overnight, the crime rate in the subway system plunged.

But the lessons learned from this campaign, Bratton laments, made no impression on the New York Police Department (NYPD). Saddled with court rulings that had taken discretion out of their hands, and with supervisors who feared that aggressive action against drug dealing would lead to internal corruption, New York’s cops had taken the path of least resistance, doing less and less to combat street crime of every sort. “At the highest levels of the organization,” Bratton reports, “the basic aim of the NYPD was not to bring down crime but to avoid criticism from the media, politicians, and the public.” As one police executive put it, “Nobody ever lost a command because crime went up.” And crime in the city went up, relentlessly.

This changed when Bratton returned to New York in 1994 at the behest of newly-elected Mayor Giuliani and began his successful effort to reshape the culture of the largest police department in the world. A chief instrument of Bratton’s effort was the twice-weekly Compstat (computer-statistics) meeting held in the department’s command center. With every precinct commander and other top official in compulsory attendance, these early-morning gatherings took on the air of interrogations as supervisors were mercilessly grilled about how they were deploying their troops.

Accountability at the top, Bratton found, quickly filtered down to the city’s 38,000 cops at street level, where it produced much more aggressive policing. Officers began to take responsibility even for the lesser offenses that had been deemed unworthy of their attention just years before. As with the subway system, the crime rate all across the city began to drop precipitously.

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As Turnaround makes a point of emphasizing, Bratton’s achievements were not an unmixed blessing for the man who had hired him. The mayor, obsessed with garnering all the positive press coverage for himself, soon turned on the popular new commissioner, going so far as to circulate rumors that challenged his personal integrity. After 27 consecutive months of falling crime rates, Bratton was pushed out, a victim, by his own account, of political pettiness and egomania.

Bratton’s settling of scores must be taken with a grain of salt—he himself has made known his interest in running for mayor. But what cannot be disputed is the breakthrough that he helped to achieve in law enforcement. Until quite recently, the conventional wisdom among New York’s politicians, judges, civil libertarians, criminologists, and editorial writers was that high crime rates were inevitable so long as urban neighborhoods were scarred by poverty and racism. At best, the police could only hope to contain a threat that was socially induced and all but immutable. In liberal policy circles, no one believed that crime could actually be rolled back.

What Bratton, Giuliani, and their imitators in other big cities have demonstrated in recent years is that policing is not just an empty exercise. To the contrary, it can make the difference between chaos and livable streets, even in the poorest of neighborhoods. As a practical matter, they have proved that to fight crime you do not send out social workers, you send out the police and energize them to enforce all the laws.

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