Q&A: Bill Bratton, Now A Hampton Bays Resident, Watching Local Police Reform Efforts Closely

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Bill Bratton. JAMES HIGGINS

In a 50-year career, Bill Bratton’s name has become shorthand for efforts to analyze law enforcement and find ways to reform it, make it more responsive to crime while protecting innocent lives.

As a high-profile leader at police departments in Boston, New York and Los Angeles, Mr. Bratton largely wrote the book, figuratively, on the analytics of police departments, helping to put concepts like the “broken windows theory” of policing in the civilian vernacular.

In his latest book, “The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race, and the Arc of Policing in America,” published in June by the Penguin Press, he and co-author Peter Knobler take a step back to look at the current climate of “police reform” and reexamine some of his core beliefs — and how they’ve been misconstrued and misapplied in many departments.

At 10 a.m. on Sunday, July 4, Mr. Bratton will be in conversation with Rabbi Marc Schneier at a breakfast at The Hampton Synagogue, discussing his new book, with a signing to follow, sponsored by The Red Jacket in Westhampton Beach. Admission is free, but registration is required; for details, call 631-288-0534, extension 10.

Now 73, and with his trademark Boston accent still unaffected by his postings on both coasts — and more than 20 years living at least part of the time on the South Fork, first in Quogue and full-time in Hampton Bays since 2009 — Mr. Bratton took time away from recording the audiobook, in his distinctive voice, at a studio in Sag Harbor to discuss his observations on police reform in 2021, including at the departments in his backyard.

Q: This book, the subtitle mentions “the arc of policing.” Really, it’s part of “The Profession,” right? The idea of evolving and reforming is just part of the profession of policing?

Exactly — that policing, like every other profession, is always reforming. You don’t want the profession to stand still — you don’t want medicine to stand still. And so I talk a lot about what the profession was like when I came in in 1970 as a young cop in Boston. Over the next 50 years, I think, along with a lot of other colleagues, we really were continuing trying to reform the profession to make it better.

I think we had a lot of successes. Some of the frustration at the moment is that those successes aren’t acknowledged. Some were more successful than others — the reduction of crime, serious reduction of crime. Some improvement in race relations, but as we’ve seen that was not as substantive as we certainly would have liked.

But it’s like in that old Broadway play, “Glengarry Glen Ross” — all the salesmen, “always be selling,” ABS. Well, policing is ABR: “always be reforming.” You just can’t stand still.

Q: This round of police reform at the national level, how is it different from what you’ve seen in the past in your career?

This time it’s propelled very significantly by the issue of race. You can’t separate policing from race; they’ve been joined at the hip since going back to the bringing of slaves into America. We had slave catchers before there were organized police forces. This time, there’s a much more dramatic push in America for the issue of recognizing the rights of Black people in our country.

… The police are bearing the brunt of the criticism, because we’re the face of the criminal justice system — we’re the ones in uniform. We’re out there, day and night, 24 hours a day, we’re the ones you call, 911. So what’s different this time is the magnitude of it, the intensity of it and the potential for success of it.

We had reforms back in the 1970s — I write about this in the book, what went on in the ’70s. We certainly had reforms in the ’90s, with the embrace of the community policing philosophy. We had reforms after 9/11, when we, for the first time, local police, now also had to think about dealing with terrorism.

We’re going to have reforms now in the 2020s, a lot of it around the need for racial justice. But also the new concern about domestic terrorism. Through the last 20 years, we’ve focused primarily on international terrorism. We’ve been successful at keeping that out of America by and large, but domestic terrorism now is thought to be of more concern to our national security. So there’s a whole era of reform.

Q: Do you believe there’s inherent racism in law enforcement, in policing and in the courts?

I don’t believe that there’s systemic racism in the profession. Is there systemic racism in some departments? Certainly. Is there systemic racism among some police officers? Certainly. But that’s not much different than in our society as a whole.

The issue for police is, because we are supposed to be impartial to the right and to the left, that’s where it becomes of great concern that police cannot be biased, they cannot be corrupt, they cannot be brutal.

… I have an expression that I created back in 2003, when I was with the LAPD, trying to motivate that police department. There was a similar state of malaise to what police departments are in today, and I told my cops, “Cops count, police matter.”

And by that I explain, the individual action of every cop counts, every time. If you’re disrespectful to somebody in the public, they’re going to remember it. If you do a good job, they’re going to remember it.

“Police matter” — the profession of policing matters. In our democracy, the first obligation of a democracy is public safety. In the criminal justice system, we are the essential element that delivers that public safety. We’re at the front of the line.

I’m using a new phrase now: “Cops count, police matter — re-fund the police.” I think the “defund the police” movement is pretty much in decline, serious decline, as evidenced by the president the other day talking about “re-fund the police.” By that I mean we have too few police officers in America today. They are not as well-trained as they should be, and we have to have a serious discussion about what do we want those police to actually be doing.

Q: When you talk about not defunding the police but re-funding them, is it about spending that money wisely though more training and in other ways?

Yeah, let me briefly explain it.

The three issues that get the police into trouble most frequently are dealing with the emotionally disturbed; dealing with the homeless, of which a significant part of that population is emotionally disturbed; and with the narcotics impaired, and a large part of the homeless population has that issue also. So homeless, emotionally disturbed, narcotics addicts or the narcotics dependent.

And particularly we end up dealing with African Americans in those populations. … So most of what you see the tragedies that are seemingly so frequent on videos involves dealing with those three issues, and oftentimes dealing with African Americans.

The reality is the use of force by police has been declining significantly over the years — but with social media, even with fewer incidents, they become magnified. That the clip plays over and over and over again, so it seems like it’s a constant. When, in fact, days will go by when there’s not a significant event — but as soon as one happens, it plays for days.

So we’re in the midst of a reckoning, if you will, something I encourage because of the crises, with a crisis comes challenges and opportunities. Let’s take advantage of the crises to meet the challenges and find opportunities that we can resolve decades-long problems that have not been resolved.

Q: Did you agree with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision to issue an executive order that all police departments in the state had to undergo a reform process in the wake of George Floyd’s killing? Would you say that that was the right way to go about this?

I think it may have been a little too much. Many police departments across the state, their communities are very comfortable with them. Many departments across the state are 10 to 25 officers, and it was a very labor intensive process. … But while it required a lot of work, it may not have been necessary in most of the police departments in the state. No harm done, in terms of, from time to time you always want your profession to look at, what are the best practices? Are you meeting them, are you exceeding them?

…Going forward, there will be new standards, but to meet standards requires training, requires expense to take cops out of the field and put them into the academy for retraining. If, however, it does reduce the tension between the police and minority communities in particular, that’s money and time well spent.

… There are 18,000 police departments in America; average size, from 10 to 25 officers. And out here on Long Island, just think of it, Southampton Village has 40 officers, maybe, Quogue has 12, Westhampton Beach has 25. So we’re a prime example of those small-town village police departments that the villages and towns don’t want to give them up — they like having their own police force.

At the same time they want a police force that is basically well-trained, respectful and professionally successful. What is professional success? Reduce crime and disorder and respectful interaction with the community.

Q: So you have been paying attention to the local conversations in the villages and in the towns?

Oh sure — I work in the city, we’ll be starting up full-time work in the city, so we’ll be spending more time back in the city again, but over the last year and a half we’ve had the delightful experience of being out here full time. … I pay very close attention, as you might expect, to the law enforcement issues out here.

Fortunately, we’ve got very good police departments. I’m very close friends with the chief of police here in Southampton Town, and the town is the place where I live. So, people need to pay attention to their police — you see the local cop at the 7-Eleven walking in the village, say hello, thank him for his, or her, service.

As recently as this morning, I’m in Sip’n Soda, the owner, Mark [Parash], basically comes up and says, “If you come out back, there’s two of the Southampton Village cops down here, and just say hello.” So I come down to say hello and I chat with them. … So, you know, as recently as this morning I had that interaction with two of the local cops.

Q: The East End is unique in that we have a series of local departments that provide our policing, rather than Suffolk County doing it. Do you think that’s better? To have local departments, village and town departments, as opposed to one larger department covering the whole region? Are there pluses and minuses to that?

The pluses of a larger department is economy — in other words, that it’s usually less expensive, because if you have all the small departments you need to have clerical administrative work, etc. … Quite obviously since we have so many small departments, people like having their own police force that focuses on their particular issues and, in the case of Long Island, you’re correct, Suffolk, a large amount of it is policed by the Suffolk County PD. But it’s also policed by all these smaller departments.

So there is no right or wrong answer for that. With larger departments, you get economy of scale. With smaller departments, you get much more intimacy and attention paid to local issues that the bigger department might not pay attention to.

Q: You’ve talked a lot about community policing, and the impression I get is, that’s a phrase that applies to big-city departments and small departments alike. Community policing is an approach rather than a description, correct?

Actually it’s a philosophy of policing that I helped to create with a significant number of other people in Harvard University in the late 1980s. There was a government-sponsored executive session, and it was intended to deal with the 20-year rise in crime that quite obviously the old model of policing — the so-called “professional model,” which was focused on responding to crime — was not working. Crime was going through the roof across America.

Community policing evolved from that. … I write about this extensively in the book. It has three elements to it. It has partnership, police working with the community because public safety is a shared responsibility. It’s not the responsibility of cops and government alone, the community has to help.

So a partnership, but what do those partnerships do? They focus and prioritize what problems do the community want the police to address. Because if the police are left to their own devices, we might focus on serious crime, but we might not pay as much attention to things that are bothering people in their neighborhood. Graffiti, the gang on the corner every night, people shooting off fireworks in the neighborhood over the weekend — those are issues that the police might not pay attention to on their own, but working in partnership, this partnership focused on problems.

And what is the goal of community policing? It’s prevention of crime.

So community policing is a philosophy, it is the philosophy that American police are embracing. The challenge now is to get that philosophy much more into our minority communities, much more embraced in those communities, and that’s part of the challenge going forward in terms of police reform.

Q: A lot of the things that you brought about, as far as police reform, the phraseology is well-known: “broken windows,” “stop and frisk,” “zero tolerance.” But all of those phrases, I think people have an idea of what each of those things means — and I’m not sure that those terms haven’t been misused over the years and been misapplied by some of the departments, right?

In the book I spend a lot of time trying to explain to a reader, every reader, what those terms really mean in reality, in practice, because I’m basically the advocate, and one of the chief implementers of all of those.

“Stop, question and frisk.” It’s oftentimes called “stop and frisk” — but the most important part of it is the questioning. That is a constitutionally protected activity of the police: A Supreme Court decision back in 1968, in which a police officer who has reasonable suspicion that a crime is, has been or is about to be committed can stop a person and ask that person questions. If the officer feels there is a danger to himself or passersby, pat the person down — that’s the frisk. Frisk only occurs in about 10 percent of the stops.

So — stop, question, frisk. People would say, “Do away with it, it’s racially insensitive.” I’m sorry, it’s an essential tool of the police.

Q: Do you hear the criticisms, though, about how it may target communities of color more?

Oh sure, and some of those criticisms are correct, because there’s no denying that there were more stops of African Americans, for example. … So there’s the inherent tension. The challenge for police is not to overuse or abuse any of the tremendous powers that we have. … You always have to have a reasonable suspicion to justify it. You have to be able to articulate within the law what that suspicion is, and if you don’t, that’s where the abuse comes in.

Q: At the same time, it’s a very subjective thing, right? I mean an individual officer …

That’s where the officer has to be able to justify it by articulating what was the suspicion and did it rise to the level of reasonable suspicion? And, secondly, it’s the idea of policing compassionately. What’s that term “compassionately” mean? We’re dealing with human beings. So you don’t have to be mean or sarcastic to the person you’re stopping. “Sir, may I talk to you? Sir, the reason I pulled you over … sir, the reason I stopped you.” That you’re dealing with human beings, whether white, Black, Latino … treat them professionally.

The third element of it is consistency. We shouldn’t be policing differently in a poor neighborhood, although we’re oftentimes called more frequently to a poor neighborhood for issues, that we should not be treating them with more indifference or cynicism, even racist attitudes, than we would in any white neighborhood.

So, compassionate, constitutional, consistent. That’s the heart and soul of community policing — it’s the heart and soul of professional policing.

As it relates to “broken windows,” quality of life crimes, East Enders will certainly recognize the importance of quality of life crime, because we have so little serious crime out here. We very seldom have a murder, a rape, a robbery. When you’re reading the police reports, what are people complaining about? Somebody knocked over my mailbox, somebody stole lawn furniture. Graffiti on the Long Island Rail Road underpass down the road from me.

Those are issues, those are quality of life crimes — those are “broken windows.” What ends up happening, if those are not deterred, if the Long Island Rail Road doesn’t come out and paint over that graffiti right away, I guarantee you, the next night, somebody’s going to be back and putting more of it up there.

… That’s “broken windows” — take care of little things, otherwise it’s going to create bigger problems down the line.

Q: I feel like “zero tolerance,” from what I’ve read and some of the things you’ve said, I think that’s the most misunderstood of all the terms.

Actually, that one is terribly misunderstood. Policing should never practice zero tolerance. You always want your officers to police with discretion. … You never want to have zero tolerance with every traffic stop has to end up with a ticket.

Q: What was the original context of zero tolerance?

When I was police commissioner in 1994, first time in New York, we developed seven or eight strategies to deal with the problems in the city at that time: gun crime, domestic violence, car theft, police corruption, youth violence. And to deal with police corruption, we indicated that we would have “zero tolerance” for any corruption, that we could not tolerate that at all.

But most other things that you could have a degree of tolerance in the sense that every incident doesn’t require, basically, a hammer.

… Zero tolerance, however, over time has also come to be applied to certain activities. We have zero tolerance for drunk driving, … domestic violence.

Q: Are you optimistic in general about the profession moving forward?

Oh certainly. It’s optimism based on experience, those 50 years, more successes than failures both personally in my own career and the profession.

Why do I say that? Because if you look statistically at the uses of force by police in the United States, they have been going down. The number of deaths at the hands of police officers in the United States, they’re consistently around 1,000. Of that 1,000 about 50 are unarmed individuals [killed] by police — George Floyd, for example; Eric Garner, over in Staten Island. But 950 of those deaths are usually police engaged in a combat situation.

… We’ve had, so far this year, we’ve had more officers killed in the line of duty than we had killed in all of last year. In all of last year, the figure was higher than the year before. So the rate of officer deaths is climbing dramatically. We’ve had about three in the last few days. One in a domestic violence case.

A lot of what we’re talking about with police reform, they want others to go handle some of these calls. So we had this yesterday: A couple of cops go to a domestic violence case. Knock on the door, “Police. Open the door.” Guy inside says, “Hello, police.” Immediately shoots and kills one of the cops.

If that had been unarmed social workers there, what would they have done? … Sounds good, but the reality is that many of these calls are very dangerous. The challenge for police is to try to train police to try to deescalate.

But sometimes, it happens so fast. That cop on the domestic violence call, do you think he had much time to react? Opening the door, the guy shoots him in the head. He didn’t have time to deescalate that situation.

… What’s happened in the last year or so, too much of the debate has been one-sided. Police have been back on their heels, they’ve been defending. What’s starting to happen now is, I think, a lot of people are starting to recognize, it’s not as simple as it seems, it’s complex.

… The legislation’s creating more laws criminalizing police behavior than the behavior of the criminals. Amazing. So police feel now that they’re under attack by their prosecutors who won’t prosecute a lot of the arrests they make, by their legislators who are trying to criminalize their activities.

We’re in an interesting time, but I’m hoping that the scales of justice will right themselves. I’ve watched time and again during these reform eras — that’s exactly what happens.

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