fb-pixel Skip to main content

Bill Bratton on American policing and the challenge facing the Boston Police Department

The most successful police chief in recent history recounts his career, the most difficult year for police since the 1960s, and the imperative of the Boston Police Department looking outside its ranks to move forward.

Bill Bratton
Bill BrattonChad Batka/NYT

It is sad but true to realize that the whole country would know Manny Familia’s name if he had shot a 14-year-old kid named Troy Love instead of losing his life while trying to save the boy.

Alas, the ultimate sacrifice by the Worcester police officer, drowning alongside the teen he tried to save, will barely register outside New England.

That is the reality in this country, where a reckoning on race and power and policing continues to play out more than a year after George Floyd was murdered by a Minneapolis police officer whose knee brought the figurative weight of the world down on so many.

Advertisement



Look at the headlines. The Boston Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police are usually in them for all the wrong reasons. Nationwide, police are facing scrutiny, and hostility, like never before.

Cops are skittish. Many are taking early retirement. Those who hate them are emboldened. Those who, with not a little justification, want more accountability are demanding systemic change.

In many cities, meanwhile, violent crime is on the rise.

Bill Bratton, the most successful American police chief of the last half-century, has written a book called “The Profession: A Memoir of Community, Race and the Arc of Policing in America.” As usual, his timing is impeccable.

For anyone interested in policing, whether you think the hostility police have faced is deserved, unfair, or not nearly enough, it makes for indispensable reading.

Bratton has led three of nation’s oldest police departments: Boston, New York (twice), and Los Angeles. He brought new ideas to those old departments, using analytics the way baseball nerds study opponents, to better and more efficiently target crime; implementing his old friend George Kelling’s “Broken Windows” theory, improving the quality of life in poorer neighborhoods by targeting antisocial behavior that would never be tolerated in tony suburbs; and by refusing to engage in zero-sum politics.

Advertisement



“There are parts of any argument where both sides can be right,” he writes.

Bratton’s career has been a study in walking in the middle of the road and managing not to get knocked down.

That is, if you leave aside Rudy Giuliani getting rid of him when he became more popular than America’s mayor.

Contrast where the two men are now. Bratton is the internationally respected police chief emeritus of the United States. Giuliani is in a photo finish with any number of criminal investigations, the respect he earned after stewarding New York through 9/11 melting like his hair dye in the heat of his servile service to Donald Trump.

In a small, parochial town like Boston, Bratton’s ambition was widely held against him. In New York and LA, it was celebrated.

While critics claimed Bratton was too wedded to his “Broken Windows” approach, his success was due in part to a willingness to reconsider tactics. He insists the use of “stop-and-frisk” of potential gun-toting suspects led directly to the massive drop in violent crime in New York in the 1990s, when there were more than 2,000 murders a year. But he acknowledged it had, 20 years later when there were a few hundred murders, become overused and engendered justified resentment, especially in communities of color.

Before Bratton returned to New York as commissioner in 2014, NYPD conducted some 700,000 “stop-and-frisk” searches. In his first year, that number shrunk to 22,000.

Advertisement



But, when we spoke this week, Bratton said the pendulum has swung too far. He believes progressive measures aimed at appeasing aggrieved interest groups and reducing prison populations have left bad actors on the streets, contributing to rises of violent crime in many pockets of the country.

Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd, “set the profession back decades, not just here, but around the world.”

“What we’ve lost over the last couple of years is trust,” he said. “It reflects the political divisions in the country.”

But he insists the anger that has followed the police killings of Floyd and other Black people obscures the fact that policing, and especially police training, has improved dramatically since the 1970s. He has no time for the Defund the Police movement.

“If anything, we need to re-fund them to get them better trained,” he said.

In some European countries, police are trained from between a year and three years. In the US, the training lasts weeks or months.

“Politicians don’t want to pay police officers to sit in a classroom,” he said.

He watched the deleterious effects of de-policing, much of it due to budget cuts, in the 1980s in Massachusetts. Deinstitutionalization led to a growing street population of homeless and mentally ill people who took up a disproportionate amount of police resources.

“Fast forward to 2021, we are de-policing again,” he said. “Cops are leaving on their own. Budgets are being cut. We are decriminalizing behavior, led by DAs who refuse to put bad actors in jail. In our effort to deal with racial disparities that put so many people in jail, we forget that some people are violent and deserve to be in jail.”

Advertisement



Ever the optimist, he believes things will swing back toward the center.

As for Boston, he believes the next commissioner should be from outside the department. Call it di Grazia redux, after Bob di Grazia, an outsider who changed the BPD culture and empowered a whole new generation of leaders who didn’t come up through a strict chain of command, among them Bratton, a Dorchester native who started as a Boston patrolman in 1970.

“I stay out of Boston politics,” Bratton said. “But there’s a time for outside leadership, and this is that time. The idea of a mayor picking a name out of a hat is over. The desire to have a minority or a woman is fine, but the other desire should be to have someone who can get the job done, whoever they are.”

Not that he’s looking for the Boston job. Or any job.

“I’m 73, almost 74,” he said. “As successful as I’ve been, I would not have the same energy level. They say never say never. But I think I am done.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.