Will Bill Bratton's Resignation Slow Down the Militarization of the NYPD? Not Likely
NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, a key architect of “broken windows” policing who hyped so-called terror threats to wrangle big buys of military-style gear, announced Tuesday that he is stepping down from his position as the most powerful law enforcement figure in the country.
The revelation came as protesters staged an occupation of City Hall Park demanding that Bratton step down. Meanwhile, the FBI is launching an investigation into police corruption in the top ranks of the NYPD and federal prosecutors are considering charges for the police killing of Eric Garner. Grassroots organizations immediately celebrated the ouster.
"Bratton's resignation is a huge win for the NYC grassroots movement that, for years, has been fighting for the NYPD commissioner to be fired and an end to Broken Windows policing,” said the group Millions March NYC, which emerged in 2014 to protest the non-indictment of the police officer who killed Garner.
“No one in City Hall is going to acknowledge that Bill Bratton is leaving for any reason other than his own personal choice,” Josmar Trujillo, an organizer with New Yorkers Against Bratton, told AlterNet. “But it is no coincidence that pressure has been put on him for years, most recently at City Hall, and he is wildly unpopular with people of color. His continuation was always tense in the streets because of what his tactics did to people of color.”
Bratton offered few details about his departure, which is slated for September following his two-and-a-half-year stint, announcing that he is taking a job in the public sector but refusing to name the company. However, Teneo Holdings, which describes itself as a “global CEO advisory firm,” announced Tuesday that Bratton will join as “senior managing director and executive chairman of Teneo Risk. Teneo Risk is a new division of the firm focused on advising clients on key risk identification, prevention and response.”
Bratton’s career includes extensive ties with the private sector, and a laundry list of apparent conflicts of interest. When he first took the helm of the NYPD, Bratton had just left the board of ShotSpotter, a Silicon Valley technology company that tracks the location of gunshots. In 2015, the NYPD announced it would spend roughly $1.5 million annually on using the system in its own force.
Perhaps the most enduring aspect of Bratton’s legacy is his aggressive push to militarize the NYPD by exploiting the massacre at the LGBTQ Pulse Club in Orlando and the sniper killing of five Dallas police officers. In late July, Bratton teamed up with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio to raise the alarm over the supposed “war on cops” and threat of terrorism to justify spending at least another $7.5 million on military-style gear.
"You name it, we are buying it,” he told reporters of the purchase, which included 20,000 ballistic helmets and 6,000 heavy ballistic vests. “There’s not a police department in America that’s spending as much money, as much thought and interest on this issue of officer safety."
Bratton’s Swan Song
Speaking July 27 at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado, Bratton took this strategy to new heights by invoking the supposed threat of ISIS-style terrorism to make the case that the “war on cops” presents a similar danger to public safety. In the same breath, he implied that Black Lives Matter protests are escalating the threat by contributing to the largely discredited “Ferguson effect.”
“For 12 years after 9/11, the principle threat as we know it was Al Qaeda,” he said, adding that “ISIS really came onto the stage as Al Qaeda went backstage.” He continued, “And the threat picture isn’t just the world of radical Islamic threats—Al Qaeda and ISIS—we are now seeing that there are attacks on police officers, that’s a new element.”
Yet Bratton’s claim that the so-called war on cops presents a new danger is not backed up by data. According to a report released in 2014 by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, the number of police officers shot and killed on the job has steadily declined since the 1970s. The Fund determined that, in 2015, the number of police officers killed by gunfire in the line of duty declined by 14 percent, with 42 shot to death and 52 killed in traffic-related events.
In contrast, police killings of the citizens they are entrusted to serve are alarmingly high. In 2016 so far, 625 people have been killed by police, a disproportionate number of them black and indigenous, according to the calculations of the Guardian. In 2015, at least 1,134 people were killed by police, with young African-American men nine times more likely to be killed, the Guardian determined.
Bratton went on to argue that Black Lives Matter protests pose a threat to public safety. “The challenge for us now in law enforcement,” he said, “certainly on the federal level on the intelligence side, is the multiplicity of threats we have to deal with: terrorism; the idea of the whole racial issue in the country at the moment that’s generating so much discussion, tension, frustration; the large number of emotionally disturbed; the incredible number of firearms in this country contribute to a number of incidents.”
In making this statement, Bratton was referencing the debunked "Ferguson effect," a term popularized by St. Louis-area police, based on the false premise that protests against police brutality are hampering law enforcement and thereby driving a spike in violent crime and murder. In fact, according to a June 2015 report by the Sentencing Project, there is no credible evidence that a “new crime wave” exists at all. And researchers Ames Grawert and James Cullen at the Brennan Center for Justice, affiliated with the New York University School of Law, recently noted, “Crime has been declining for 25 years, and 2015 gave no reason to believe the trend is over. There is no crime wave building just over the horizon.”
Despite the absence of evidence, it is now commonplace for police and intelligence officials to reference the Ferguson effect, with FBI director James Comey proclaiming in May that the “viral video effect” is hampering police working and driving a spike in crime. Similar to the war-on-cops narrative, the myth of the Ferguson effect has been used to justify repression of First Amendment-protected protests for racial justice and an escalation in aggressive policing practices.
Feeding a Climate of Hate
Bratton’s comments must be considered in the context of the larger political climate, inflamed by Donald Trump-style hate, in which it is increasingly common for public officials, employees and first responders to openly declare war on the Black Lives Matter movement.
One of the most brazen mouthpieces of this perspective is Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke, who recently spoke at the Republican National Convention and once proclaimed that Black Lives Matter will “join forces” with the Islamic State.
On July 18, Clarke wrote an article titled, “This is a war, and Black Lives Matter is the enemy,” in which he argued: “We have several forces internal and external attacking our rule of law: ISIS, Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street—just the most recent iterations of the elements who brand themselves as unique but seek the same revolutionary aim: take down the West, the philosophy of equality before the law, and replace it with their authority, their rules, their hate.”
In contrast to Clarke, Bratton is a darling of the Democratic Party and was even offered a primetime speaking spot at the DNC, but appeared to decline that invitation to attend the Aspen conference. However, some are concerned that Bratton has merely been serving up a more palatable version of Clarke’s war-on-protesters mentality.
The NYPD commissioner counts some of the most powerful figures in the Democratic Party among his allies. When President Barack Obama recently attempted to reduce federal funding for a controversial “counter-terror” training program called the Urban Areas Security Initiative, Bratton publicly condemned the effort, claiming that the cuts would cripple the NYPD’s abilities to fight terrorism. Senator Chuck Schumer and Mayor Bill de Blasio joined Bratton in forcefully opposing the cuts, even though the UASI program has financed some of the worst examples of police overreach, from SWAT teams to fusion centers. Hillary Clinton, who at the time was declaring her support for police demilitarization and reform, supported Bratton’s request for counter-terrorism funding. "We need it. We need it, I want it,” Clinton said of UASI funding in an April interview with reporters for the New York Daily News.
Undoubtedly, Bratton will bring these relationships with him to the private sector. Meanwhile, New Yorkers will be forced to contend with the ongoing impacts of his legacy, including his successor, NYPD Chief of Department James O'Neill.
For this reason, grassroots groups are continuing their occupation even after the announcement of Bratton’s resignation.
“Bratton's removal is but one part of the first of our three demands—ending the racist practice of Broken Windows policing is the second,” said Millions March NYC. “Our remaining two demands include: reparations for all survivors and victims of racist police brutality; and the NYPD be defunded so that resources can then be reinvested into black, brown, and working-class communities.”
According to the Police Reform Organizing Project, “it’s not time, though, to pop the champagne bottles yet. Not until NYC abandons Bratton-styled ‘Broken Windows’ policing that every day targets low-income people of color for engaging in minor infractions that have been virtually decriminalized in white communities.”