The Unnatural (and Possibly Doomed) Symbiosis Between Bills de Blasio and Bratton
Last month, shortly before the start of a T.I. concert at Irving Plaza, gunfire rang out. One man was killed and three others, including the rapper Troy Avenue, were wounded as more than a thousand panicked fans scattered at the Union Square music venue.
A day later, speaking on the radio, New York City's police commissioner thought he knew the real problem: All rappers are thugs. "The crazy world of the so-called rap artist, who are basically thugs that are basically celebrating the violence they lived all their lives. Unfortunately that violence often manifests itself during a performance, and that's exactly what happened last evening," Bill Bratton said. "The music unfortunately oftentimes celebrates violence, celebrates degradation of women, celebrates the drug culture."
Mayor Bill de Blasio, a progressive with biracial children — and the man who hired Bratton — scrambled to distance himself from the remarks without alienating his bulldog. The shooting was "an individual instance," de Blasio offered. "It's hard to generalize."
Bratton never apologized.
Of course, he didn't have to. The 68-year-old police commissioner can have his job as long as he wants it. Crime is low, people actually want to ride the subway, and he's got the mayor of New York City wrapped around his finger. He's revered in the law enforcement arena and therefore the political one. And even as de Blasio's popularity wilts from corruption investigations and a crippling failure to burnish his own image, the consensus of the New York cognoscenti is that he made at least one sound decision in hiring Bratton. De Blasio would readily agree: Any joint Bratton–de Blasio appearance is an exercise in asymmetrical flattery, with Bratton politely acknowledging his boss and the mayor fawning over his "visionary" and "extraordinary" commissioner.
But it is an odd and unnatural kind of symbiosis, despite City Hall's claims to the contrary. In de Blasio's New York, sensitivity to racial, cultural, and gender bias is supposed to color everything you do; in Bratton's, rappers are thugs, women need to use the buddy system to avoid rape, protesters can be blamed for the murder of police, and marijuana is responsible for the "vast majority" of violence.
Now, as the mayor faces a potentially challenging re-election campaign next year, he's in a catch-22 of his own devising: He resorted to Bratton to appease the whites who will never like him no matter what he does, but by bringing Bratton in, he's alienated the progressives and people of color who helped him win the mayoralty in the first place. The question for de Blasio becomes: Was Bratton worth it?
On June 20, three of Bratton's NYPD commanders, along with a de Blasio fundraiser, were arrested in a sprawling federal corruption bust charging them with accepting lavish gifts and patronizing a prostitute for group sex.
Two days later, the Office of the Inspector General for the NYPD released an 88-page report challenging "long-held assumptions" that cracking down on low-level offenses leads to decreases in serious crime; in one blow, it demolished the statistical basis underlying the so-called "broken windows" philosophy of policing that Bratton has used as the cornerstone of his career. (For more on the IG report and the NYPD's reaction to it, see Nick Pinto's cover story on "broken windows" policing.)
Bratton dismissed the report, and de Blasio dutifully backed him up, despite having supported the creation of an inspector general for the NYPD as a mayoral candidate in 2013. "We'd rather be cleaning up a mess than having crime numbers on the rise," says a source close to de Blasio. "The NYPD is its own country, its own island. And Bratton is in charge."
Bratton's reputation was built in New York, where he served as Republican Rudy Giuliani's police commissioner from 1994 to 1996 before being run out of town for hogging too many headlines. (He spent 2002 to 2009 as chief of the LAPD.) His fondness for data-driven innovation led to not only "broken windows" but also the creation of CompStat, the statistical system for tracking crime that became a catalyst for quota-driven policing. Bratton's tenure under Giuliani coincided with a national reduction in violent crime that made him look like a revolutionary.
Now he's back, and like another overly empowered bureaucrat, Robert Moses, Bratton can say and do what he pleases, operating on a wavelength of his own choosing. He doesn't need his bombast cleared by de Blasio's team. He can threaten to quit, like he did last July, and send City Hall into a panic. He is utterly free to be himself.
When de Blasio hired Bratton, it was a signal to the city's ruling elite, its centrist editorial boards, and its outer-borough whites that the new progressive Democratic mayor wouldn't veer too far to the left. It was an unspoken declaration that no one needed to worry about overly dramatic reform of the NYPD — and that the activists on the left who, however briefly, cheered on the mayor would no longer be a priority.
"Bratton was the only selection he could've made that the broader business community would have seen as a fitting successor to [Michael Bloomberg's commissioner] Ray Kelly," said Kathryn Wylde, the president of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit representing the city's most influential businesses and corporations. "The message throughout the campaign had been keenly anti-police, so there was huge trepidation that the rule of law and order in the city was going to evaporate under de Blasio."
Wylde told the Voice that Bratton was the first de Blasio administration official her group met with after the mayor was sworn in. "Bratton's appointment was a very big deal," she said. As one prominent real estate developer put it, hiring Bratton showed de Blasio's colleagues that he "wasn't some Sandinista hippie."
"De Blasio has always been transactional," the developer said. "He's happy to cut the deal."
That kind of appeasement is just part of politics, said former Public Advocate Mark Green, who was defeated by Bloomberg in the 2001 mayoral election. Green considers Bratton a "neocon" but nevertheless lauded de Blasio for bringing him back. "The mayor didn't hire Bratton for his views on Black Lives Matter or social policy, since that's not in a [police commissioner's] portfolio," Green told the Voice. "Bratton gets to do what he loves, and do it well, and de Blasio's white support doesn't collapse into the mid-teens."
De Blasio is at great pains to stress Bratton's reformist credentials, pointing to the seemingly myriad ways his NYPD is different from Kelly's: Stop-and-frisks have been curtailed; cops are being retrained, and more of them will be wearing body cameras. A community policing program is being implemented, and carrying 25 grams of marijuana or less is no longer an arrestable offense.
Yet de Blasio might be the only high-profile liberal ever to swear allegiance to "broken windows" policing. And despite his mayoral campaign's vowing a clean break from the Bloomberg years, de Blasio has offered more continuity than disruption, which has disillusioned his progressive base.
"When de Blasio was elected and named Bratton as police commissioner, I think that immediately created a lot of suspicion and almost cynicism of what we could expect from the de Blasio administration," said Mark Winston Griffith, the executive director of the Brooklyn Movement Center, a community organization focused on central Brooklyn. "He was seen as a progressive mayor and had strong words on police reform. Hiring Bratton signaled something different, for many of us."
Bratton has forestalled the profound change police reformers want to see. Officers can keep their jobs after killing unarmed black people; the men who were at least partially responsible for the deaths of Eric Garner and Ramarley Graham are still drawing paychecks; the police chokehold that led to Garner's death is still permitted in certain instances, according to the NYPD's new guidelines. Meanwhile, at great cost to taxpayers and to the lives of mostly young men of color, aggressive enforcement continues for fare-beating, drinking from an open container, and other "broken windows" offenses, even as de Blasio has moved to make some of them civil rather than criminal penalties. And while de Blasio touted his move last year to hire 1,300 new cops as a way to heal divisions between minorities and the police, no activist in the sprawling reform movement asked for more cops in their neighborhood.
"One way to think about it is, you have a house that's just breaking down. The entire internal structure is very fragile or broken, the plumbing doesn't work, the beams are rotting, and what the house needs is a complete redo," said Robert Gangi, the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project. "And what the elected officials have done...is basically given it a paint job."
"If the police commissioner goes on the radio in the morning and calls rappers 'thugs' and the mayor has to go clean that up in the afternoon, you've got a problem," said Michael Skolnik, a prominent civil rights activist. "Fix it. Get rid of him."
"There's blood on many hands tonight," the head of the Patrolmen's Benevolent Association, Patrick Lynch, said outside Woodhull Hospital in Brooklyn. "That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor."
It was the night of December 20, 2014, and a mentally unhinged man had just murdered two police officers in Bedford-Stuyvesant before killing himself. By the time of Lynch's tirade, de Blasio was already in trouble with the department: A few weeks earlier, in what others called a brave and legacy-defining moment of candor, he had spoken publicly about advising his biracial son to exercise caution in his interactions with law enforcement. Cops saw that speech as a betrayal, one compounded by the mayor's tolerance of the protests over the failure of a Staten Island grand jury to indict the officer who choked Garner to death.
At the hospital, officers turned their backs on de Blasio. They would do so again during the funerals of both officers.
It was a chilling moment for the mayor. And Bratton did not help. "It's quite apparent, quite obvious, that the targeting of these two police officers was a direct spin-off of this issue of these demonstrations," Bratton said two days after the murders. De Blasio couldn't agree with his commissioner's absurd contention, but he begged the police reform protesters to leave the streets. Since then, he's mostly stopped talking about his Afro'd son's experience in New York City.
If de Blasio had any chance of winning police over — and if he ever had any hope of fulfilling the progressive dream of a revamped, demilitarized police force — it was lost then. The battle lines were drawn.
The de Blasio administration and other boosters argue that Bratton's remarkable experience and expertise are worth whatever headaches come from his words. "The numerous steps we have taken — and will continue to take — to deepen the NYPD's bond with the community reflect this administration's clear commitment to fair and respectful policing across our city," said Monica Klein, a de Blasio spokeswoman.
Bratton's power only grows as time goes on. City Hall aides know they can't even suggest messing with the police commissioner as long as crime remains at historical lows and Bratton gobbles up credit, even if there's little academic consensus over why crime dramatically declined nationwide over the past two decades. And if there were a significant uptick in shootings or stabbings, it's pretty clear where the blame would fall, at least as far as the tabloids are concerned. In the midst of the current corruption debacle, one Post headline read: "NYPD Corruption Scandal Leads Straight to de Blasio."
When de Blasio runs for re-election next year, he will need the support of the same people who got him to City Hall — African Americans and progressive whites. And he will have to answer for Bratton when he's trudging around southeast Queens, or Bed-Stuy, or Canarsie. He'll have to account for a police commissioner's Trumpian slurs about "so-called rap artists" being "basically thugs." And he will have to explain why his NYPD — Bratton's NYPD — can't fire the officer who choked Eric Garner to death.
At the same time, he'll need progressive whites to get over their resentment. He is miserably unpopular with whites overall — in a May Quinnipiac University poll, only 27 percent viewed him favorably — and anecdotal evidence suggests he's losing his grip on upscale liberal enclaves like the Upper West Side. Given those grim trends, if a Democrat emerges to channel the anger and frustration of those who expected more from the "tale of two cities" mayor, de Blasio will have a fight on his hands. A challenge from someone like City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a progressive Democrat who hasn't earned Caucasian antipathy, could damage him.
Beating an incumbent is not easy. De Blasio isn't as enfeebled as David Dinkins, nor as diminished as Abe Beame; he's no John Lindsay, a besieged Manhattan liberal trying to be a mayor for black people in an ailing city still dominated by white ethnics.
Maybe de Blasio will hang on. And maybe Bratton will be treated as the conquering hero he imagines himself to be.
Either way, the end of this relationship, whenever it comes, will be on Bill Bratton's terms.