William Bratton and the NYPD
Crime Control through Middle Management Reform
Andrea R. Nagy1 Joel Podolny2
William Bratton, commissioner of the New York Police Department from 1994 to 1996, presided over a dramatic decline in the city’s crime rate. Hired by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as part of a new crime fighting initiative, Bratton embraced the “broken windows” theory that had made him so successful as chief of the city’s transit police. According to this theory, when a community ignores small offenses such as a broken window on a parked car, larger offenses such as burglary, robbery, and assault inevitably follow. Conversely, serious crime can be prevented if a community polices the little things, the “quality-of-life” offenses such as vandalism, graffiti, panhandling, public urination, prostitution, and noise. This theory had been discussed and partially implemented in the city of New York since the 1980s, but it was Bratton who fully executed it. Bratton realized this vision through two main strategies. First, he decentralized the bureaucracy, giving more authority to precinct commanders. Each precinct was made into a miniature police department, with the commander authorized to assign officers according to the needs of the neighborhood, and to crack down on police corruption in his precinct. Second, Bratton increased the precinct commander’s accountability. Through an automated tracking system called Compstat, Bratton monitored the time, type, and location of crimes in each precinct on a weekly basis. Commanders were summoned to monthly meetings and questioned about increases or aberrations in crime in their precincts. They were called to account for enforcing quality-of-life offenses and were rewarded for decreases in crime. The response to Bratton’s changes was immediate. Crime rates plummeted, and morale skyrocketed. Bratton was credited with transforming the structure and culture of the NYPD in a way that had never been done before. In addition, he was praised by many in the press for proving that crime was not an intractable fact of modern life but rather a problem that could be solved. But the ensuing years also revealed some risks associated with the Bratton reforms. The push to bring down crime rates had the unintended consequence of encouraging unscrupulous officers to fabricate statistics. The Compstat meetings sometimes became so demanding that morale was harmed. The department also faced charges that it had encouraged overly aggressive policing. The cases of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo in the late 1990s raised questions of whether Bratton’s methods had cut crime at the cost of increasing abuse.
Policing in the 20th Century: Corruption and Reform
When Bratton came to the NYPD, he was part of a long tradition of police reform movements. The police have always been charged with the mission of preserving civil order while respecting civil rights, but early on a tension developed between these two objectives. When the police focused on preventing crime, they were tempted to become either too abusive or too involved with the criminals they were trying to prosecute. But if they focused on cleaning up their own corruption, they became timid in fighting crime. The history of policing shows recurring problems with abuse, corruption, and unresponsiveness, followed by concerted cleanup efforts. In New York City, in particular, the history of policing is also a history of reform. Founded in 1844, the NYPD quickly became entangled with the city’s vice industries and gangs. Officers were notorious for taking payoffs from gambling establishments and brothels, extorting legitimate businesses, and harassing immigrants. Every 20 years or so a corruption scandal would arise, and the city would respond by appointing a commission to investigate the charges. Beginning in the 1890s, six commissions were appointed over the years, but in spite of repeated investigations, there was...