Infamous Police Officer Ends Tainted Career

Russell Jaffe, Contributing Writer

Commissioner Bill Bratton of the New York City Police Department officially retired Sept. 16, in order to “pursue other opportunities” in the private sector. The self-proclaimed “top cop in America” is widely considered to be one of the most influential and controversial officers in policing history, leaving behind an ominous legacy affecting both the future of the justice system and our basic constitutional rights. Now, with the police facing more scrutiny than ever before, the public has finally begun to realize just how far Bratton may have overstepped his bounds. The question that remains is what sort of impact his legacy will leave — and what comes next.

Bratton was a strong believer in the widely debated “broken windows” theory, which advocates strict enforcement of minor crimes like loitering and jaywalking in order to create an atmosphere of lawfulness, preventing larger crimes. In practice, however, broken windows policing has become nothing more than an excuse for racial profiling, discrimination against the poor and overcriminalization. For example, in his memoir, Bratton recounts an incident in which he saw a panhandler on a subway. Offended that a needy person would ask for money, Bratton violently lashed out and “gave the guy the heave-ho,” literally tossing the poor man off the train at the first stop.

Additionally, Bratton is often hailed as the architect of stop and frisk, a policing technique that allows officers to detain, search and interrogate random pedestrians without a warrant or consent. Unfortunately, these suspects are completely innocent almost nine times out of ten, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Even more troubling, stop and frisks disproportionately target minorities, with over 80 percent of suspects being Black or Latinx, according to a 2015 study by the NYCLU. This sort of discrimination consistently stained Bratton’s work and eventually came to a head with the tragic 2014 homicide of Eric Garner by NYPD officers.

Bratton stuck by his unethical tactics and fanatically promoted the war on drugs, all while claiming that he did not target based on race. However, his tactics contributed to nation-wide selective enforcement that greatly increases the arrest rate of minorities. According to the NAACP, African Americans are sent to prison 10 times as often as whites in the U.S., despite the fact that five times as many white people were found to use drugs. As a result of uneven enforcement, faulty data is often cited to defend broken windows theory, or to discredit movements like Black Lives Matter that call for increased fairness and accountability among the police.

In the past, Bratton’s supporters have often defended his actions by claiming that his methods, regardless of whether or not they were problematic, still helped in overseeing a vast reduction of crime in New York City. Sadly, thanks to his broken windows tactics, the majority of his efforts were focused on non-violent offenses such as marijuana possession and panhandling. He continued to attack these “quality of life” offenses even after a 2015 report was released by Department of Investigation’s NYPD Inspector General Philip Eure, stating that the NYPD Office of Inspector General’s analysis “found no empirical evidence demonstrating a clear and direct link between an increase in summons and misdemeanor arrest activity and a related drop in felony crime.” This data speaks for itself: Bratton may have technically reduced crime, but the city is not necessarily a safer place for it. His retirement thus presents a turning point: Our justice department must make the choice to learn from Bratton’s mistakes or to repeat them.

If there is anything in Bratton’s legacy that is actually worth being proud of, it is almost certainly the fact that he has forced the U.S. to seriously think about the standards to which we should hold our police officers. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves whether we want a police force that is lawful, respected and effective or a repeat of Bratton’s ignorant mistakes. Now that he is finally retiring, the sun is rising on a new day for the NYPD. One would hope that this will allow the police to finally move on from outdated methods and ideas to a future where the innocent no longer need to fear the officers appointed to protect them.