American policing in the next decade: A conversation with Chief Bill Bratton

After more than 40 years of crime fighting, the only person to have led both NYPD and LAPD announced his retirement from law enforcement in October 2009

Editor’s Note: PoliceOne recently spoke with Chief Bill Bratton in an exclusive, one-on-one interview, and what follows is the first in an occasional series of articles stemming from that discussion. We’ll visit again with Chief Bratton in coming weeks, addressing some of the important strides being made in American law enforcement — as well as ongoing issues and challenges facing police officers and police agencies in the United States. We will also explore the ways in which Bratton’s company — Altegrity Risk International — may be of particular importance and interest to law enforcement agencies. But first, we wanted to speak with him about the next decade in policing as he sees it.

In October 2009, Chief Bill Bratton announced his retirement from law enforcement after more than four decades of service. Presently, Bratton serves as Chairman of Altegrity Risk International, a global company that provides investigative, analytic, consulting, and security services. The only person to have led the two largest police forces in the United States, Bratton’s police career began with his stint as a United States Army MP during the Vietnam war. Upon his return, Bratton joined the Boston Police Department, and in time move on to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, the New York City Transit Police, the New York Police Department, and finally, the Los Angeles Police Department. Bratton has held just about every rank imaginable — including Officer, Lieutenant, Superintendent, Commissioner, and Chief — and is also technically a Knight, having been given the honorary title of “Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire” only a couple of months before his November 2009 retirement.

Police1 recently spoke with Chief Bratton. What follows is the first in an occasional series of Q&A articles stemming from that exclusive, one-on-one interview.

PoliceOne: When you look back at your career in law enforcement, and apply that perspective to what is happening now and in coming years, what do you feel are the most important issues facing Chiefs, mid-level command staff, and officers out on patrol?

Then-otgoing Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton and an officer embrace as Bratton exits a ceremony held in his honro at police headquarters in late October 2009. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Then-otgoing Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton and an officer embrace as Bratton exits a ceremony held in his honro at police headquarters in late October 2009. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

Bill Bratton: I think contemporary law enforcement is really faced with the fallout of the recession. City after city is struggling and a lot of the gains that have been made in policing — increased police force size, increased benefits to attract quality people to the profession, advances in the technology, the equipment, the facilities, the forensics capabilities to deal with DNA — a lot of those gains are really in jeopardy in the moment.

PoliceOne: In the most extreme cases, in some areas that have typically been considered affluent and economically stable, with tax bases that ought to be able to support and sustain those advances, we’ve seen that entire departments have either folded or merged with neighboring PDs. At the same time, the biggest departments in the land are also struggling. What are some examples that you think about?

Bratton: New York City, with its counter-proposed budget, will have dropped from 41,000 officers down to around 34,000 officers this year, which brings them back to a 1990 staffing level. Los Angeles with 9,900 officers, because of cutbacks, budget is no longer paying off officers overtime — they are giving them comp time instead — and that effectively reduces the size of the force by almost 700 officers. They still have 9,900 because they are giving them so much time off in lieu of overtime.

That brings them back to levels when I was Chief in 2002. That type of decline is going to take years to make up for, in fact, because right now there is no sense that cities are going to be doing a turn-around in the near future. So as you look out over that ten-year period of time, the loss of personnel that we’re experiencing now make take almost a decade to recoup those losses, if in fact, some places ever do that.

The issue also is that there is so much that is available to help in crime fighting, crime prevention, reduction efforts that are available in this profession now — whether it is technology or forensics or any of those other advances — that will no longer be affordable to police agencies. So, it’s ironic that just as we are finding additional medicines to deal with the problem of crime, we can’t afford them. That’s going to hold us back also.

PoliceOne: Crime fighting tools — remedies to use your analogy — are in constant evolution in order to stay ahead of the criminals’ techniques, tools, and tactics. Those criminals — society’s ailment that cops are out there to defeat and bring to justice — are committing the same crimes they’ve been doing since the dawn of time. But added to the assaults, burglaries, robberies, rapes, and murders that officers deal with on a daily basis, are also new threats. Can you speak briefly to what cops out there are up against?

Bratton: Looking ten years out, the threat of terrorism is clearly not going away and while we have been very fortunate there has not been a successful effort since 9/11, every indication is that those attempts are going to increase, and in fact, that they will occur. One of the impacts of cutbacks in policing, funding, and resourcing is that many agencies have begun to — after 9/11 — focus resources onto that issue. But now, as they prioritize how they spend their resources, it’s not likely that many of them will continue to fund counterterrorism efforts, when in fact, there hasn’t been an attack in, what, going on nine years now. A lot a city governments are just not going to allow chiefs of police — although they might be desirous of that — to fund those types of efforts.

PoliceOne: Right, well the squeaky wheel is going to get the grease, and the squeaky wheel is increasing gang activity and the day-to-day of holdups of liquor stores and what have you — that is typical plague on our streets.

Bratton: Exactly. We also have the unresolved issue of violence in Mexico that escalated recently. So the potential of that spilling over the border becomes very real. That then compounds the immigration issue, which isn’t going away.

Remember, that decrease in funding over these next ten years — or certainly in the near term, in the next three to five years — is going to set us back significantly. The impact in overall crime numbers, we’ll have to wait and see. But we also have the additional pressure from the early release of prisoner that police work very hard to put in jail in the first place. States like California are talking tens of thousands of people coming back on the streets. There are no jobs. There is no narcotics treatment. So the likelihood is that many of these people will just go back and commit crime again, in times when there are fewer police.

An additional area that is apt to continue to grow in terms of crime, is cybercrime — something the police have always been ill-equipped to deal with. And once again, the squeaky wheel, the focus is going to have to be on the violent crime, it’s going to have to be on the street crime.

A lot of the cybercrime, which causes so much havoc in peoples lives will increasingly probably only be dealt with within the federal domain because police departments are just not going to have the resources — the personnel — or the sophistication, equipment, and technology to deal with that.

And we still have the issue of gangs. That is still very much problematic, although the violence associated with that — in L.A., for example — has declined fairly dramatically in the last seven or eight years. However, gangs are still a very real and growing potential for problems.

PoliceOne: Well, any decline in gang violence is good news, even if it is in only one area or one city. What else would you say is on the positive side of the ledger lately, as well as looking forward?

Bratton: Looking out of the next ten years, the good news is that we got a lot better in the last twenty years in terms of preventing crime — we know what to do about crime in many respects. And over the last 20 years, we have gotten much better at working with each other at the local, state, and federal levels. The Fusion Centers — particularly the all-crime fusion centers that came into being after 9/11 — are a significant step forward.

We are learning the benefits of sharing information among ourselves. I think that as departments face personnel issues, while at the same time no diminishing of issues that have to be addressed, the need to work cooperatively — the need to work in partnership and in task forces — is going to become more critical than ever.

The good news is that we have gotten much better at appreciating doing that over the last twenty years, in terms of the ability to overcome the “turf” or the parochialism that is so much a part of the history of American policing.

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