High hopes for Bratton's NYPD, but "hope's" just a word

As we welcome a new mayor and police commissioner, let's not celebrate progressive promises alone

Published January 3, 2014 1:30PM (EST)

William Bratton's first stint as NYPD commissioner -- from 1994 to 1996 under Mayor Giuliani -- was no paradise for racial harmony in the city. Yes, crime rates markedly decreased but, as I've noted before, Bratton's enactment of broken windows theory policing paved the ground for the type of law enforcement (well-entrenched in the Bloomberg-era NYPD) that treats young minority groups as threats and targets.

As we welcomed in 2014, Bratton was sworn in to his second stint as commissioner with a mandate, emphasized specifically by new Mayor Bill de Blasio, to repair the relationship between the NYPD and New York's black, Latino and Muslim communities following a low, dishonest decade of racist policing. In a 2012 book co-written by Bratton, the veteran top cop coined the phrase "collaborative policing" -- the idea that effective policing required working with the policed communities. As the Wall Street Journal's Pervaiz Shallwani noted Thursday, however, "It remains to be seen if collaborative policing is an empty catch phrase or an effective strategy. An early test of whether it works could come as Mr. Bratton decides how to employ 'stop-and-frisk.'"

Mayor de Blasio's role here will be crucial. As the Nation's David A. Harris rightly pointed out, his "first step should be to drop the appeal of Floyd v. City of New York, a move he promised to make many times on the campaign trail." The Floyd decision found the police department's stop-and-frisk tactics unconstitutional and discriminatory, but a fierce pushback from the Bloomberg administration and the police unions saw Judge Shira Scheindlin's decision appealed and the federal judge removed from the case.

Bratton -- in a somewhat promising sign -- has agreed to greater NYPD oversight. His force will be overseen by an independent inspector general and possibly also a court-appointed monitor (among Scheindlin's suggestions, that would go through if de Blasio keeps his word and drops the Floyd appeal). Bratton would then have to work with the federal monitor, Peter Zimroth, to make sure changes called for in the ruling are enacted.

Elections, appointments and signing-ins are fantastic moments for posturing and promising. Many civil liberties and community groups have expressed hope in de Blasio and Bratton's progressive promises to mend the gaping wound caused by Bloomberg-era policing. But -- and Bob Dylan said this long before "hope" seemed an adequate campaign platform for a president in 2008 -- "hope's just a word." The fight to end the NYPD's quota-driven, institutionalized racial profiling has only just begun. Bill "broken windows" Bratton is an unlikely candidate to lead the vanguard against profile-based policing. He was, after all, also the one of the key figures to introduce data-driven policing; another major factor in law enforcement's increasing focus on minor, low-level crime and poor, minority neighborhoods.

As Ingrid Burrington pointed out in an excellent piece on Bratton and the future of New York policing, there is reason for concern about Bratton's "data evangelism" and faith in predictive policing models:

Predictive policing justifies tactics like mass surveillance of people based solely on things like where they live, the color of their skin, or what they believe. It's also worth considering who stands to turn a profit with the rise of predictive policing--including Bratton himself, who makes considerable profit from his consulting work and is on the board of both police department contractor Motorola and gunshot-detection system company ShotSpotter (which received a $12 million investment from Motorola in 2012).

In light of recent NYPD history, I have no qualms playing the ghost at the feast as Bratton and de Blasio take the helm. I'm pleased that both men seem committed to undoing some of Bloomberg and Kelly's worst, most racist legacies (for which Kelly remains unapologetic), but I'll hold my applause until young black and brown men are no longer systematically harassed by New York's "finest."

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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