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Crime Dropped In New York Under William Bratton's Tenure


As Joel mentioned, one reason Bratton became a household name was the remarkable drop in crime rates in New York starting in the mid-1990s. New York today has one-fourth the number of murders it had when Bratton first took the job as commissioner. Joining us now to talk about Bratton's legacy is NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste. And Martin, first, just how much did William Bratton actually have to do with that decline in crime?

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Well, Audie, that's a frequent and very sort of heated topic of conversation among people who study crime and crime trends in policing. Both Bratton and the people who defend him - and there are quite a few - say that he really had a lot to do with it. They talk about his early and insistent enthusiasm for the broken windows idea.

You may recall this concept came out of an article written in the 1980s which basically said that if you let small things go in a neighborhood - broken windows or, say, you know, loitering or small acts of vandalism - that eventually more serious crime takes root, that criminals feel emboldened. And so the idea is start cracking down the little stuff and the big stuff follows.

He really embraced that, and right after he took over as commissioner in New York, the number of arrests for misdemeanors just took off. And to this day, there are triple the number of misdemeanor arrests in New York compared to 1980. I mean complete change of emphasis on the little stuff.

Now, whether or not people embrace the idea that broken windows is crucial to bringing down bigger crime, you have to admit that all those arrests and all that police intervention does affect what happens on the street.

CORNISH: So you're saying whether or not, but it sounds like the broken windows approach, in some respects, worked.

KASTE: Well, it certainly took a lot of people off the streets. There is a sense among - a lot of criminologists study this - that there was sort of an early cohort of people who were arrested and put away who really were causing a lot of trouble but then that there was sort of a sense of diminishing returns, that the more people you arrested, the less benefit you got. So there's a sense there that there was a good impact to begin with, but they kept pushing it and pushing it.

And there's a question about whether that really kept having the effect that they claim because some people say there was also broad demographic change going at that time, that the baby boomers were getting too old to commit crimes. The economy was getting better, and it could be also that Bratton was just the right man in the right place at the right time, and he sort of rode the wave of just improving social conditions. So there's a sense here that somehow he may have been part of a process, but he may not have been a sole cause there.

CORNISH: Over the course of his career, he moved through many big cities, whether it's Boston, New York, Los Angeles. Can you talk about whether he shook up those departments?

KASTE: He certainly tried to be a big, visible presence wherever he took over. He really wanted to be the face of change. He would come in. He would make waves. He'd make videos of himself talking about new policies. I would say he was open to new ideas. I don't think he was ideological in terms of one approach or another. He was open to what seemed to work or what might be a new good idea.

But he also very much thought that you had to brand change, and that also made him enemies. I mean he liked to take credit, frankly, for improvements or promise things that the mayor would like to promise. He got into trouble with Rudy Giuliani in New York and ultimately left because of that. He told Newsday famously, you know, I will end the fear in 1996, and there is a sense that the mayor didn't like the fact that Bratton was taking credit for ending crime, that the police commissioner should probably be a little more deferential to the mayor on things like that.

CORNISH: You've been on this beat a long time. You've been watching this particular figure a long time. What do you think William Bratton's legacy is going to be?

KASTE: Well, what's interesting about Bratton is that, you know, when you look at his record, he actually was commissioner of the New York Police Department for only about five years - a couple of years in the '90s and now under Bill de Blasio. And yet we associate him with the New York Police Department, and that's I think in part because he's so good at promoting himself, frankly. He markets himself very well. We associate him very closely with those policies of the 1990s, that change in policing, the move towards broken windows policing and stop-and-frisk - that kind of thing.

And now that some of our attitudes towards that have curdled a little bit - you know, there's more pushback. There's more accusations about racial profiling and overly aggressive policing. That's also on him a little bit. And so in the last few years, he's been trying very actively to sort of curate his legacy, to soften some of those ideas. He has backed off from stop-and-frisk.

And there's a sense here that he's very interested in making sure that the Bratton name associated with this change in policing in America is, you know - is not besmirched by kind of the tension we're going through now.

CORNISH: Martin Kaste covers law enforcement for NPR. Martin, thanks so much.

KASTE: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.