Among those with reputations deemed “untouchable,” we often think to organized crime figures or mysterious men in smoke-filled rooms. The recent national conversation on American policing has forced many of us to begin to see law enforcement in much the same way. With police officers continuously escaping punishment or reprisal for their roles in abuse of power, up to and including the taking of a life, the police badge shields those who wear it, making them “untouchable” in their own right.
The power of American policing stretches further than non-indictments or acquittals for individual cops. J. Edgar Hoover once enjoyed a similar reputation to those in the shadowy world of the Mafia that he helped to prosecute. Hoover, the former FBI director, who expanded the agency’s power and scope so much that sitting U.S. presidents feared his wrath, is remembered for the power he wielded until his death in 1972. In New York, we have witnessed a similar trajectory with our two-time police commissioner, Bill Bratton.
Bratton leaves this week after nearly three years of virtually unchecked political power and influence. Mayor Bill de Blasio, who brought Bratton back, I believe, as a signal of continuity for business and real estate interests wary of police reform, was often the Robin to Bratton’s Batman. Despite growing criticism of Bratton’s famed “Broken Windows” policing theory (including by the Department of Investigations), de Blasio fawned over his police commissioner. Caving in to a standoff with a City Council that had fought to gift Bratton another thousand extra cops to the NYPD’s already massive headcount, the mayor added almost 1,300 cops to the city budget.
De Blasio appeared at times more hesitant to be out of lockstep with his police commissioner than vice versa. This hesitancy occurred at a time when police abuse dominated a soul-searching national debate over whether Black lives mattered. New York’s mayor deferred to a man who disparaged protesters, vilified those who recorded police and embraced the racially inflammatory Moynihan report—a report anthologizing Black family structures that was controversial even in the 1960s when it was released. Bratton’s flippant comments never cost him politically, though. Even a huge corruption scandal involving top NYPD supervisors was essentially swept under the rug, with none losing their jobs. There was simply no will to hold the Police Department, including its leader, accountable. In some ways this circumstance was a marked change from Bratton’s tenure under Giuliani, which ended with Bratton being run out of town. Bratton’s political brand had grown as he’d seemingly grown comfortable, despite his popularity among conservatives, working with a supportive Democratic establishment.
Things shouldn’t have been so rosy for America’s top cop. Beginning with the protest-sparking death of Eric Garner at the hands of a (still-employed) Staten Island cop, an interaction born from his cherished policing philosophy, Broken Windows, the second Bratton era was mired in controversy. Other high-profile incidents resonated with the country’s racial crisis: Akai Gurley, an unarmed father killed by a rookie cop while taking public housing stairs in Brooklyn. There was David Felix, a Haitian immigrant with mental health issues, killed by two detectives who chased him into his supportive housing room on the Lower East Side. And there was the oft-forgotten case of Jerome Murdough, who baked to death in his Rikers Island cell after landing there courtesy of East Harlem cops who arrested the homeless military veteran for the high crime of sleeping in a housing staircase.
Such was the power of Bratton that he took all these scandals in stride. He, like beat cops who routinely avoid jail, is an untouchable. This power is partly because of the credit that is mistakenly bestowed upon him by political and media circles who insist his policing strategies made New York City better and safer. There is still no evidence that Broken Windows created the famous crime decline in the city that began in the 90s. In fact, it’s a scandal in and of itself that such far-reaching public policy, one that encompasses hundreds of thousands of yearly police interactions, is based on a theory that isn’t strongly backed by research. Worse yet is what we do know about Broken Windows: It routinely criminalizes the homeless, subway performers, immigrant street vendors and poor people of color more broadly.
Perhaps the most important factor in Bratton’s Teflon Don status was the ease at which he handled the media. After announcing his retirement, all three of the editorial boards for the major city newspapers immediately praised Bratton, with little to no regard for those crushed under the weight of his policies. A story in The New York Times about the incoming police commissioner, James O’Neill, included detailed descriptions of Bratton’s tie collection. That sort of lapdog (as opposed to watchdog) media tendency was the norm for Bratton’s 32 months in office under de Blasio. The media drank the Kool-Aid, as someone remarked to me, and it was Bratton who was pouring it.
The Bratton legacy represents the evolution of a modern law enforcement approach to power. Rather than exercising hard power like Hoover or Alabama’s infamous Bull Connor, Bratton mastered the public relations side of policing, putting Democrats and reporters in his jacket pocket for his second go-round as New York’s police commissioner—leaving untouched despite a trail of controversy in his rear-view mirror.