Is William Bratton Getting Too Much Credit for the Crime Reductions He Oversaw?

Categories: Crime

bill_bratton.jpg
William Bratton
There was controversy when Oakland announced that it would hire William Bratton -- former police chief in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles -- to help improve the city's police department. For the most part, the controversy took two forms.

Firstly, there was the issue that cash-strapped Oakland would be paying Bratton $125,000. More lasting, though, there was the fact that Bratton was the architect for the stop-and-frisk policing strategy, which has been criticized for encouraging racial profiling.

The success itself was unquestioned. Bratton's past effectiveness, in fact, is the core of his narrative. He is legendary for the way he single-handedly, so the story goes, cleaned up NYC -- a tale cemented in Malcom Gladwell's Tipping Point.

The Oakland Tribune noted that Bratton is "is best known for significantly reducing crime while at the helm of the nation's two biggest municipal police departments."

The San Jose Mercury News explained:

During his seven years in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2009, Bratton oversaw a 45 percent drop in major crimes and a 41 percent drop in homicides. His tenure in New York City from 1994-96 also coincided with double-digit crime drops.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that Bratton "gained a reputation for innovative and aggressive tactics while heading police departments in New York and Los Angeles -- cities where crime rates fell under his tenure."

But perhaps Bratton's role in that crime reductions merits further scrutiny. His mythology began in the mid-'80s when he became head of New York City Transit Police Department. He adopted the "Broken Windows Theory" as the basis for his new policies. That theory, introduced by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, states that cracking down on minor quality-of-life infractions creates a ripple effect that reduces more serious crimes. The more broken windows in a neighborhood, the theory argues, the more likely that people are willing to break more windows. He became NYC's police chief in 1994, applied Broken Windows, and the city experienced a historic drop in crime rates. Then he went to L.A. and brought the same results.

But there is more to the crime drop that doesn't get mentioned in the narrative.

Yes, crime rates in NYC and L.A. dropped significantly under Bratton's watch. What gets less play, though, is a simple truth: Between 1991 and 2013, America experienced a drastic, coast-to-coast decline in crime.

In 1991, the national violent crime rate reached 758.2 incidents per 100,000 people. It was the highest rate since people first started keeping track in 1960.

Every year after that the crime rate dropped. By 2011, the violent crime rate had dropped to 386.3, the lowest since 1970. In Bratton's six years as a law enforcement leader in New York, the national crime rate dipped by around 13 percent. Over his eight years as LAPD chief, the national crime rate decreased by around 14 percent (far less than the reduction in Bratton's L.A.).

Criminologists have cited a host of reasons for this overall decline. Punishments became tougher, and more criminals, even low-level ones, were sent to prison. Gun control laws strengthened. The number of police officers increased in most metropolitan cities. The population was aging. Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt, authors of Freakonimics, theorized that the legalization of abortion post-Roe v. Wade resulted in fewer children being born into poverty. And on top of all that, the Clinton-era economy experienced a massive surge, meaning more jobs available to people who may have otherwise turned to crime.

That's not to say that Bratton was not an innovative mind. Nor is it to deny that his ideas helped accelerate the public safety trend. However, the decade's socioeconomic climate does induce questions over whether Bratton's status as a policing genius is exaggerated -- a media-constructed mythology.

We still don't know how much of Bratton's success was caused by his policies, or how much was caused by all the other factors that drove crime down in cities where he did not work. Nor do we know how much he drove the crime reduction versus how much his legacy was a product of environmental circumstances. Of course, when you're paying $125,000 for a consultant, you've gotta hope that it's the former.



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