Can an American Supercop Help Clean Up London's Streets?

  • Share
  • Read Later
Branimir Kvartuc / AP

Bill Bratton, then chief of the Los Angeles police department, speaks to the media in L.A. on May 3, 2007

Bill Bratton has made a career out of busting up gangs. Which is probably what makes the former top cop at police departments in Boston, New York City and Los Angeles an appealing source of advice for British Prime Minister David Cameron. Four days of looting and riots by unruly mobs in London last week left public trust shaken. And Cameron needs to restore that trust in the next 10 months, before London hosts the 2012 Summer Olympics.

That's where Bratton comes in. "We should be looking beyond our shores to learn the lessons from others who have faced similar problems," Cameron told a special session of Parliament, convened to address the riots, on Aug. 11. "That is why I will be discussing how we can go further in getting to grips with gangs with people like Bill Bratton."

During his tenure heading three major American police departments — Boston from 1993 to '94, New York City from 1994 to '96 and Los Angeles from 2002 to '09 — Bratton, 63, drastically reduced crime rates and won particular praise for his handling of gangs. It is in this area that he will try to help the British government in the coming months. "All these thugs and knuckleheads running wild in London this week, you can't excuse away that behavior. I'm a progressive, but on crime I'm very tough," Bratton tells TIME. His record speaks for itself.

In New York City, working under Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bratton introduced a zero-tolerance policy called broken windows. Police began cracking down on public drunks, potheads, aggressive panhandlers, graffiti scribblers, cyclists who ride on sidewalks and even "squeegee pests," or the people who offer to clean commuters' windshields at traffic stops. If a person was unable to provide photo identification, they were hauled to a police station, searched, fingerprinted and possibly further detained. The system was credited with lowering rates for major crimes such as murder and rape. "The secret of it is the blending of big things and little things," Bratton says. "You don't want people to fear the police — you want the criminal element to fear and respect the police. Criminals have to fear that if they commit a crime, they will get caught."

In both New York City and Los Angeles, Bratton drastically increased the size of the police force, instituting a "boots of the ground" approach. In Britain, which is suffering from one of the worst debt crises in its history, such a strategy is impossible. Cameron is intent on slashing the force by 20%, or 16,000 personnel, over the next four years. Bratton has worked with less. In New York City, he had 36,720 officers, or 1 for every 218 residents; in Los Angeles, he had only 9,320 officers, or 1 for every 429 residents. London currently has 32,500 officers, or 1 for every 241 residents.

Bratton is also known for cracking down on riots. He employed rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannons — tactics that British police were hesitant to use during the London riots. Not everyone is eager to see such harsh policing come to Britain. "Although [Bratton] has a glittering record across in the States, it's a different style of policing," London Metropolitan Police Federation chairman John Tully told the BBC. "The gang culture's different." British gun laws are very strict, and police in London rarely need to carry anything more than batons. "It's up to the British people how much force they want their police to use," Bratton says. "They've always celebrated the lack of firearms — and that's a contract, a trust between the British police and their people." Despite his severe tactics, trust has always been important to Bratton.

In the U.S. cities he policed, Bratton paired his zero-tolerance policies with intense outreach to the community. "I cannot count the number of church basements, synagogues, mosques and storefronts that I spoke in, that my captains spoke in," Bratton says. He cultivated relationships with civil rights groups and listened to them when they complained that the force was too racially homogeneous. Twenty years ago, the Los Angeles police department was 61% white. Today, mostly due to Bratton's policies, it's 36% white, better reflecting Los Angeles' diversity. Though Scotland Yard made an effort to diversify the ranks of the British police in the wake of the 1985 riots, that endeavor fell short. In June, Scotland Yard admitted that racism is still pervasive as part of an agreement ending a 16-month boycott by the Black Police Association.

Bratton says that when he was a young sergeant in Boston tasked with managing community relations, he was struck by how the police at outreach meetings all talked about response time and statistics, while citizens were more concerned about the prostitute on the corner, the broken window at the municipal building or the number of homeless haunting their stoops. "They wanted you to do something about the things they saw every day — their quality of life," Bratton recalls. "You have to present a face of both confidence and caring. That the public comes to know the chief of police, in my case, as someone they trust, somebody they have confidence in, not just day to day but when there is a crisis. And to do that, you can't just do it on TV or in newspapers. You've got to get out there and press the flesh."

If that sounds an awful lot like politics, Bratton says it's meant to. "To be a successful chief of police in America, you have to have those attributes," he says. "You cannot function in exclusion. Lack of transparency, it doesn't work. You are doomed to failure in America if you're not willing to open up the tent to everybody."

On the phone, Bratton talks wistfully of his law-enforcement days. He clearly misses it. Since leaving the LAPD in 2009, he has been chairman of Kroll, a global private-security firm, and he would have jumped at the chance to head up London's Metropolitan Police Department after the last commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, resigned last month in the wake of the News Corp. hacking scandal. But Home Secretary Theresa May said Britain's top cop should be British, and so it won't be Bratton sitting in Tottenham church basements or pressing the flesh at Hackney town-hall meetings. Instead, he'll be an unpaid adviser to Cameron for an undetermined length of time. The Metropolitan Police Department doesn't have a new commissioner yet — the application period ends on Wednesday — but whoever it will be can learn a thing or two from Bratton if London is to sort out its gang problem by next summer.