Former Los Angeles and New York City police chief William Bratton is officially on his way to Oakland to help advise the city’s struggling police force, which is contending with a sharp rise in homicides and other crimes. Bratton’s hire, part of a $250,000 contract retaining him and his consulting firm, was finalized by the Oakland City Council 7-1 after a nine-hour meeting plus four hours of public comment.
Bratton is a policing superstar who is widely credited with achieving sharp crime reductions in New York and LA, the country’s two most populous cities.
But some civil rights groups have criticized his reliance on “stop-and-frisk,” in which officers detain individuals they deem to be suspicious and search them for guns, and which has been linked to racial profiling by critics. Some opponents of the consultancy also worry Bratton will push for anti-gang injunctions.
Bratton’s supporters, including Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, have said they would not support a move toward “stop-and-frisk.” KQED’s Stephanie Martin interviewed Bratton on Wednesday. Bratton was in Detroit, where he is also currently consulting. Edited transcript…
Stephanie Martin: Last night’s council meeting was emotionally charged and a lot of the anger had to do with the mistrust that many Oakland residents feel when it comes to law enforcement. How does the police department begin to change that?
William Bratton: Well, one of the issues we had to deal with in Los Angeles when I was appointed chief in 2002 was a pretty deteriorating relationship between the department and the city’s African-American community. Actually it was described as open warfare.
When I left seven years later, all of the policies, procedures and changes that had been put in place resulted in not only crime declines every year, but polling indicated more than two-thirds of the city’s African American community and its growing Latino population thought the department was doing a good to very good job. I understand those numbers have actually increased since I left several years ago.
So the situation in Oakland, which is well-known, is about the distrust of a large part of the population and the feeling of many members of the police department that they are not respected or trusted. That was successfully addressed in Los Angeles and I see no reason why the leadership in Oakland, the mayor, the city manager, the council and the police chief would not be able to address it by reducing crime.
Martin: The stop-and-frisk policies that you’ve promoted in the past are of course controversial. And some Oakland residents are saying this tactic invites racial profiling. What do you say to them?
Bratton: The issue of stop-and-frisk is certainly of great concern in Oakland and I’m not familiar enough with the city at this stage to really comment on your specific issue. I’m certainly aware of it in New York, where it has been a very contentious the last year or so.
Stop-and-frisk is an area where the police have to be very, very careful to ensure that they’re in compliance with the constitutional guidelines that authorize it, in Terry v. Ohio. And in dealing with the use of stop-and-frisk it is very important to address it in much the same way as the racial profiling issues of the 90s had to be addressed by police. Stop-and- frisk is the racial profiling issue, if you will, of the 21st century.
You have to ensure you are always using that tool constitutionally, meaning you have to comply with the very stringent guidelines. That can be done through training and supervision. You have to ensure that it’s being done compassionately and always remember you are dealing with human beings. And you want to ensure that it’s done consistently, that you don’t apply it separately in a poor neighborhood and a rich neighborhood, you don’t interact with blacks differently than you do with whites or Latinos.
The issues in Oakland — I’ve not been there, I will soon be there. But stop-and-frisk is I think an issue that can be addressed in a way in which both sides are mollified. The police need it as a tool. The community just wants to ensure that the tool is not used in an inappropriate way.
Martin: Violent crime is getting the most attention in Oakland right now but many other types of offenses have spiked too. For example, auto burglaries have nearly doubled last year. Is there a quick way for the city to get a handle on that?
Bratton: We’re being asked to do two things: look at the crime problem and develop crime strategies with the Oakland police department based on the priorities they feel need to be addressed. So if the issue of car burglaries is one of those then we’ll certainly be willing to add expertise to that of the Oakland PD.
The second area that we’re being asked to concentrate on is the enhancement of the CompStat process. This is a system I created in New York in the 90s, the management data accountability system, in which you use crime stats to identify very quickly where you need to put your cops. You use it as an accountability tool to ensure that your leaders and your managers know what’s going on in their respective areas and are dealing with them effectively.
And if not — why not? It’s a system that has been used extraordinarily effectively in New York and Los Angeles. New York is now into its twentieth year of crime decline, with about an 80 percent decline. And LA is into its tenth year, with a 55-60 percent decline. We’re hopeful that the system can be applied in a very similar, successful way in Oakland.
Martin: Right now Oakland’s police force has about 25 percent fewer officers than it did a couple of years ago. How big a factor do you think that reduction might be playing in the crime problem?
Bratton: Well, there’s no denying that a loss of 25 percent of your force is going to have an impact. Whether it’s in visibility, response to calls, or in the ability to have specialized units that can focus on specialized crime problems.
But the reality is you have what you have and to try and use them to the best effect possible. That’s where prioritization and focus come into play. The importance of the CompStat system is it really gives you a sense of where you’re getting the biggest bang for the buck with the personnel you do have.
In Oakland, some of my colleagues did a study there in 2006, some of which has just recently been implemented by Chief Jordan: the geographic distribution system with five police precincts. Part of our challenge will be coming in to very quickly get a sense of what the current circumstances are.
Martin: Oakland police are making far fewer stops and arrests than they did a few years ago. Some officers say that that’s because of all the paperwork and recordkeeping required and because every stop they make is under careful scrutiny by a federal court. Is that concern legitimate?
Bratton: Well it’s exactly the same concern that was voiced in 2002, when I went to the LAPD. And we got the federal consent decree implemented and we got crime down by about 60 percent. We got the cops out of their cars and motivated once again.
So hopefully working with Chief Jordan gives me the opportunity to provide some thoughts about experiences elsewhere.
It is what it is. You have a federal consent decree that was brought about because of the sense that the department was not performing appropriately. It’s not going to go away until certain elements are complied with. And you can gripe and groan as much as you want; it is a fact of life. Once you face that reality … in L.A., we made it one of the top three priorities to get it done, get it over with and move on. I’ll have a little better understanding once I get to Oakland, but I have to believe it is one of the top priorities of the city administration to get the thing complied with.
Martin: A year or so ago you described the OPD situation as a ‘perfect storm of bad.’ What did you mean by that?
Bratton: It’s that you had crises everywhere you looked. You had a crime crisis, a budget crisis, a political crisis, a crisis around the consent decree. I happen to actually see crises as an opportunity, so I have never gone into an environment that was not in crisis. And if there was not one, then I’d create one, because I think crises accelerates the need for change and change itself.
So your perfect storm is very similar to the perfect storm that we find here in Detroit right now. It was certainly the perfect storm I found in New York in 1990 with the transit police and in 1994 in the city of New York. And there was no place that had more issues than Los Angeles in 2002. Out of crises comes opportunity and if you’re an optimist like I am then the bigger the crises, the bigger the opportunity.