A week before New York City mayor Bill de Blasio and police commissioner Bill Bratton marked the first 100 days of their tenure, they posed for pictures with another Bill at a black tie fundraiser. Bill Rudin, one of the city’s most influential real-estate developers, talked up the new mayor and the new(ish) commissioner at a fundraiser for the Police Foundation. The Police Foundation, which was celebrated by some of the city’s wealthiest that night, uses donations to fund research supporting policing philosophies and tactics that guide the NYPD. The Rudin family, longtime donors to the foundation, was honored at the swanky gala with keepsake bullets and bulletproof vests courtesy of the NYPD, which has received over $120 million from the foundation since the 1970’s.
Later that same month, Bratton was joined by retired US Army General Stanley McChrystal at a forum titled “21st Century Leadership” on a rainy night in Manhattan. McChrystal was the former commander of the Joint Special Operations Command and the commander of all U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. They joined conservative pundit David Gergen to discuss the parallels between the military’s counter-insurgency tactics abroad and those of the NYPD—”the seventh largest army in the world”, as former mayor Mike Bloomberg once reminded us.
Bratton rejoined the NYPD amid calls for widespread reforms of the NYPD. De Blasio campaigned on a platform of police reform but raised eyebrows when he appointed Bratton, long affiliated with zero-tolerance policing that many say leads to police abuse. While some saw in de Blasio’s mayoral win a repudiation of excessive police harassment, others were skeptical of reforms with Bratton at the helm.
The commissioner’s two recent appearances amplify those questions, and add to them.
Speaking at the gala, Bratton presented the crowd, which included notables like billionaire Wall Street investor Carl Icahn, with a slideshow comparing crime rates with local real estate values. The audience was shown a map of geographical drops in crime alongside a map showcasing an accompanying rise in property value in the same neighborhoods. The new “progressive” mayor marveled at the apparent correlation: “It’s actually incredibly inspiring to see what the work of the NYPD has achieved… Let’s thank them for all they’ve done. I will also note, as a homeowner in Brooklyn, I was struck by the real-estate value map. There’s good news all around tonight.”
But for New Yorkers who aren’t homeowners (i.e. renters, the homeless, etc) rising real estate values are often precursors to rising rents and gentrification. One stroll through Harlem shines a light on a reality for low-income and homeless residents living there: a heavy police presence coupled with an influx of nouveau residents. Since the Tompkins Square riots of 1988, gentrification has divided those who see it as economic progress and those who say it displaces residents—low-income people of color in particular.
Bratton’s role in the policing of Skid Row, a high-poverty area of Los Angeles, as head of the LAPD is perhaps a model for how policing plays an essential role in the gentrification of high-poverty neighborhoods. Bratton’s 2006 “Safer Cities Initiative” in Skid Row targeted the homeless–even as services and living arrangements set up by their advocates were based there. “Endless police sweeps and night busts” included attacking tent encampments with water cannons. Those efforts were largely, if not completely, motivated by the city’s concurrent efforts to redevelop the area.
Bratton himself points to policing as the necessary ingredient for an inviting business climate. Creating “safer communities” leads to tourism and job creation, he explains. But when asked if the relationship between economic factors and crime work the other way–poverty as a cause of crime (which might suggest crime-alleviation through investment aimed towards the poor, not business)–he thought the idea “backwards”. “The cause of crime is people committing crimes”. In other words, for Bratton, crime is a personal decision largely void of societal factors. This doesn’t bode well for panhandlers, jaywalkers, food vendors or teenagers dancing on a train for money–targets of Bratton in 2014–whose criminality is self-evident, as far as he’s concerned.
Today’s Skid Row juxtaposes luxury condos and yoga studios against a backdrop of soup kitchens and halfway houses as homeless either refused to or were incapable of leaving–despite Bratton’s sweeps. But while Skid Row’s dual realities highlight the gentrification of American cities, the LAPD’s water canons and night raids highlight the militarization of police even as Bratton promises “community policing”. Last year a senior policy analyst for the Department of Justice pointed to the paradox of having “community policing” in a militarized police culture:
“Police chiefs and sheriffs may want to ask themselves—if after hiring officers in the spirit of adventure, who have been exposed to action oriented police dramas since their youth, and sending them to an academy patterned after a military boot camp, then dressing them in black battle dress uniforms and turning them loose in a subculture steeped in an “us versus them” outlook toward those they serve and protect, while prosecuting the war on crime, war on drugs, and now a war on terrorism—is there any realistic hope of institutionalizing community policing as an operational philosophy?”
While police departments are paramilitary by nature, their militarized mentality at home mimics counterterrorism efforts abroad. Consider Bratton’s excitement over predictive policing–being able to pinpoint, through computer algorithms, where crime will occur. It is rooted in his vision for pre-emptive policing but goes far beyond sending extra cops to a shady street corner. At the LAPD, Bratton’s thirst for high-tech predictive policing was met by researchers hired by the US Army to map insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The observations of researchers that “terrorist and insurgent activities have a distinct parallel to urban crime” echo Bratton’s recent comments that policing runs a “parallel track” to counterterrorism.
Similarly, in a 2012 interview with Bratton, CNN’s Piers Morgan compared Bratton’s ability to win over support of some minority community groups in Los Angeles with British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s negotiations with terrorists: “Whether you’re dealing with gangs in Los Angeles or terrorists, wherever it might be… You have to try and make them feel inclusive.” Bratton nodded and proceeded to plug his book on collaboration.
He was still pitching the same book, Collaborate or Perish, that rainy night in Manhattan alongside McChrystal when he gave insight into his priorities in New York going forward:
“The challenge in the 21st century is how do we keep the trust of the public when we are going to be so potentially invasive into the privacy of their lives through our technology. Our cameras, our pinning systems on your cell phones. That we’re going to have so much capability—the average police officer, the average police force—to be potentially invasive in the public sector, public space, into your lives. How do we win trust and confidence, when we have so much knowledge.. this incredible capability to track your movements, to identify where you are at any given time. “
That night wrapped up with McChrystal remarking that military officers “went to school on what Bratton introduced”, the moderator beaming about “lessons learned from the military to the civilian world” and Bratton’s announcement that NYPD officers would be receiving hi-tech crime-fighting computer tablets shortly. Last week Bratton supported the idea of surveillance drones for local law enforcement and revealed that cops specialized in counterterrorism were already being sent into NYCHA housing.
One has to wonder if such an Orwellian future for New York will affect residents of all social strata equally. The smart money says it won’t.