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Dispatch: The Torrid Love Affair Between Liberals and Bill “Broken Windows” Bratton

Dispatches is our series from organizers, attorneys, officials, and others working at the frontlines of local criminal justice reform.

It was a cold night in 2013 outside of a star-studded gala hosted by The Nationmagazine. A dozen policing activists, including myself, were waiting for Mayor elect Bill de Blasio’s police-chauffeured car. We were there to protest de Blasio, who was the featured speaker, over his first, and most important, political appointment: Bill ‘Broken Windows’ Bratton.

For some, de Blasio’s embrace of Bratton back to head the NYPD was strange: He was Rudy Giuliani’s pitbull in the early 90’s until Giuliani famously jettisoned the former Boston cop, reportedly over political jealousy. For others, the return of Bratton was a strategic move by de Blasio, who would be red meat for tabloids and the few, but loud, right wing voices in the city, like the Manhattan Institute and the police unions.

Bratton was beloved by conservatives, locally and nationally for heralding in an era of tough-on-crime policies, including the Broken Windows theory of policing, which says aggressive enforcement against quality-of-life offenses reduces serious crime. However, the political marriage between Bratton and de Blasio, a self-proclaimed reformer, liberal and progressive, should have surprised no one. Key liberal politicians and pundits from New York to Los Angeles absolutely love Bratton, for his crime-fighting reputation — and the feeling is mutual.

The latest public display of affection between Bratton and his liberal enablers was featured in the opinion section of the New York Daily News Monday (“Salute de Blasio’s policing miracle” ). In this op-ed, Bratton once againgloated about how under de Blasio he’d received “more resources than I had ever gotten from one of my mayors.” He’s right, de Blasio has been quite generous to the NYPD: in 2016, de Blasio, along with a purportedly “progressive” New York City Council gifted Bratton’s NYPD almost 1,300 extra police officers at a cost of hundreds millions of dollars amid protests and historic lows in crime.

Bratton’s show of support for de Blasio was timed to hit newsstands the day before the mayoral election, which the incumbent won handily. But the endorsement from a rockstar policing guru wasn’t about ensuring that a liberal progressive defeats an unremarkable Republican challenger — it was about signaling that the bond between liberals and the most powerful police figure in the last few decades remains as strong as ever.

Not long after our protest outside the 2013 gala, there was another strategically-timed love note, this one by the head of an established civil rights nonprofit in Los Angeles that gave its blessings and to Bratton. This time, it was in the prestigious pages of the New York Times. There, former Advancement Project co-director Connie Rice fawningly praised Bratton (the police chief in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2009), who she said won over the trust of the black community and even civil rights organizations like hers (“Hail to the Chief”, December 10th, 2013).

Rice (cousin to Condi Rice of Bush administration fame) spoke glowingly about Bratton’s willingness to listen and learn “from everyone — the mayor or a gang member,” a curious appraisal given Bratton’s history of questionable gang injunctions in LA and, later, an escalation of gang raids in NYC.

Without a doubt, the Rice op-ed was designed to give Bratton civil rights cover while also alleviating the concerns of New York liberals over Bratton, the champion of Broken Windows. The Rice piece also worked to undermine and neutralize criticisms of Bratton by community groups in LA, like the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA-CAN), who warned about Bratton’s rebranding in the media: “There has been a wave of articles since Chief Bratton’s reinstatement and very few of them have been critical of his record in Los Angeles. Instead, we have been bombarded with Bratton quotes and politically connected civil rights advocates assertions that have nothing to do with the realities in our communities. LA CAN will work to set the record straight as the ‘Bratton media express’ rolls out its fabricated versions of Los Angeles policing because the record should be clear and authentic.”

To what might one attribute this discrepancy in volume afforded to the head of a civil rights organization, like Rice (who, west coast organizers often point out to me, used to park in the LAPD parking lot) and to that of grassroots organizers? Well, for one, the press was more than willing to listen to supporters of Bratton, who has always been a media favorite. Another factor was that Rice wasn’t the only liberal establishment figure who has been enamored with Bratton.

Former president Barack Obama has tipped his hat to Bratton, and vice versa. Even the current liberal darling Kamala Harris, the former prosecutor turned California Senator who some hope will become the Democratic nominee for President in 2020, heaped immense praise on Bratton and his Broken Windows policing in her 2009 book, Smart On Crime. And there have been other influential voices, like Jill Leovy, noted author of the international bestseller, Ghettoside, who gushed to Slate last year about the “beautiful” quotes she’d gotten from Bratton as he waxed poetic to her about the political nature of his work.

In the last three years, thanks to pressure from grassroots organizers in New York City, Broken Windows policing has finally come under intense scrutiny. The political pendulum has swung so far away from quality-of-life policing (with the notable exception of Mayor de Blasio, who has continuously voiced his support for Bratton’s cherished approach) that it’s become somewhat mainstream now to be against Broken Windows.

However, the love affair between Bratton and liberal political circles is as strong as ever. Bratton’s op-ed for de Blasio isn’t very different from the time he endorsed Harris during her campaign to become California’s Attorney General in 2009 or when he went to bat for another ‘progressive’ during Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s re-election bid that same year. In fact, the Villaraigosa campaign’s television ads that Bratton appeared then were eerily familiar to Bratton’s shout-out to de Blasio this week, congratulating Villaraigosa for adding 1,000 more cops and touting the Democrat’s support for police.

You see, the congratulatory pats on the back and ringing political endorsements between Bratton and liberals is predictable. Even in bluer than blue cities like New York or Boston, where Mayor Joe “Marty” Walsh, has received the endorsement of the Boston Patrolmen’s Association, liberals love police and police love the liberals that are loyal to them. But there is special place in the liberal heart for figures like Bratton, a political and media savvy cop who makes progressive hearts swoon with promises of data-driven enforcement and “community policing” even as he ushers in the orwellian era of predictive policing and clings to archaic manifestos like the utterly racist Moynihan report.

For grassroots activists and the everyday person getting arrested for jumping a turnstile or a nickel bag of weed, the message is clear: there’s a bubble in which law enforcement bigwigs like Bratton, progressive politicians, media elites and other insiders operate within — and we aren’t in it.