Media Frame: Stop Quoting Bill Bratton

For far too long, the press has leaned on wrong-headed tough-on-crime officials like the former NYPD commissioner when reporting on the criminal legal system.

Media Frame: Stop Quoting Bill Bratton

For far too long, the press has leaned on wrong-headed tough-on-crime officials like the former NYPD commissioner when reporting on the criminal legal system.

The public’s perception of crime is often significantly out of alignment with the reality. This is caused, in part, by frequently sensationalist, decontextualized media coverage. Media Frame seeks to critique journalism on issues of policing and prisons, challenge the standard media formulas for crime coverage, and push media to radically rethink how they inform the public on matters of public safety.

New York Times columnist Bret Stephens recently wrote that Joe Biden should “be proud of” the 1994 crime bill. Biden has received significant criticism for his effort to pass the bill, which allocated federal funding to states that passed “truth in sentencing” laws, created the federal “three strikes” provision, and allocated $8.8 billion in federal funding for cities and states to hire new police officers. 

Stephens praised the carceral policy and claimed it “saved [Black] communities,” ostensibly from themselves, while dismissing concerns about the damaging effects of incarceration. 

To justify his claim that the crime bill improved policing, Stephens cited a 2015 City Journal piece by then-New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and social scientist George Kelling that vehemently defended broken windows policing, claiming that the practice “has saved countless New York lives—most of them minority—and reknit the social fabric.” 

It was a claim that set the stage for former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani to boast in 2016 that he “saved a lot more black lives than Black Lives Matter.”  

Broken windows theory states that visible neighborhood disorder makes residents more likely to commit serious crimes. In a 1982 feature for The Atlantic, Kelling and fellow social scientist James Q. Wilson introduced the theory and claimed that “one unrepaired broken window is a signal that no one cares, and so breaking more windows costs nothing.” 

Because he almost single-handedly popularized broken windows policing practices across America, Bratton has long attempted to establish a causal relationship between the NYPD’s broken windows tactics and New York City’s historic crime decline. But we still don’t know why crime has declined in the city. Murders declined from 2,245 in 1990 to 289 in 2018, and Bratton has a vested interest in claiming that broken windows was behind the decline. Outside of authoritarian publications like the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal, there’s no excuse for reporters to rely on Bratton’s broken windows propagandizing or his thin analysis of crime declines. 

Who is Bill Bratton, anyway?

Bratton has served as commissioner of the Boston Police Department, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, and NYPD commissioner. Bratton’s approach to policing can be summed up by a statement he made in 1994 after being appointed Mayor Giuliani’s police commissioner: “We are going to flush [homeless people] off the street in the same successful manner in which we flushed them out of the subway system.”

Bratton rose to national prominence in the 1990s because he excelled at using the coercive arm of the state to push vulnerable people out of public view, thus paving the way for rampant gentrification at the expense of communities that have been failed by the state. In Los Angeles, Bratton’s broken windows campaign resulted in thousands of tickets issued to homeless people for crimes of poverty. Many were later jailed for their inability to pay fines and fees. 

This punitive approach toward poverty ruins lives with needless arrests and incarceration, wasting resources that could be better spent on voluntary drug and mental health treatment and affordable housing. Bratton continues to twist facts in service of such tactics. On June 2, he tweeted that homelessness in Los Angeles is an “example of city & state failures to address quality of life & broken windows.” On July 14, he insisted that homeless people using New York City subways for shelter were a “service resistant population.” But poverty isn’t a problem solved by punishment or policing, and the double-digit increase in homelessness in Los Angeles is a symptom of skyrocketing inequality and a shortage of affordable housing, not neighborhood disorder.

Over the course of his decades-long career in the highest ranks of big city policing, Bratton has worked to ensure that his favored tactics set the boundaries for discourse around policing. He’s the criminal legal system’s version of the hawkish “Very Serious Person” of the George W. Bush era who defined the foreign policy debate even when they were fatally wrong or told millions of people in Middle Eastern countries to “suck on this.” In a 2016 Slate interview, author Jill Leovy recalled how Bratton described himself as a political operative: “I actually think that is what I’m hired to do, to kind of broker the difficult politics around policing, and I consider myself extremely skilled at it.” 

Bratton undermines research

Bratton is still frequently heralded by news outlets as someone who “revolutionized” policing and drastically reduced crime, despite dozens of studies undermining the effects of broken windows policing on crime. 

On May 26, Northeastern criminologist Dan O’Brien wrote an opinion piece for the Daily News summarizing his research on broken windows policing. O’Brien and his colleagues found consensus across scientific literature that neighborhood disorder doesn’t cause people to commit crime (violent or otherwise), to fear crime, or to experience reduced attachment to their neighborhood. Worse still for broken windows defenders like Bratton, O’Brien found that the few studies supporting broken windows theory suffered from weak research design: Some studies failed to consider variables like socioeconomic status and community norms against violence, while others had flawed survey techniques. Overreliance on these faulty studies fueled mistaken public perceptions of how crime and disorder are connected. 

Yet, one week later, the Daily News ran a piece by Bratton headlined “Like it or not, broken windows works.” Bratton repeated claims from his 2015 City Journal piece—that broken windows policing caused New York City’s crime decline, and that communities desired more police on the street—while completely ignoring the collateral damage of his legacy, such as the perpetuation of poverty and damaged perceptions of the law and government. The Daily News’s decision to publish Bratton’s evidence-free rebuttal to O’Brien’s thorough debunking of broken windows was a misguided effort to provide “both sides” of a policy debate, a practice aligned with “objective journalism” that has frequently misled the public on key political debates. 

Instead of providing Bratton valuable real estate in their newspaper to defend a flawed theory, editors at the Daily News could have chosen to publish a perspective from one of the hundreds of thousands of Black and Latinx youth who have suffered from disproportionate police contact over offenses such as fare evasion and possession of marijuana, which are completely unrelated to public safety.

Why are we still hearing from Bratton?

Bratton has given the media plenty of reasons to retire him as an expert. 

In 2012, he praised newly sworn in Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts as “one of the best there is in American policing today.” Less than three years later, the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, the department’s release of misleading data on police misconduct, and a skyrocketing homicide rate led to Batts’s removal from the department.

In 2015, Bratton responded to police shootings and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement by appearing on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and citing assistant secretary of labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s 1965 report “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action.” The report argued that America’s Black communities were forced into a “tangle of pathology” that “seriously [inhibited] the progress of the group as a whole,” with a particular focus on the plight of young Black men. 

In her 2016 book “From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime,” historian Elizabeth Hinton noted that the Moynihan report shaped criminal justice policy nationwide by pushing the misconception that poverty and crime were innate features of Black communities. The pseudo-statistical justifications for this theory led to disproportionate punishment of young Black men in urban centers and laid the foundation for CompStat and predictive policing. Hinton also pointed to Moynihan’s subsequent collaborations with Wilson and Kelling, the creators of broken windows theory. Together, Hinton wrote, Wilson and Moynihan advocated for “divestment from community action programs and other social welfare initiatives” in favor of crime control and punishment.

Bratton certainly interpreted the Moynihan report as a justification for his flawed tactics. “Talk about being prescient about what was going to happen, in Black society, in terms of … the disintegration of family, the disintegration of values,” Bratton said during his “Morning Joe” appearance. That appearance is part of a pattern of consistently blaming communities of color for the violence and instability that they experience while simultaneously claiming that they deeply desire broken windows policing. After a May 2016 shooting during a concert by the rapper T.I., Bratton made headlines when he demonized “so-called rap artists” as “thugs” who “celebrate violence.” 

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that alongside Bratton, Bret Stephens also cited Rudyard Kipling, author of “The White Man’s Burden,” in his piece about Biden and the crime bill. And Stephens also misrepresented Black Americans’ policy demands; he pointed to Congressional Black Caucus support for the crime bill while ignoring communities’ calls for better education, drug treatment, and full employment. 

Soon after the “Morning Joe” appearance, Bratton was cited in Heather Mac Donald’s New York Post opinion article “‘Broken Windows’ Policing Doesn’t Target Minorities, It Saves Them.” Similarly, in an August 2016 Daily News opinion piece, Mac Donald described Bratton as a “revolutionary” who inspired police commanders nationwide to follow his example. Mac Donald also alleged that “NYPD critics” used police killings of people like Eric Garner in their calls to curtail broken windows policing. 

The piece was an ugly precursor to her elegy to George Kelling, who died this year in May, in which she falsely claimed that Garner’s death led to “skyrocketing” crime rates. It’s true that the NYPD initiated a seven-week work slowdown after Garner’s death, issuing significantly fewer summonses and performing fewer stops and searches. But researchers found that during the same period, major crime complaints decreased by 3 to 6 percent.

Crucially, like Stephens and Bratton, Mac Donald cited “the fierce yearning of the law-abiding poor” to support the legitimacy of zero-tolerance policing.

Bratton has recently made other fact-free claims, like when he fretted in December 2018 that legalizing marijuana would be akin to “opening up Pandora’s box” and would lead to increased crime near dispensaries and increased marijuana use by young adults. But in July 2018, the New York State Health Department released a report that debunked Bratton’s bad faith concerns that dispensaries would cause crime and cause young people to use marijuana at greater rates. Notably, the report also suggested that legalization would help reduce racially discriminatory criminalization. No outlet that published Bratton’s comments on legalization acknowledged research that contradicts his claims. 

His attacks on the decarceral prosecutor movement exhibit the craven fearmongering of a police union press release or an opinion piece by the New York Post editorial board. On June 22, Bratton tweeted that Tiffany Cabán’s run for Queens district attorney indicated an “out of control” descent into “anarchy.” On June 24, Bratton said that Suffolk County DA Rachael Rollins’ decline-to-prosecute policy for petty crimes would mean “a return to the bad old days … There’s no such thing as a victimless crime. The victim is society.” 

Citing Bill Bratton as a policing expert is like promoting neoconservative ideologue Bill Kristol as a voice of reason and rationality in the Trump era. It’s long past time for reporters and editors to identify more credible voices when writing and reporting about the criminal legal system. Otherwise, their readers will be stuck with damaging and erroneous commentary that props up mass incarceration and silences communities that suffer from crime. 

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