Authors: William Bratton,Peter Knobler
To my parents, Bill and June Bratton, my wife, Cheryl, and my son, David, for their unwavering support. To the cops for their unwavering commitment to making the streets of America safe.
To Jane and Daniel.
“The best executive is the one who has sense enough to pick good men to do what he wants done, and self-restraint enough to keep from meddling with them while they do it.”
DON'T STICK YOUR NECK OUT. IT'S THE FIRST PRINCIPLE IN RUNNING A POLICE
organization. Never say your goals out loud; you'll only look bad when you don't achieve them.
That's not me.
New York's newly elected mayor, Rudolph W. Giuliani, had chosen me to be police commissioner of the City of New York—the number one police job in America—and it was time to stick my neck out. The city was a mess. People were afraid of being mugged, they were afraid of having their cars stolen, they were afraid of the everyday assault on common decency and good conduct that had become standard New York behavior. Surveys showed that more than half the people who had recently left the city did so to improve the quality of their lives. And chief among the reasons they couldn't do that in the city was crime.
Although I was born and raised and had worked almost all my life in Boston, I knew New York. My two years as chief of the New York City Transit Police in the early 1990s had given me a full immersion in the way the city handled itself—a view from the underground up. Nothing changes fast in the city. There is the sense that this is the way it is, this is the way it's always been, and this is the way it always will be. New Yorkers respect strength and admire spirit, they pride themselves on their toughness—it's
tough enough just to get by—but when I got there they had just about given up.
New Yorkers wanted a way out of the danger and lawlessness they saw around them. They couldn't walk from their apartments to the subway without getting aggressively panhandled or threatened or worse—“Hey, hey, hey, mister, gimme a quarter. That the best you got?” They couldn't walk to work without seeing men and women using the streets and sidewalks as outdoor toilets. They couldn't stop their car at a traffic light without some guy smearing their windshield with a filthy rag and demanding a dollar for his efforts. Squeegee men, these fellows were called, and to many people it seemed they just about ruled the city. I had joked frequently that they should replace the torch in the Statue of Liberty's hand with a squeegee—it was a more fitting symbol of the welcome many people received when they got here.
New York City felt it was under siege, and there was the widespread sense that no one was doing anything about it. In 1990, shortly after he was elected, Mayor David Dinkins and his entire administration took a major hit when, in response to a particularly bloody week in the city, the
New York Post
ran this tabloid headline in huge type on its front page:
Mirroring the local perspective, the story went national shortly thereafter.
magazine had a cover story in September featuring “The Rotting of the Big Apple.” In response to this challenge, Dinkins was able to pass “Safe Streets” legislation that increased the size of the city's three police departments by over six thousand officers.
But by 1994, even this ongoing infusion of personnel hadn't seemed to help. There was a sense of doom on the streets. The police department seemed dysfunctional. Several generations of corruption scandals had left it seemingly without the will to fight crime. The cops on the beat wanted to do their jobs, but the brass didn't trust them to do it. Corruption on a commander's watch can kill his career, so rather than aggressively attack the places where most crime occurred, particularly drug-related crime, police officers had been ordered by their superiors to stay out of them; the feeling behind many desks was that it was better for cops to stay away from criminals and steer clear of temptation than to chase them down and put them away.
Mayor Giuliani was a former federal prosecutor. He liked putting crimi-nals in jail; it was what he had done for a living. Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993 largely on the quality-of-life and crime issues, and, impressed
with my earlier record as transit chief, he brought me in to help clean up the rest of the city. I brought to New York a lifetime career in law enforcement and had led the turnaround of four major police departments, including the New York City Transit Police and the Boston Police Department. Like most American police departments, for the last twenty-five years the NYPD had been content to focus on reacting to crime while accepting no responsibility for reducing, let alone preventing, it. Crime, the theory went, was caused by societal problems that were impervious to police intervention. That was the unchallenged conventional wisdom espoused by academics, sociologists, and criminologists. I intended to prove them wrong. Crime, and as important, attitudes about crime, could be turned around. Using law enforcement expertise, leadership and management skills, and an inspired workforce, I intended to create an organization whose goal and mission was to control and prevent crime—not just respond to it. By turning around the NYPD, and reducing crime and fear, we would turn around the city. And, who knows, maybe even the country.
I believed that police could, in fact, be counted upon to have a significant effect on crime. With effective leadership and management we could control behavior in the street, and by controlling behavior we could change behavior. If we could change behavior we could control crime.
When I interviewed with Giuliani for the police commissioner's position, I told him we could reduce crime by 40 percent in three years.
On December 2, 1993, at the announcement of my appointment as the city's new police commissioner, a little more than a month before I took office, I stood beside the mayor and made this promise: “We will fight for every house in this city. We will fight for every street. We will fight for every borough. And we will win.”
The turnaround had begun. Like Babe Ruth pointing his bat to the bleachers indicating where his next home run would land, I was confidently predicting the future. I was a leader who had spent my whole professional life seeking out and turning around low-performing, dysfunctional police departments. Now I had been given the challenge of a lifetime—the NYPD. One of my predecessors, Commissioner Lee Brown, when he led the department, likened the experience to trying to “turn an aircraft carrier around in a bathtub.” I intended to turn it around with the speed of a destroyer.
I spent the next five weeks putting my team together. I interviewed men and women at all levels of the NYPD and matched people to positions; you can seriously undermine an organization by putting the right
person in the wrong job. My team and I planned our strategies and prepared to hit the ground running.
On Sunday, January 9, 1994, the day before I was scheduled to be sworn in as commissioner, several members of my new team were to meet at the apartment of John Miller, who was going to be my deputy commissioner of public information (DCPI), to go over what we were calling the rollout, our first major changes. Miller, a television-news reporter for the local NBC affiliate, was best known for sidling up to organized-crime don John Gotti and getting him to talk. In his $2,000 suits, John looked fearless on the tube; in real life, he is a guy who loves being on the scene. Aggressively single, John was an excellent reporter with great contacts; he knew just about everybody in town, and the cops loved him. He was taking a $500,000 pay cut to become my DCPI because it was the job he had always wanted. As a reporter, he'd had a front-row seat to the New York circus; now, he was in the center ring.
Peter LaPorte, my new chief of staff, was there. So were consultant John Linder, chief of department and soon-to-be first deputy commissioner Dave Scott, and newly appointed deputy commissioner for crime-control strategies Jack Maple, whom I had brought with me from my years in transit. Maple is a barrel-chested Queens native who favors homburgs, double-breasted blazers, bow ties, and two-toned spectator shoes. He is a character out of
Guys and Dolls
, with a brilliant police mind.
My term as commissioner was to begin officially at midnight, and I was taking the five o'clock shuttle out of Logan Airport in Boston. After an early dinner in New York with friends, I was to join the gang at Miller's apartment before heading up to the 103rd Precinct in Queens for my first official act: attending roll call and addressing the officers as they began their shift.
Late in the afternoon, the phone rang at Miller's east-side apartment. Apparently, a situation was developing around a mosque in Harlem that looked like it could be potentially troublesome. Maple said to Miller, “I'm going to meet the Commish out at the airport. Why don't you go up and get a handle on this mosque thing?” Miller called down to police headquarters at One Police Plaza. The night sergeant gave him the rundown.
There had been a gun run; a phone call had come in on the emergency number, 911, saying there was an armed robbery in progress, two men with guns. Police had responded, and the location turned out to be the Nation of Islam Mosque Number 7, Louis Farrakhan's operation, at Fifth Avenue and 125th Street, on the third floor. The first officers to arrive, a male-female team, were met by Muslim security, which is usually very
tight. Police officers are particularly focused when there is the possibility of a firearm involved at a scene, and New York City's Nation of Islam members are very sensitive about police issues. The Muslims didn't want the police entering their place of worship carrying weapons. When the officers evidently tried to brush by, a fight ensued, with some people rolling down a flight of stairs. The cops were overpowered, one of their guns and their radio were taken, and they were literally thrown out into the street.
It was snowing and blustery, the streets were icy, and the temperature had fallen to around fifteen degrees. Snow from the previous week was now rock hard. The fight in the street became one of those cartoon battles, except serious; you swung at somebody and ended up falling on your butt on the ice, which is how bones get broken.
A crowd started to gather. The cops called for backup, and so did the Muslims. Finally, there was a standoff, the cops controlling the outer perimeter and the Muslims controlling the inner. It was shaping up to be one of those New York confrontations, greater than the sum of its parts.
I wasn't even police commissioner yet—I was a civilian until midnight. My predecessor, Ray Kelly, had already resigned and was on a plane to Europe. John Pritchard, the first deputy, had also resigned. Dave Scott, who as chief of department was the number-three man, was up there running the show. That was fine. Scott had a foot in each administration; I had asked him to be my first deputy commissioner, and he was going to be the senior ranking uniformed officer on both sides of midnight. Miller ran up there with him.
Maple briefed me when I got off the plane. Welcome to New York. Without official authority until midnight, I didn't feel it would be appropriate for me to be on the scene, so we went to a restaurant and kept in constant contact by telephone. Our cellular phones didn't work inside, so Jack and I kept shuffling out to the car to talk to Miller and Scott and the mayor.
Early reports from the scene seemed to indicate that the cops had done nothing intentionally wrong. A report of a firearm is very serious, and the officers had every right—indeed, the duty—to investigate thoroughly. When you think of a mosque, perhaps you get the image of the splendor of Mecca or the Muslim equivalent of Saint Patrick's Cathedral. Mosque Number 7, however, sat in a commercial building, next door to a supermarket. Far from assaulting an imposing place of worship, the officers thought they were entering a commercial property. They never got near the third-floor mosque itself.
The mayor believed that where there is room for benefit of the doubt,
that benefit should go to the police. I agreed completely. The first thing we asked was “Were our officers right?” When the answer came back affirmative, we were in the position to support our men and women. Our early comments to the press said just that.
This came as a surprise to the press and to the cops. For years, the brass had backed away in times like these, adopting a wait-and-see attitude that allowed the media to shout any damn thing they wanted without strong pro-police input from City Hall and One Police Plaza. When the bosses don't back you up, the attacks in the papers and on the air get very shrill and ugly. Cops had come to expect such softness from their superiors, and they resented it. That had to stop. The newly elected mayor believed that, and so did I.
Chief Joe Leake was borough commander of Manhattan North. Leake, himself black, was on the scene, trying to broker a deal in which the police would search the mosque to obtain the gun and radio in exchange for letting the people who were inside leave. Everyone in the mosque was a potential suspect, and they were going nowhere without being identified. The Muslims were refusing to give anything up or anyone over.
Of course, the mayor was involved. He had been sworn in ten days earlier as a law-and-order mayor, and he had made it clear during the campaign that he was not going to give special treatment to any group—black, white, Asian, Hispanic. And race was an issue. African Americans in particular feared that his administration would be insensitive to them. For twenty-five years, they and other groups in the city had been treated gingerly by City Hall. Now Giuliani had come in and said, Everybody's going to be treated the same. In addition, the black community felt injured by the fact that they had lost David Dinkins, an African American, as mayor. For several years, New York had had a black mayor and a black police commissioner, Lee Brown. Now they had a white police commissioner from Boston and a white mayor whom they really did not trust.
Furthermore, much of the overwhelmingly white constituency that had elected Giuliani felt that the black community in particular had gotten away with too much already. The black community knew this and re-sented it. Farrakhan's Muslims had gone out of their way to depict Islam as “the black man's religion,” and this current situation, cops in a mosque, had the potential to become a community rallying point. Add this to Giuliani's impulse to support cops when they were doing the right thing and you could understand why the tension was high.