William Bratton, commissioner of the New York Police Department from 1994 to 1996, presided over a dramatic decline in the city’s crime rate. Hired by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as part of a new crime fighting initiative, Bratton embraced the “broken windows” theory that had made him so successful as chief of the city’s transit police.
According to this theory, when a community ignores small offenses such as a broken window on a parked car, larger offenses such as burglary, robbery, and assault inevitably follow. Conversely, serious crime can be prevented if a community polices the little things, the “quality-of-life” offenses such as vandalism, graffiti, panhandling, public urination, prostitution, and noise. This theory had been discussed and partially implemented in the city of New York since the 1980s, but it was Bratton who fully executed it.
Bratton realized this vision through two main strategies. First, he decentralized the bureaucracy, giving more authority to precinct commanders. Each precinct was made into a miniature police department, with the commander authorized to assign officers according to the needs of the neighborhood, and to crack down on police corruption in his precinct.
Second, Bratton increased the precinct commander’s accountability. Through an automated tracking system called Compstat, Bratton monitored the time, type, and location of crimes in each precinct on a weekly basis. Commanders were summoned to monthly meetings and questioned about increases or aberrations in crime in their precincts. They were called to account for enforcing quality-of-life offenses and were rewarded for decreases in crime.
The response to Bratton’s changes was immediate. Crime rates plummeted, and morale skyrocketed. Bratton was credited with transforming the structure and culture of the NYPD in a way that had never been done before. In addition, he was praised by many in the press for proving that crime was not an intractable fact of modern life but rather a problem that could be solved.
But the ensuing years also revealed some risks associated with the Bratton reforms. The push to bring down crime rates had the unintended consequence of encouraging unscrupulous officers to fabricate statistics. The Compstat meetings sometimes became so demanding that morale was harmed. The department also faced charges that it had encouraged overly aggressive policing. The cases of Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo in the late 1990s raised questions of whether Bratton’s methods had cut crime at the cost of increasing abuse.
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Andrea R. Nagy and Joel Podolny, “ William Bratton and the NYPD,” Yale SOM Case 07-015, February 23, 2007.
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