Police Commissioner William J. Bratton is winding up his second stint at the helm of the NYPD — and a career that has made him the face of professional policing for a generation of Americans.
When he steps down next week, he will leave behind 50 years in law enforcement as the only person to ever to lead the New York, Los Angeles and Boston police departments. He introduced innovations that have been credited with driving crime to historic lows and been adopted around the globe.
Yet he leaves at a time of great tension between police and communities of color, with a protest movement that blames modern tactics for everything from mass incarceration to the murder of innocent black people. It has not only exposed flaws in his strategies. It also threatens his legacy.
In an exclusive interview with WNYC's Jami Floyd, Bratton says police are only following the political decisions that society has imposed on them. He says race relations are in a pivotal moment that has been exacerbated by the caustic presidential campaign, and won't be solved until the election is over.
"We are at a seminal moment," he told Floyd at his office on the 13th floor of One Police Plaza. "We have come a long way, but the journey is one of evolution interrupted by revolution. In some respects, I think we're in a revolutionary period of time, as we were in the '70s, on that journey of evolution. And the challenge is to control it so that, like a nuclear explosion, you don't destroy the world while you are basically igniting that nuclear fusion."
But Bratton also got some facts wrong.
"Deaths of blacks at the hands at police are smaller in proportion than their population, in many instances," he said.
Since the FBI keeps no national database of such incidents, WNYC asked for the source of that statement, and the NYPD cited a groundbreaking project by the Washington Post that catalogues fatal police shootings.
The tally that shows black people died in 26 percent of such shootings last year, and 24 percent of the cases so far this year. Black people are about 12 percent of the U.S. population.
The NYPD had no immediate comment on the discrepancy.