New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton is largely credited for bringing crime down in New York City during the mid-1990s, but to hear him tell it, former President Bill Clinton's 1994 Crime Bill played a significant role as well.
With the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, having passed two weeks ago, the Vera Institute of Justice put together a multimedia web platform exploring the legacy of the bill, in which Bratton was interviewed to discuss the bill's impact then and now. At the time of the bill's passage, Bratton was in his first year as commissioner under then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Bratton said that the Crime Bill had a "mixed record of success," in that the hiring of additional police officers contributed to reductions in crime nationally, but that the acceleration of arrests in certain parts of the country resulted in prison overcrowding and other incarceration issues around race. He added that at the time, he correctly thought that the bill would result in fewer people put in prison over time in New York, but in other states like California, where he served as commissioner of the Los Angeles Police Department from 2002 to 2009, the incarceration issue became worse.
The most significant impact of the bill, in Bratton's view, is that it "institutionalized the community policing philosophy," and an emphasis of police focusing crime prevention rather than simply responding and reacting.
"Community policing, as I described it in simplest terms, was the emphasis on partnership between police and community, a partnership that would identify the problems or priorities that each neighborhood felt was causing crime or disorder or fear in their particular neighborhood, and...it returned police to the focus and the acceptance of responsibility for the prevention of crime," Bratton said. "In the '70s and '80s in particular, police had been excused by political leadership, by academics, by many police leaders, of having any responsibility for the prevention of crime."
Bratton pointed to one of his favorite law enforcement role models, 19th century United Kingdom Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, and his principles for law enforcement which emphasized that the basic mission of a police force is to prevent crime and disorder. Bratton said that this mindset was a marked shift from the policing mindset 1970s and 1980s.
"We focused our efforts in the '70s and '80s on responding to crime, 911 systems, better forensics investigation, better education of officers, with the belief that police could not have impact on what were thought to be the causes of crime in the '70s and '80s.Those crimes were thought to be poverty, racism, demographics, the weather, all types of issues that society was grappling with. The cause of crime is much more simple than that: It's people; criminals. In some instances are people in the moment of emotion, passion, under the influence of drugs or whatever, the increase in the number of emotionally disturbed individuals in our country that they are the cause of crime and the basic mission of police is to control behavior. Community policing returned police to that responsibility."
Bratton added that one of the Crime Bill's lasting legacy was creating a generation of police leaders that understood the benefits of having a strong relationship between the police and community, a notion that he implied sometimes gets lost when today's politicians speak about law enforcement.
"We have a big head start that we did not have as firmly established as firmly established leadership going into the early 1990s that we now have, and many seasoned veterans of what worked and what didn't work, so that's a good head start," Bratton said. "American policing is probably more progressive than where our Congress is and where many of our political leaders are at the moment, which is ironic."