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Law Enforcement Q&A: William J. “Bill” Bratton

It’s tough enough to be a beat cop and move up in the ranks of a police department, but to move from beat cop to the top cop in three of the country’s highest profile police departments is an accomplishment only one person has achieved – William J. “Bill” Bratton. Known as one of the architects of community policing in urban environments and for introducing COMPSTAT (the internationally acclaimed model used by police departments to measure crime fighting performance and success) to police operations, Bratton has led police departments in Boston, New York City, and Los Angeles. In each of his high-profile assignments, crime declined while police performance and professionalism improved. In police work, those are the only metrics that matter.

Bratton’s leadership has long captured the attention of the media, policy makers, international police departments as well as average citizens.

The author of two books, The Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic (1998); and the soon-to-be-released Collaborate or Perish!: Reaching Across Boundaries in a Networked World (2012), Bratton has never shied away from counseling anyone willing to ask him his thoughts on police work in a dangerous and complex world.

Now in the private sector, Bratton serves as the chairman of Kroll, one of the world’s leading risk and security consulting companies. His reach for decades has been national, but from this new vantage point, Bratton is in an even more unique position to educate, inform, and prepare police forces and the public around the world for challenges known and unknown. 

Bratton sat down with Faircount Media Group’s Senior Homeland Security Correspondent Rich Cooper in his Manhattan office to reflect on the state of police work in America, information sharing between police departments and intelligence agencies, his work with foreign governments, and the lessons learned 10 years after the 9/11 attacks. Originally part of a longer interview to be published in the upcoming The Year in Homeland Security, in this exclusive online excerpt Bratton discusses various demonstrations worldwide, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the police response.

Rich Cooper:  Given the economic problems that are occurring around the world, we’ve started to see civil unrest in places like Greece, Spain, and most shockingly England. What counsel would you offer to the police and homeland security forces in those countries to deal with those situations?

 

William J. “Bill” Bratton:  Well, it’s the same thing you do in any country. You have to try to increase the ability to recognize that there are tensions brewing. The most recent experience was in London. The riots really came out of the clear blue. The idea that the shooting death of a young black man by police in one neighborhood of one city would result in the riots that occurred was totally unexpected. Most of the rioting had nothing at all to do with the initial instigating incident. They’re still trying to figure out what it was all about.

What it does send in terms of a message to police around the world, including those in our country, is that the use of social media seems to have played a significant part in instigating and inspiring the unrest that occurred in London and in cities far from where the first incident occurred.

Police are going to have to gain a better understanding of social media and how to access and monitor it. When I use the term monitor, I use it from the perspective that there is nothing that precludes police from using open-source information. Accessing open-source information is the same as cameras in public spaces. I think we will see more monitoring of YouTube and Facebook and other social media channels by law enforcement, particularly if there is concern about security.  It’s something they use but need to use appropriately. Once again that has to be done within limits that might be imposed by our respective democracies.

The social media revolution also provides a significant tool for police to use in dealing with crimes and disturbances. The British experience is a great example of that and they are going to great lengths to identify everybody who was photographed or videotaped during those disturbances either on camera or in YouTube videos that were posted. They now have a phenomenal tool to pursue everyone who was observed committing a criminal act.

In the past, we would just make arrests at the scene itself and then it was over. The Brits are really making an effort to make the case that the perpetrators don’t want to do this again because they are going to find them and prosecute them. In this case, they’re putting people in jail. They’re not just slapping them on the wrist.

 

You mentioned the cameras in London. There’s probably no city in the world that has more cameras looking at every street corner than London. Despite all those cameras, it still had this eruption of social unrest that occurred there.  It’s something that it hadn’t experienced in decades. From your experience, what do you think allowed that violence to erupt? You mentioned that it came out of the blue after the shooting death of a young black man by police in a London suburb. Was this just sort of the pent-up rage?

As the British government looks at this and tries to figure out what happened, I think there are a number of things that can be said. One is that the police were slow to react – that they didn’t arrive immediately and in some instances they withdrew from neighborhoods and did not go back in to deal with what was going on. It also took them a while to gather sufficient resources, so they’re looking at that aspect too.

The other aspect is the use of the social media by the rioters to attract people to certain areas. You have both the traditional media of television showing scenes of what was going on and no police presence while looters were rampaging through stores. Based on some of the arrests that they’re now making after the fact, a lot of those who were arrested are being arrested for crimes not in their neighborhood, but in other neighborhoods where they clearly had to travel to engage in the crime.

The positive aspect coming out of this is the increasing use of social media by police to help solve some of these crimes and to discourage future events. The idea is to show that law enforcement will use social media to identify suspects that would lead to their arrest, prosecution and conviction. The hope is that will act as a deterrent against future crimes.

A third benefit coming out of the riots was the fact they occurred a year ahead of the Olympics. It’s pretty widely accepted that if they had occurred during the Olympics British police forces would have been incredibly stressed to respond because they would have already been committed to just securing many of the Olympic venue sites. A significant number of personnel could not be taken from those sites, so now this will factor into their planning going forward into next year. It has been a phenomenal learning lesson.

The definitive final reports [on the riots] have not come out yet, so what I’m commenting on is speculative on my part, not based on any official government reports.

 

Do you see a shadow of what occurred in London with the unrest and riots, falling upon cities here in the United States as well as around the world that are dealing with Occupy Wall Street type of movements?

No. It’s become quite clear in the last several weeks, and we’re meeting here in the last week of October, that in a number of communities where these demonstrations are occurring in public spaces, that there is increasing government reluctance to allow them to continue in violation of the law. In Chicago and other cities, the parks close at night. In Grant Park in Chicago, authorities are not letting them stay overnight. They’re moving them out and making arrests.

In Oakland, they have had the most significant violence associated with the Occupy Wall street protests. One of the things that is occurring here is the idea that there is certainly going to be respect for the protesters’ right to engage in free speech-type activities, but if that activity results in serious violations of the law – and I’m not talking just civil disobedience, but violence – it is going to be dealt with very forcefully and effectively. I believe that is appropriate.

One of the major problems faced in many cities, which was also one of the problems faced by law enforcement in London, is no clearly identifiable leadership. Here so much of what we’re dealing with is trying to engage in crowd management, not crowd control. Crowd management means you are dealing with an orderly group with leaders that you can negotiate with and work out specific terms for demonstrations and marches.

In city after city this [Occupy Wall Street] movement is celebrating the fact that it is leaderless, which makes it incredibly different when some in that group seek to take advantage of the anonymity of the group and engage in provocation. It becomes a much more difficult policing situation when dealing with a leaderless group. Even going back to the anti-war movement and the civil rights movement, there were almost always clearly identifiable leaders in those demonstrations that you could work with or attempt to work with. This phenomenon is a little different than what police have been traditionally used to dealing with.

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Richard “Rich” Cooper is a Principal with Catalyst Partners, LLC, a government and public affairs...