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Interview with William J. “Bill” Bratton

One of America's smartest cops

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.

Long heralded by his peers and the communities in which he has served, he has been recognized as one of the most influential people in the public safety and security industry by Security magazine and other major publications. Bratton’s leadership has long captured the attention of the media, policy makers, and 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 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; and the lessons learned 10 years after the 9/11 attacks.

William J. "Bill" Bratton

John Mack and then-LAPD Chief William J. Bratton talk during a COMPSTAT meeting. Bratton developed the system, which has since been widely adopted. Photo by Eric Richardson


Rich Cooper: You’ve led police forces in three of the most publicly recognized and challenging environments. What did those experiences teach you?

William J. “Bill” Bratton: Well, I think that we could talk for days on end about what I learned from those experiences, but I think the central theme of all three of those experiences, plus the other three police departments I’ve led, was the importance of partnership and collaboration.

You tend to hear the word collaboration when you mention partnership, and actually I’ve a new book coming out in January 2012 called Collaborate or Perish! I wrote it with Zachary Tumin, a senior researcher at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The theme of the book is that in today’s world, if you’re not willing to collaborate across traditional boundaries, you’re just not going to make it.

In the ’70s and ’80s, police were really not doing a very good job of collaborating. It was a profession that was not really comfortable with the idea of working with communities. It was trying to do things on its own. In 1990, we had our worst crime year in the history of the country, but fortunately a new philosophy of law enforcement called community policing came into being. I was one of the early advocates, and embraced that philosophy. I had very large police departments to experiment with it: the Transit Police in New York, Boston PD [Police Department], the NYPD [New York Police Department], and LAPD [Los Angeles Police Department].

In community policing you have to be a partnership problem-solving and prevention force. Crime prevention is what police forces exist for in the first place, but we had gotten away from that. In the ’70s and ’80s, we focused on response, but had forgotten that partnership and collaboration were also key.

In Boston, New York, and L.A., the key to the success was partnership with the rest of the criminal justice agencies. You also have to know what the federal government agencies’ and most importantly the communities’ priorities and problems are. That should also include the residential as well as the business communities.

In a post-9/11 world, collaboration and partnership are absolutely essential in dealing with not only traditional crime, but also with concerns about terrorism. The Department of Homeland Security [DHS] is institutionalizing not only lateral but vertical collaboration and partnership.

Sharing information up to and including the federal government and down to and across local and state boundaries is critical.

At the upper levels of government, the CIA now has to talk with the FBI, and they have to coordinate with DHS. It’s still a work in progress, but they are all collaborating and talking, and just as importantly, state and local officials are also talking with them.

The next level down is to create fusion centers to train local police so they can deal with traditional crime as well as terrorism.

Sharing information up to and including the federal government and down to and across local and state boundaries is critical. The Suspicious Activity Reporting System, or SARS, has been created where local police forces focus on reporting to federal agencies on suspicious activity in order to deter terrorism.

We can now move that information into a regional fusion center to be analyzed and then provide that information to a joint terrorism task force to pursue the suspicious activity.

The next level is the “[If You] See Something, Say Something,” concept that was created to encourage the general public to report suspicious activity that might in the end lead to the arrest of terrorists and prevent acts of terrorism.

The idea is that working with security forces in the business sector, community groups, and training and keeping the public and the private security world aware of potential terrorists and their types of activities … will help police and others better protect us all.

So the most significant thing I learned in 40 years in law enforcement is that organizations must collaborate – no one agency can do it alone.

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