Broken Bullets, A Response To Bill Bratton

Even after the dubious correction posted by the Gothamist about NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton’s pronouncement of “what is democracy,” where the asserted duty to “respect” police morphed into a duty to “respond” to police, the dysmorphic vision of our relative roles in society remained manifest.  Not to feed into the anger and craziness, but the primary duty, the first responsibility, is Bratton’s to make his cops treat people with respect and courtesy, not the other way around.

This is dangerous turf to discuss.  For those filled with anger and hatred toward the police, as an occupying force subjugating the citizenry through the abuse of their authority and force, this feeds into the cries for resistance and violence.  If the cops are going to break into your house at night, or beat the living daylights out of you before figuring out if you’re the guy they even want to beat (and putting aside the entire question of the wrongfulness of the beating at all), then must we not resist? Must we not defend our lives, our homes, our families against this “band of violent thugs” called the police?

The adage heard too many times is “better to be judged by twelve than carried by six.”  It’s uttered by both sides, and a foundational justification for the First Rule of Policing.  But it’s hard, if not impossible, to argue that not all police are violent, malevolent, when a person finds themselves on the receiving end of arbitrary violence at the hands of the police. 

Would Bratton ask us to be good Americans by acquiescing in our own deaths?  What if it was only a debilitating beating? Would it matter if they were beating the wrong person or the right person?  Would our children be any better off knowing their parent was killed so that a cop could make it home safely?

By no stretch of the imagination do I advocate the use of violence to resist the police.  It rarely turns out well, and more importantly, horrific abuses of force remain, thankfully, the outlier.  Most interactions don’t end in anyone getting hurt, and for everyone’s sake, I think it’s best to keep it that way and fight any wrongfulness afterward.  But this does little to comfort the person who isn’t sure whether he’s the guy who will die today because of some cop’s “well-intended” use of excessive force.

I put “well-intended” in scare quotes because it so easy to explain, sometimes lie, about why force was necessary.  “I felt threatened,” is really all it takes, and then make up some utter nonsense about “an aggressive stance” and toss in a “clenched fist.”  To police and those who adore them, this explains everything.  And whoever ended up dead or beaten got what they deserve.

Bill Bratton is no fool.  Tone deaf, perhaps, but hardly stupid.  It cannot be possible that the killing of Eric Garner, so early in the tenure of his second stab at commissioner, doesn’t trouble him enormously.  He wants to be a star, beloved by all for both the eradication of crime and the spread of happiness across the City.  He wants a statue of himself in front of 1 Police Plaza.

In his “rant” about Bratton’s remarks, Mark Draughn at WindyPundit ended with a point that struck me:

If “broken windows” works, they should try it on cops. Maybe if they prosecuted the crap out of these cops and hit them with truly pants-shitting prison sentences, it would discourage the NYPD’s culture of lawlessness.

I happen to agree with much of the theoretical underpinnings of the Broken Windows theory of policing.  I remember the South Bronx when Bratton first pursued this approach, and it was a festering hole of hopelessness and decay.  When small offenses are ignored, tolerated, they lend themselves to an atmosphere where the basic social norms, from a lack of courtesy toward each other to petty destruction, is a way of life.  It’s no good for anyone. It’s no way to live.

This isn’t to say that every offense demands arrest and prosecution, and certainly not the use of force, but that acquiescence in the petty conduct that makes life more unpleasant for others leads to a place that looks like the South Bronx back then.

Windy’s point, that if the Broken Windows theory applies to others, why shouldn’t it apply to the police, really hit home.  We tolerate all manner of petty misconduct by cops.  We’ve come to tolerate horrific misconduct, such as the killing of a human being, by cops.

Bratton comes to his job with enormous clout.  He’s something of a legend in the police world, with the bona fides to change the culture if he chooses.  The myriad small wrongs, cops running red lights and speeding to be there when the donuts come out of the oven, can be stopped.  Cops speaking rudely to people who ask for directions on the streets of Manhattan.  Cops tossing black kids in Harlem to make their numbers. Cops killing Eric Garner.  If the police find that the small wrong aren’t tolerated, maybe they will take seriously the notion that big wrongs, the horrible wrongs, like killing Eric Garner, will not be tolerated.

Maybe this is overly optimistic, a naïve fantasy of a lawyer who wants to believe that we can do far, far better than we are now, without more harm coming to anyone.  But if Bill Bratton wants that statue of him in front of 1 Police Plaza, and believes that Broken Windows works, then he should make it happen for his cops first.  Don’t demand of others what you refuse to do yourself.

There doesn’t have to be another press conference to rationalize why his cops killed another man, and what we can do to make his cops’ job easier and lives happier, before he stops the madness.  If his theory is true, then let Bill Bratton put it to good use with his cops. Maybe then he’ll earn the respect the Gothamist mistakenly wrote he demanded of us.



30 thoughts on “Broken Bullets, A Response To Bill Bratton

  1. william doriss

    “We do not hold our police officers to a standard of perfection.” (Atty. Burton Weinstein, 2001.) Nor do we, of our prosecutors and judges, irregardless of the circumstances.
    They all have their jobs to perform. Unfortunately, their [perceived] job descriptions don’t necessarily/don’t always coincide with our [citizens’] notions.
    Bratton’s current tour of duty could end badly. We are disappointed in DeBlasio. He was getting off to such a good start, until… Broken Windows is nothing more than a poorly thought-out shibboleth–pretext–excuse for the cops doing what they want to do anyway. I don’t think too many of them give it much thought, really.
    And as for throwing the word “democracy” around so flippantly, that is just plain shameless.

  2. Tim Cushing

    I like the idea but I don’t imagine there are many police departments, including the NYPD, willing to take on police unions. It’s pretty tough to maintain positive momentum with a ‘broken windows’ approach when an entity follows along behind you, smashing the windows you just repaired.

    1. SHG Post author

      The practicality of change is difficult, it not impossible, to imagine for a host of reasons, police unions being big among them. But that’s why someone with the level of credibility like Bratton, if anyone, might have the clout to make it happen. Whether that’s so (and I may very well overestimate Bratton’s clout), the first question is whether he has the will to change the culture.

  3. Mark Draughn

    Reading your post, I realize I got broken windows wrong in the paragraph you quote. Applying it to the police wouldn’t mean punishing cops who kill people for no reason — although they should certainly be punished — it would mean punishing lots of other officers for those “myriad small wrongs” you speak of, so that officers assume they will be punished for breaking the rules, and when they have to make the big decisions, they make them with that assumption in mind.

  4. Mike Paar

    If Chief Bratton had any intentions of changing the culture of violence among those he leads wouldn’t he have seized upon this opportunity to at least hint his displeasure at his officers for their actions instead of making excuses for their unjustified violence?

    I have begun to believe that police want to provoke a violent response from cop-haters. After all, there are a dozen or so professional organizations such as the National Police Chiefs Association, National Association of Police Organizations, the Major Cities Chiefs Police Association, et. al. that assure all chiefs are on the same page. What would the police gain by provoking such a response? Other than increased funding and the addition of even more officers, they would be in a position to push legislation outlawing or at least curtailing certain activities such as recording cops, and perhaps even constraining the media from publishing articles detailing police misconduct.

    Before anyone says this just isn’t possible or that legislators couldn’t pass laws of this type, I’d remind you that after four officers were killed inside a coffee shop in Washington state a few years ago, the local sheriff asked legislators for funding to create a task force that would investigate anyone posting disparaging remarks about cops. The unit’s codename would have been “RADAR,” an acronym for “Risk Assessment, Deterrence and Referral”. The funding bill for this task force died in committee so presumably the task force doesn’t exist. But the sheriff’s idea provided a glimpse as to the reaction of law enforcement should further violence be visited upon police officers.

    1. SHG Post author

      That’s an excellent question, and one best answered by whether Bratton, whose first reaction was to condemn the use of a chokehold on Eric Garner rather than deny or defend it, meant to provoke and inflame, or inartfully sought to quell further violence.

      He sits on the cusp of being a leader or one of the gang of commissioners/chiefs who share a bunker mentality. He has a choice to make, and this would be an excellent opportunity to do so.

  5. Dan

    In theory I like the idea of applying broken windows theory to cops. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t fully understand, lots of cops have an us against the world mentality and a persecution complex (we’re being persecuted, not we love to persecute others, although that might also be true) and I feel that that attitude leads to things like Eric Garner’s killing, where the refusal to respect my authoriteh brings about a violent confrontation. I fear that things will only get worse if cops feel they’re getting it from both sides- people in the street who don’t respect their authoriteh, and 1pp looking to roast them for wearing their hat crooked. They already feel that way and I feel like it will just increase the better to be judged by six attitude. Why cops feel they get so little respect though, is beyond me. Its the only job where you can collect a government salary in exchange for loafing and routinely be referred to as a hero by the news media and the general public.

    1. SHG Post author

      Well, yeah. That’s the problem in need of a solution. That’s the culture that needs to change, all while the cowboys at PoliceOne scream about how they need to teach us a good lesson in respecting their authoritah.

    2. ExCop-LawStudent

      The feeling of persecution among police officers is very real, and in some ways, based in reality. In a custodial death situation, an officer is going to go through a gamut of investigations compared to what a normal citizen goes through. He will:

      1. Go through a standard criminal investigation, with all of his Miranda rights supposedly intact. (More on this later).
      2. He’ll go through an administrative investigation, where he has no rights. He has to answer any and all questions, may be ordered to take a polygraph, pysch test, etc. All of these are then available to a plaintiff’s lawyer in the inevitable lawsuit.
      3. Be investigated by a grand jury, even if the department does not present a criminal case to the DA.
      4. Be investigated by the FBI for civil rights violations.
      5. Be lambasted by the press, but not be able to defend himself because he is forbidden to talk to the press by his department.
      6. If criminally tried by the state and acquitted, may face federal charges.

      I noted above that all of his rights are intact during his criminal investigation, but in any but huge departments, there will be discussions between IA and the criminal investigators. If one of the IA investigators (intentionally or not) slips up and says something, then the officer just lost his right to remain silent, etc.

      You’re not going to change that attitude.

      You should therefore work on what you can–making sure that the smaller infractions, being rude, etc., are punished. You fix the broken windows at the precinct house, so they don’t have a feeling of entitlement, so they don’t feel that they can ignore the rules. You don’t take over 1,000 complaints of chokeholds and only discipline one officer. You fix the problem.

      1. Charlesmorrison

        Focusing solely on the criminal investigation, ex cop, as that’s my interest, I have a few questions:

        As to the second point-that situation is only a product of the desire to maintain employment, right? One wouldn’t have to participate in the administrative investigation, including psych Evals and polygraphs unless one wanted to remain an officer. I’m not saying that’s a great choice, but I want to be sure I understand that point. If time allows, please elaborate.

        As to point six – yeah, dual sovereignty is a bitch. Pretty anathema to the idea of double jeopardy, but it is what it is.

        Lastly, when you say that an IA may intentionally or unintentionally pass something on to the criminal investigators, resulting in the loss of the 5th, is that to say the criminal side of the investigation doesn’t regularly get at those statements anyway? I mean, plaintiff’s lawyers get them.

        Is it simply a mutual understanding that the criminal side won’t talk to the IA folks unless they seem willing or won’t seek to subpoena their investigatory work unless necessary? Once a target talks, it’s over, no matter the reason or setting (assuming it’s voluntary, of course).

        I’m really curious about the dual investigations and how any officer could possibly have a third party waive the 5th. He already did that. Again, a vary Hobbesian choice, but many folks have to make those when accused of a crime.

        I understand your a law student and an ex cop, which means you may have familial obligations, but if time permits, could you elaborate?

        1. ExCop-LawStudent

          “As to the second point-that situation is only a product of the desire to maintain employment, right?”

          Correct. If you don’t mind getting fired for insubordination (refusal to answer questions, etc) or resigning, you have to answer.

          “Lastly, when you say that an IA may intentionally or unintentionally pass something on to the criminal investigators, resulting in the loss of the 5th, is that to say the criminal side of the investigation doesn’t regularly get at those statements anyway? I mean, plaintiff’s lawyers get them.”

          No, the criminal side is not allowed to see or use those statements. The statements are not voluntary, they are coerced under Garrity v. New Jersey, 385 U.S. 493 (1967); see also Lefkowwitz v. Turley, 414 U.S. 70 (1973). Any statement gained under Garrity is inadmissible in a criminal prosecution.

          1. Charlesmorrison

            Thanks, ex cop. Having never rep’d an officer (other than an OVI or DV), I didn’t know of these special protections.

            I haven’t looked at the cases yet, but my curiosity is only more piqued. How an officer can be said to have made involuntary statements to an employer (although admittedly a state actor) is beyond me. No union rules, employment contract, can really waive or secure constitutional rights ex ante, can they? Weird.

            I do truly appreciate the response. You learn something everyday ( sorry wasting the bandwidth SJ).

            1. ExCop-LawStudent

              “The choice given petitioners was either to forfeit their jobs or to incriminate themselves. The option to lose their means of livelihood or to pay the penalty of self-incrimination is the antithesis of free choice to speak out or to remain silent.” Garrity, at 497. The opinion was 5-4, by J. Douglas.

              You may want to look at Peter Westen, Answer Self-Incriminating Questions or Be Fired, 37 Am. J. Crim. L. 97 (Spring 2010). It’s a fairly good primer on a complicated subject.

      2. Dan

        Being rude to a cop is not a broken windows issue.

        While that’s a lot of administrative proceedings and whatnot for a cop to go through- here’s what would happen to a non-cop at their job- they’d be fired, no questions asked.

        Cops complain boohoo, I lost five of my 87 vacation days after going to the trial room. All of that is an alternative to being fired.

        1. ExCop-LawStudent

          Dan, the issue is not being rude to an officer, it is an officer being rude to a citizen. That is not acceptable and must be disciplined when it occurs.

          As far as non-cops being fired? Yeah, so? What does that have to do with holding officers accountable? Try to keep up.

          1. Dan

            What non-cops being fired has to do with it is that cops and ex-cops should stfu about all proceedings they have to go through, all of which are an alternative to being fired.

            1. SHG Post author

              You guys are talking past each other. ExCop’s is talking about what the actual procedure is, so that any discussion about it will fit within the framework of reality. You’re talking about that fact that you have no sympathy toward the actual procedure as it, like so many other things that apply to the police, provides safeguards that no one else in society enjoys. If a non-cop would be fired for it, a cop should be too. Different discussions.

            2. ExCop-LawStudent

              Scott, I disagree. If you are comparing a cop to an at-will employee, sure, there is a major difference. But that’s not the proper comparison.

              You should compare the cop to a union-shop employee, where the union contract provides for certain procedures to follow in order to discipline or terminate someone. Plus, it is not just the cops, it is all civil service employees.

            3. SHG Post author

              You’re still not hearing Dan’s beef, which has nothing to do with the particular shop rules of any given occupation. But that said, no other civil servants enjoy the law enforcement officer’s bill of rights, or, for the most part, have union shop rules comparable to cops. NYC teachers may be the exception, as they can’t be fired either, but pretty much every other employee, union or at will, can be summarily fired for engaging in violent crime on the job.

            4. ExCop-LawStudent

              No, I understand what you and he are saying, but your last comment made me realize that I need to be clearer on the issue.

              Police officers are the only civilian profession who, as part of their job duties, are expected to use violence against others. That use of violence is subject to statutory and legal controls, and if the officer is outside of the realm of acceptable force, then he is subject to discipline and / or prosecution. But there must be an investigation to determine the facts.

              A like case would be if an attorney examined a witness who committed perjury on the stand. Did the attorney know about it beforehand or otherwise suborn perjury? Should they be immediately disbarred, or should there be an investigation to determine the facts?

            5. SHG Post author

              Important point. The place where us Philistines get in trouble with the concept is that non-cops are arrested, prosecuted, killed, beaten, without the benefit of a lengthy, detailed investigation, replete with rights that distinguish police from all others in society. In some instances, such an investigation is warranted. But this is the normal course in essentially all instances. It’s more than a bit disconcerting that your random citizen gets 30 seconds of though while cops get, well, far, far more.

            6. ExCop-LawStudent

              I agree, somewhat.

              That is one of the reasons that we need to apply the Broken Window philosophy to police discipline.

              For example, the narcotics officer in SA – what information did he have to support taking down Carlos? That he was Hispanic? A police officer cannot just tackle someone. He should be off the street.

              Officer Worden, who you featured here was the subject of 14 complaints over 7 years, before he beat Mark Maher. One involved throwing his girlfriend over the hood of a car? He should have been off of the street before this.

              All of these come from a sense of entitlement. Until you start holding the officers accountable for minor violations, the big ones will continue to be blown off too.

              And I agree that you should have the same investigative standards. For example, Dallas PD allows an officer involved in a duty-related shooting time to compose their mind, talk to their lawyer, review tapes, etc. A Dallas citizen should have the same considerations.

  6. Pingback: The Broken Windows at the Precinct House | ExCop-LawStudent

  7. Thomas R. Griffith

    Sir, the Blue Bloods gang (the NYPD affiliates) haven’t killed the right person (yet). When they do, you’ll know it. We’ll all know it.

    Speaking of donuts, they must be laced with steroids or, something due to the cops up that way all seeming to have very big heads & bellies with one or, more parts of their body not in sync with the rest, in conjunction with short tempers. One thing is for certain, unchecked Roid-Rage & the Gangs of New York, have a negative effect on tourism (I’ve shot down every single “Let’s go to NY this year” vacation plan for years (for my family and any others that voiced it).

    Note: We don’t travel to or, through certain zip codes in Texas for the same type of and level of accepted corruption (dues paying gangbangers with badges). This is exactly why I wish you’d give me a heads up when headed this way so I can steer you away from them.


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