Last week, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio chose William Bratton as his police commissioner. De Blasio ran his campaign, in large part, based upon promises to reform the New York City Police Department. Bratton, who has previously led the NYPD and the Los Angeles Police Department, has earned his share of admirers. But his past support for discriminatory policies de Blasio campaigned against makes him a curious choice for commissioner.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly have remained unapologetic for ineffective policing methods that have alienated minority communities throughout the city and beyond. Two of those methods are most notorious. The first is an aggressive stop-and-frisk program that targets almost exclusively young men of color and turns up evidence of crime in only a tiny percentage of cases. A federal district court has found the practice unconstitutional, a ruling the city has appealed.
In addition, the NYPD created a domestic spying program targeting Muslims that traces every mosque, Muslim-owned business, school, and social organization in the city and surrounding areas, without any evidence of wrongdoing. As revealed in a Pulitzer-prize winning Associated Press series, the NYPD's intrusion in the lives of innocent Muslims knows few bounds. The Department has, for example, placed informants and undercover officers in every mosque within 100 miles of New York City and photographed worshippers, tracked a middle school for girls in Newark, eavesdropped on conversations in cafes, and compiled precinct-by-precinct maps of every establishment connected to Islam in New York City, Long Island, and Newark. The program, which has not produced a single lead to criminal activity, is currently the subject of three federal court challenges.
In stark contrast to current NYPD practices, de Blasio has made clear he believes "the out-of-control stop and frisk policy was making New Yorkers less safe" and that surveillance must "be based on specifically specific information, and obviously you need to go through a careful vetting process." The mayor-elect assured us that we can be kept safe, but "in a manner that is . . . consistent with our values and our constitution."
In the past, Bratton has been a strong supporter of stop-and-frisk and Muslim mapping programs that run counter to de Blasio's policy positions. As LAPD chief, Bratton increased the number of stop-and-frisks, which in Los Angeles often involve drivers, by roughly 50 percent. The disproportionate impact of the practice on African-Americans and Latinos was about the same as the NYPD's has been. When asked about Bratton's stewardship of a stop-and-frisk program so similar to that de Blasio has criticized, both men refused to comment.
And while de Blasio opposes the blanket surveillance of Americans based on their faith, Bratton tried to implement a Muslim mapping program in Los Angeles when he was chief of the LAPD. The "community mapping" program, as described in U.S. Senate testimony by Bratton's Commander Michael Downing, was intended to take a "deeper look" into Los Angeles Muslims' "history, demographics, language, culture, ethnic breakdown, socio-economic status, and social interactions." The program would have assigned a risk profile to Muslim communities based upon factors such as whether they are "mistrustful of the mainstream media." Although the program would have closely examined people of one faith's culture and social interactions, Bratton, defying credulity, defended it as "not targeting or profiling." After public outcry, the mapping program was dropped. Notably, though, Bratton never disavowed the premise that police should attempt to map an entire religious community. He simply acknowledged that the Muslim community "really felt that it was inappropriate."
On January 1, 2014, Commissioner Bratton will head the NYPD at the direction of Mayor de Blasio, who has denounced the overuse of stop-and-frisk and the blanket surveillance of Muslims. Both Bratton and the mayor-elect should make clear that the new commissioner's commitment to reforming the NYPD in the manner de Blasio has promised is unconditional and enthusiastic. New Yorkers, many of whom supported de Blasio because of his stances on these issues, deserve nothing less.
Glenn Katon is Legal Director at Muslim Advocates, which is representing twelve plaintiffs challenging the NYPD's Muslim spying program in federal court, with co-counsel the Center for Constitutional Rights, in Hassan v. City of New York.