Lunch with the FT: Bill Bratton

The first thing I notice about Bill Bratton is that he is wearing a dapper silk tie covered with dancing elephants. I feel disappointed. Before our meeting, I had visualised Bratton as a Harrison Ford lookalike from a Hollywood police thriller. This, after all, is a man who has been dubbed “supercop” by the press, a leader so tough that when he ran the police forces in Los Angeles and New York he slashed the murder and crime rates.

Photos usually depict him in an LAPD police suit, wielding Ray-Bans and a gun; indeed, his legend is such that following rioting in Britain’s cities last month and the Murdoch phone-hacking scandals, prime minister David Cameron controversially asked the American to help overhaul a demoralised police force.

But the man before me, in Manhattan’s Beacon restaurant, wearing a suave, grey business suit, looks so civilian he might be a venerable accountant. His manner is controlled, understated in an old-fashioned way. Before our lunch meeting he had even called my mobile phone to inform me that he was running five minutes late; a rare courtesy in New York.

“So I hear that this restaurant is very good. I am keen to try it,” he says, by way of greeting, and politely asks the waiter which table offers the best acoustics; at 63, Bratton is fit, due to a disciplined gym regime, but his hearing is fading slightly. We choose our table, amid classic old-style Manhattan decor: dark panelled wood, striped banquettes. The restaurant was selected because it is close to both the FT’s New York office and the headquarters of Kroll, the private security company. After leaving the LAPD two years ago, Bratton is now chairman of Kroll, where he advises companies and governments on their security. He also serves as vice-chair of America’s Homeland Security Advisory Council.

“So I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but I was expecting a much older woman,” he remarks, scrutinising me. “You have squeezed quite a lot into a relatively short time.” He has done his research; but there again, he works for Kroll.

You have been busy too, I retort. Born in a relatively poor neighbourhood in Boston, Bratton started his career as a military police officer in Vietnam, before joining the transit police in his hometown in 1970. He was quickly promoted, but clashed with bosses after declaring – with impudent honesty – that he wanted to become commissioner. He eventually realised this ambition in 1993, via a spell in New York, only to leave a year later to take on the post of commissioner in New York under mayor Rudy Giuliani.

There, the two men worked to transform the demoralised police force and to cut crime, and enjoyed impressive success: the murder rate in New York fell between 50 and 70 per cent, depending on how it is measured. However, the pair clashed, perhaps inevitably given that both are headstrong and confident in their own ideas, and in 1996 Bratton left when it came out that he had signed a book contract in office and accepted hospitality from Henry Kravis, the buy-out king.

In 2002 he re-emerged at the LAPD, where he performed another impressive reform job: crime dropped six years in a row, and the homicide rate tumbled by a third, to its lowest level for decades. “I started policing in 1970 but I got the reputation for not staying anywhere too long,” he explains. “Normally what I do is the turnarounds, the three- to five-year options. Once the turnaround aspect of it – the transformational change – is complete and things have moved to a maintenance capacity, then it’s time for me to move on.”

Is he about to perform another “turnaround” in the UK? Before he can answer, the waiter asks for our order. “I would like the crab bisque and wood-roasted trout,” he declares; wine is not even mentioned. I choose asparagus and scallops.

A few weeks ago, a breathless British press reported that Cameron had tapped this supercop for help; some reports suggested he was being considered as the new head of London’s prestigious Metropolitan Police Force, after Sir Paul Stephenson, the last head, resigned amid a scandal about the police’s links to Rupert Murdoch’s News International.

It is easy to see why Cameron might have been tempted by Bratton’s track record. However, the suggestion sparked furious political and police infighting. Theresa May, home secretary, immediately vetoed the idea of a non-British police chief, and Ian Hanson, chairman of the Greater Manchester Police Federation, declared it “unbelievable” that “someone who lives 5,000 miles away” should be asked to provide help. More damaging still, Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, said it was “stupid” to reach across the Atlantic since America’s policing style – and gun culture – is “so fundamentally different”.

Was Bratton surprised by that controversy? He sighs, and explains that he guessed that he might be tapped by Cameron in July when he happened to hear on TV a clip of the prime minister addressing parliament about the Murdoch scandals; during that speech, Cameron revealed he was hunting for expertise beyond the UK. “I assumed that he was probably talking about me – I had met him a few times before,” Bratton observes. “But then the home secretary made it clear that she believed [the appointment] should be restricted to a British resident.”

As our starters arrive – steaming bisque is poured into his bowl with a dramatic flourish; my asparagus glistens, bright green, on my plate – Bratton explains that though he does not hold any formal role, he has been asked to advise the government on dealing with gangs. This will be performed pro bono, from his perch at Kroll, in the same way he offers advice to the US government. Some British officials dislike even this limited involvement, however, and parts of the British media are now hunting for scandal in his past.

“The papers have been knocking on the doors of all my former in-laws from my previous marriages,” says Bratton, who has been married four times. “But I am on very good relations with all my former wives and their families, so they can knock all they want. I anticipated that. I know the game.”

What did come as a surprise, he confesses, was the visceral hostility of some leading British police officials, such as the influential Orde, to his involvement, as a foreigner. “I considered Hugh a very good friend. Hugh and [former Met police commissioner] Ian Blair and I had worked together to bring the American and British police forces more closely together,” he says. “So what Hugh said [about me] was very disappointing. I think it diminished significantly Hugh’s credibility.”

But would he even want to be head of the Met? Bratton looks at me intensely. It is clear he thought this could have been the perfect end to his career. “I am a great believer in using crises to create change and accelerate it. The Brits really do have the opportunity to take a look and design [the police system] – the crisis you have experienced is very similar to what happened in New York [in the 1980s].” He pauses. “Or perhaps I would compare London right now more with the way that the LAPD was in 2002 – a dispirited workforce, a lack of trust of leadership in the organisation and a profound loss of confidence in the leadership of government. And that is only to be expected when the [UK] government is laying people off ... Morale is awful. All you have to do is read their police blogs.”

As the recent riots showed, parts of British society now feel dangerously alienated from the police and gang culture is spreading, particularly in cities such as London. “The issue of gangs is something that I have intense familiarity with. Particularly, Los Angeles, but also Boston and New York have all had gang problems. And I do believe that the American experience, both good and bad, has direct relevance with what London is dealing with.”

But, I point out, Britain does not have widespread gun culture, or the brutality of LA (where, as Orde pointed out, there are no fewer than 400 gangs); is there really a lesson to be learnt there? Bratton nods; London, he argues, is “at a turning point”; gangs could soon spin out of control, partly because of the dangerous new influence of social media. “On the crime issue, the race issues, the gang issues you are dealing with, you’re half a generation behind us, 10 years or so in experience. But there is a lot to learn from us [in America]. In the same way that we have had a lot to learn from you before – on things like soccer violence, where we were behind you.”

So what would he do if he were in charge of the Met now? He starts a steady, forceful monologue, so caught up in his thoughts that he stares a few inches to the left of my face, rather than looking at me. Bratton clearly possesses a profound sense of mission. On one level, it is impressive and inspiring; I can imagine following him across the barricades. But I can also understand why some, such as Giuliani, have disliked him and accused him of arrogance; he is supremely confident in his ideas.

In the case of the British police, he thinks reform needs to incorporate several strands. First, he believes that police forces need plenty of bodies: in LA, for example, he campaigned successfully to hire another 1,000 police, in the face of severe political opposition. Second, he is strongly committed to the so-called Compstat technique of policing, which he helped develop. This involves using intensive data collection and intelligence to track detailed movements of groups in small neighbourhoods, and then follow up repeatedly, with so-called “predictive policing”.

But, contrary to his “supercop” tag, he also believes in community involvement: the police need to be constantly visible and accessible, and create community pride through small steps. This last policy is often referred as the “broken windows” policy, referring to the idea, put forward in the early 1980s by social scientists James Q Wilson and George L Kelling, that you must address minor offences on the street in order to build morale and uphold a sense of order. Or as he says, the police must “address the little things as well as the big things”; cutting the murder rate will not have impact if residents still see graffiti and prostitutes.

“American and British policing to this day tends to be very exclusive and exclusionary, but my style of policing has always been very inclusive – I bring a lot of people together from different backgrounds, who might not always want to work together. Being a successful police chief today is like being in a circus: a centre-ring with lions, tigers and bears – you have these animals which would normally kill each other, but through your control and influence they perform. A successful police chief has to work with the good, bad and ugly.” he explains.

The really crucial element of all this, he adds, is collaboration across non-traditional boundaries. “What is going on in Britain right now is going to require a lot of collaboration ... and one of those collaborations might be to bring in the Bill Brattons in the world to hear what they have to say.”

His soup is cleared away, almost entirely untouched, and our main courses are served. His trout is slightly blackened, and looks delicious. But he ignores it. Instead, he talks about poverty and social responsibility. “Policing and society in both your country and mine in the 1960s and 1970s excused a way of behaviour and created entitlement programmes around the idea that crime was caused by racism, poverty, demographics and so on.

“But as a policeman I always had a different perspective. Crime can be influenced by poverty but it’s always caused by human behaviour ... Police are charged with controlling that behaviour. It is crucial to maintain social order,” he argues. Similarly, he does not want to blame the gang culture just on economics; what is also going on is the “distintegration of the family ... Humans are social animals, they want to belong to something.”

Our main course is cleared away; he has eaten barely a third of his fish. He orders Diet Coke, in place of dessert. It suddenly occurs to me that I have barely seen him laugh. What does he do to let off steam, I ask. Does he get together with old police buddies, go drinking, like in movies? “I am not somebody who has a lot of close, intimate friends,” he replies, adding: “I have professional confidants, but not personal confidants. I share nothing in the way of my personal thoughts and life.” I can well believe it.

Does anything make him laugh? “I have a great sense of humour. I tend to be a very optimistic person. I have flashes of anger but I can honestly say that I don’t bear a grudge.” He pauses. “Giuliani and I have met several times.”

No hard feelings about being cut out of the top job in Britain? He shakes his head, and stresses that as “an Anglophile” he loves visiting the UK. In 2009, he was awarded a CBE by the Queen, in recognition of his past efforts in, ironically, promoting transatlantic police co-operation. What if he does become Cameron’s “adviser”? “I am just pleased to have the opportunity to go over, throw my two cents in, take it or leave it. Either way, I get to hang out in London.”

Supercop is not about to disappear quietly.

Gillian Tett is the FT’s US managing editor

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