US 'supercop' rides controversy into Britain

21st August 2011, Comments 0 comments

When Bill Bratton brought "zero tolerance" to New York's mean streets, critics demonized him as the stereotypical, gun-slinging US cop. But the veteran police chief, now set to advise Britain, is not quite as mean -- or perhaps brilliant -- as the legends suggest.

The former head of the Boston, New York and Los Angeles police departments quickly caught the eye of British Prime Minister David Cameron in the wake of riots in London, host to the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Because he's not British, Bratton was barred from taking the vacant helm of the troubled Metropolitan Police in London. Instead, he will be an advisor.

But regardless of his eventual role, Bratton is already causing controversy.

Critics associate Bratton, 63, with the muscular, even ruthless policing that began rolling back rampant, drug-fueled New York crime between 1994 and 1996.

Working with the tough mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, Bratton declared "zero tolerance" for murderers and petty vandals alike, backing up the order with what many thought was excessive aggression.

Crime did drop dramatically, but critics say there was an incalculable cost.

"Some people credit that with significant reductions in crime, but many others, including us, are concerned about the hugely negative impact it has had on community relations," New York Civil Liberties Union associate legal director Christopher Dunn told AFP.

"We see that to this day with a police department that is very, very aggressive with low-level offences, and that creates a lot of conflicts."

Fans are equally passionate, saying that Bratton's focus on minor crimes, combined with the scientific CompStat system of tracking crime data, was a stroke of genius.

Dubbed the "broken window policy," the essential idea was to fix long-ignored quality of life problems that provided a backdrop for much more serious crimes.

"The secret of it is the blending of big things and little things," Bratton told Time magazine this month. "You don't want people to fear the police -- you want the criminal element to fear and respect the police. Criminals have to fear that if they commit a crime, they will get caught."

Gary LaFree, a criminology professor at the University of Maryland, believes there's "a bit of over-claiming" around Bratton.

Experts note, after all, that crime across the United States has dropped since the 1990s, including in places that did not espouse Bratton's methods.

Yet LaFree credits Bratton with forging a "revolution" in expectations of the police themselves.

Before, "the attitude in the police toward crime was that crime was almost like a naturally occurring event, like a tornado or an earthquake -- that there was nothing that much could be done," LaFree said.

Bratton's idea was "that crime is something we can apply a logical approach to and that it's important to gather evidence and try to document what works and what doesn't."

"The attitude is very important. The attitude now is 'there are things we can do,'" LaFree said.

Whether working in three of America's toughest cities will necessarily prepare Bratton for an assignment across the ocean, where tabloids know him as "supercop," is another question.

Lewis Yablonsky, a sociologist and authority on gangs, said Bratton was "an effective police chief" and noted that Los Angeles-style gang culture had spread not only across the United States but also into Britain.

However, Yablonsky said the differences would outweigh the similarities across the Atlantic.

"In England, they were trying to overcome the bad publicity and were reaching out for some new cure and they thought of Bratton. I don't think he knows that much about British culture."

© 2011 AFP

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