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Bill Bratton on police reform: "One cop can effectively improve the image of the profession, or destroy it"

Bill Bratton on police reform
Bill Bratton on police reform 09:12

The tourists are returning to Times Square, a welcome sign for New York City, and its former top cop, Bill Bratton. "It's so clean!" he laughed. "It's about the cleanest I've seen it, which is nice."

But not everything he sees, or hears, is nice. When a bicyclist carrying a boom box broadcast his presence nearby, Bratton told correspondent Mark Whitaker, "He's having a good time for himself – I don't know about you, but he's annoying the hell out of me."

Former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton with correspondent Mark Whitaker in Times Square.  CBS News

Bratton, who led police departments in Los Angeles, Boston, and in New York (twice), then stopped to chat with a couple of officers.

Whitaker asked, "You say the cop is the face of the government, it's the face of the state?"

"It's the most visible, the one that has probably the most power of any individual in government – that cop on the street," Bratton said.

They're walking the beat, just as he did more than half-a-century ago. Much has changed, but not everything.

"I would argue being a cop today in America is tougher than probably any other time going back to the early '70s," he said. "They are feeling not appreciated. It's a frustrating time for them. So many of them are leaving the profession."

That's not all that troubles him. Bratton is one of the leading architects of modern policing, whose reforms and innovative approaches lowered crime – and, he said, bolstered the bond between the public and the men and women who serve and protect.

"The changes in the profession over the years have been phenomenal," he said. "It's as if for 50 years, we were doing nothing. That we're just making time. And that's my frustration."

In his new book, "The Profession" (Penguin Press), Bratton fears much of what he helped create is crumbling: "We have a national crisis. We have 50 states, 3,600 counties, God knows how many cities and towns. We have 18,000 police forces. And we have, unlike many other democracies, very few national guidelines."

Penguin Press

There were even fewer when Bratton was a kid in the White working-class Boston neighborhood of Dorchester. At nine-years-old, he was already dreaming of a life in law enforcement. He showed Whitaker a copy of a book, George J. Zaffo's "Your Police": "This was the book I checked out of the Boston Public Library every chance I got," he said.

He joined the force in 1970, patrolman badge no. 1190.

Bratton said a problem then is still a problem now: a lack of preparation. "My training was about six to seven weeks, before I was given a gun and the blue uniform and put out on the street. Training now should be expanded to a minimum of a year. Just think of the power that we're putting into the hands of a young man or woman, the power to take a life."

Bratton quickly rose through the ranks, becoming commissioner in 1993, when he embraced the concept of "community policing."

"The three Ps, it's very easy to understand: partnership, work with the community; two, the problems in the community, big and small; and three, prevention – deal with it in a way you solve the problem so it goes away."

A year later, Mayor Rudy Giuliani lured him away to stem the crime wave sweeping New York.

Asked to describe Giuliani, he said, "Very tough to work for. Very Machiavellian in many respects. But whether you like him or not, he did change the city for the better in many respects, in the sense that he made it safe."

Bratton said "broken windows" policing – cracking down on quality-of-life offenses – and CompStat, a computerized crime tracking system, all played a part. The turnaround landed him on the cover of Time Magazine.

His boss wasn't happy.

"The person that was doing the story wanted the photo," recalled Bratton. "And he said, 'We have the opportunity to do it with just you, or you can ask the mayor." I thought about three seconds, and said, 'Let's do it just me.'"

"Well, you knew what you were doing then," laughed Whitaker.

"It was basically going to be my exit song."

In 2002, he was appointed the chief of police in L.A., a department plagued by racism and brutality.

While there, he met a Black community organizer name Alice Harris, known as "Sweet Alice." "She really helped me to understand so many of the Black issues in L.A. and she says to me that, 'Chief, you know why we like you so much?' And I said, 'No, Sweet Alice. Why is that?' 'You see us. You really see us.' That's the highest accolade I've ever received."

Whitaker said, "So, that's a great story, but why do so many Black Americans not feel seen by the police?"

"'Cause they're not. They really are not," he replied.

Bratton returned to New York in 2014. Six months after being sworn in, an officer put a fatal chokehold on Eric Garner, an unarmed black man selling loose cigarettes outside a Staten Island storefront.

"The idea of trying to take him down, just the two of them, and both of them were smaller than Garner  -- Garner was very, very big. And effectively, it was just a bad tactic, and it ended up in a terrible tragedy."

"Garner was selling loose cigarettes, which wasn't legal. He was a big, Black man. But that didn't mean he deserved to die," Whitaker said.

Bratton said, "Oh, correctly. So often with these struggles, particularly over minor events, such as the sale of loosies, nobody deserves to die at the hands of the police. But it happens. It happens a thousand times a year."

Along with the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Garner's death sparked nationwide protests, fueling the Black Lives Matter movement, that was reignited again last year with the murder of George Floyd.

Bratton said, "I have a mantra: 'Cops count; police matter.' The individual action of a cop, the collection action of the police matter. So, Derek Chauvin's actions as an individual cop, look at the significance of that action. He did so much damage to the American police profession, unrivaled damage to the profession around the world."

Bratton supports many reforms that have been called for since Chauvin's murder of Floyd, including mandatory police body cameras and limits on qualified immunity, which protects police from criminal charges if they use deadly force in the line of duty.

But he rejects the most radical buzzword: Defund the Police.

"It's one of the reasons I'm so frustrated with the hashtag #DefundThePolice. You need to refund the police," he said. "What I'm hoping coming out of this bill in Congress, the George Floyd Bill, when it comes out, is that it will effectively force government to spend resources on the essential medicine to fix this thing. And police are the essential medicine. That's the reality."

Whitaker asked, "Doesn't history also tell us that every time we see one of these surges in violence, it sort of gives everybody an excuse to back off and to not engage with reform?"

"That's the learning process. I hope that we have finally come to embrace that out of this terribly tragic year that we understand the importance of. We can deal with race, we can deal with crime, we can deal with the other issues that cause so much fear. We know what to do about this."

Ultimately, that is the optimist in Bratton … convinced that positive change remains possible.

Whitaker asked, "So, if you were a kid today, like, you were starting out in Dorchester, thinking about a career in policing and what you could achieve, what would you tell him?"

"I'd still go into the business," he replied. "It's a tough profession now, tougher than I think any time in my 50-year history with it. But it's still a profession. If you get it right, you can get so much right."

Bratton, who is married to Rikkie Kleiman, a legal contributor to CBS News, now works as a security consultant in the private sector. He's retired from the Profession, at least for now: "I wish I was ten years younger because to get back in the game, to get back into the game …"

"You're still hungry? You'd like another whack?"

"What's the expression? Never say never!"

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Story produced by Gabriel Falcon. Editor: Lauren Barnello. 

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