The Blue Revolution

William Bratton
William Bratton; drawing by David Levine

The continuing decline in the nation’s crime rate—in 1997, it fell for the sixth consecutive year—has helped to draw attention to a small group of police chiefs and crime experts who are widely believed to have brought it about. They include William Bratton, New York’s former police commissioner; Jack Maple, who served as Bratton’s deputy and who is now advising the New Orleans police department; the political scientist James Q. Wilson; George L. Kelling, coauthor of the recent book Fixing Broken Windows,1 and Herman Goldstein, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of Problem-Oriented Policing.

Over the last decade, these crime experts have helped to revolutionize the practice of policing in America. In doing so, they have affected the way we think about crime. In police circles, they have routed advocates of the old school, with its emphasis on cops riding around in squad cars, responding to reports of crime. Among criminologists, they have silenced those who argue that the police can do little about crime as long as its root causes—poverty, unemployment, racism—go unaddressed. These police officers and writers have changed the very vocabulary of law enforcement, introducing such terms as “broken windows,” “quality-of-life enforcement,” “preventive policing,” and “community policing.” They have been the subject of profiles in The New Yorker and New York, have appeared on the cover of Time, and been featured on 60 Minutes. Most recently, in August, The New York Times ran a glowing article claiming that “James Q. Wilson has insights, like those on cutting crime, that tend to prove out.”

Are such notices deserved? Can changes in police theory and practice rightly take credit for the drop in crime occurring nationwide?


Taking credit is one thing William Bratton is not shy about. In fact, he’s not shy about much of anything. In Turnaround: How America’s Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic, he describes his rapid rise from rookie cop in Boston to chief of police in New York, and the tone is triumphalist throughout. In recounting his promotions, Bratton often sounds like a twelve-year-old telling his parents of his achievements at school. “When my name was announced as executive superintendent, jaws dropped,” he writes of one promotion. By his own description, Bratton is eager for publicity (“I admit it, I don’t mind seeing my name in the papers”) and intensely ambitious (“My whole career had been about making it to the top”). In Turnaround, he writes of his “leadership style” and compares himself to Lee Iacocca (for his turnaround of Chrysler), Frank Perdue (for promoting his company by promoting himself), and even Babe Ruth. Recalling his bold predictions of success upon taking over the NYPD, Bratton writes,

Like Babe Ruth pointing his bat to the bleachers indicating where his next home run would land, I was confidently predicting the future. I was a leader who had spent my whole…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.