Source: USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — William Bratton’s appointment last week as New York police commissioner wasn’t necessarily a surprise.
Both Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Bratton — who previously led the nation’s largest police force under former Mayor Rudolph Guiliani — had hinted at the prospect for weeks.
Yet Bratton’s return to New York, after stints leading the Los Angeles and Boston police departments, highlights a long-revolving door in American policing in which some of the most coveted jobs often go to the most-traveled cops.
Bratton holds the distinction of being the only person to hold the chief’s rank in the nation’s two largest cities. But the list of chiefs-for-hire is long.
Before being named Philadelphia commissioner, Charles Ramsey held the same posts in Chicago and Washington. Ramsey’s tenure in Philadelphia started a short time after John Timoney, a former top deputy in New York, departed and later took the chief’s job in Miami.
Among the most recent moves: Garry McCarthy, the former chief in Newark, N.J., and deputy New York commissioner, who was appointed to Chicago’s top job in 2011.
Law enforcement analysts said the movement at the highest levels has become increasingly common in at least the past two decades as big-city mayors, whose own job security depends in large part on a successful public safety operation, have reached outside their own cities for candidates with track records at comparable departments.
“These chief jobs — everywhere — are difficult, complicated and taxing,” said University of Pittsburgh law professor David Harris, who has written extensively on law enforcement management. “He or she has to be enough of a politician to work with the mayor, city council and the public. (Some) have to deal with (labor) unions … and have a strategy for maintaining public order and fighting crime that fits the particular city. That’s quite a skill set and not many have it all.”
Bernard Melekian, the Justice Department’s former liaison to police agencies, describes the job requirements as “going beyond technical expertise” to a delicate balancing act that must satisfy three major constituencies: “the rank and file officers, the local political leadership and the community at large.”
“It is a job set on a three-legged stool,” said Melekian, also a former police chief in Pasadena, Calif. “You pull one of the legs out, the whole thing is likely to fall.”
The police officials who have held the top spot in multiple major cities have largely been successful in finding that difficult balance, Melekian said.
But there have been exceptions.
Among them, Willie Williams, who with much fanfare moved from Philadelphia to become the first black chief in the city of Los Angeles in the aftermath of the 1992 riots, endured a rocky tenure before departing in 1997 amid questions about his management style.
“It happens,” Melekian said. “The bigger the organization, an outsider may not always know where the landmines are and may trip over some political issues that weren’t immediately apparent.”
There also have been times when major cities have eschewed an outside search by looking within their own departments. Cathy Lanier, who started as a foot patrol officer in Washington, D.C., was confirmed as the city’s first woman chief in 2007. First appointed by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, she was retained by current Mayor Vincent Gray.
“A mayor’s political fortunes are often going to rise or fall on the relationship between the community and the police department, because within the community the chief is seen as the absolute direct reflection of the mayor,” Melekian said.
In New York, that reflection is a familiar one. Bratton first served as New York police commissioner from 1994 to 1996, when he presided over a period of declining violent crime before a clash with Giuliani hastened his exit.
Bratton’s seven-year tenure in Los Angeles, ending in 2009, also was marked by declining crime and the department’s release from a near-decade-long court-ordered agreement with the Justice Department that in part enforced a ban on racial profiling and revamped police training following a corruption investigation that preceded Bratton’s arrival.
“He was very committed to complying with the (court-ordered) consent decree in Los Angeles and he’s learned a lot since leaving New York the last time,” said University of Nebraska criminal justice professor Samuel Walker. “He’s bringing good baggage with him. He’s learned to do it right.”