Can Bratton Save New York? Yes, and Here's How


In the latter half of 2014, New York City was on the brink of an eruption. Following the non-indictment of the NYPD officer in the Eric Garner case, citizens began mostly peaceful protests with the support of liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio, ironically under the protection of the NYPD whom they were protesting. However, when two NYPD patrolmen were assassinated in their car, the police force barked back. They ‘turned their back’ on the mayor, accused him of having blood on his hands, and eventually went into a ‘slowdown’ by abstaining from “non-required” activities such as issuing parking tickets and summons for misdemeanors. Commissioner William Bratton used draconian tactics to end the slowdown, the media shifted their focus onto ISIS, deflate-gate, and the 2016 election. The public attention on the showdown between the Mayor and the NYPD had moved on, and the crisis seemed averted. 

After six months of unrest, tensions have eased and things have returned back to normal for the most part. But, normal is precisely what led to these circumstances in the first place. In the absence of announcements of large, wide-sweeping efforts to address the events of 2014, it begs the question:

Is New York City living in a pressure cooker just waiting to blow?

Introducing Dowling Street & the Series

Headquartered in New York City, Dowling Street is a boutique firm that combines management consulting with political strategy. Not a lobbying or advocacy organization, we specialize in incorporating the culture and politics (both internal and external) in problem analysis to provide strategies that excel in practicality, predictability and sustainability.

The Adaptive Leadership Framework serves as the foundation for our analytical approach. Developed from over 35 years of academic research by Dr. Ron Heifetz and Prof. Marty Linsky at the Harvard Kennedy School, the Adaptive Leadership Framework is a practical toolkit that helps organizations adapt and thrive in challenging environments to implement system change.

For the past three months, Dowling Street has focused its attention on answering the question above and its inevitable follow-up: what can be done to prevent the next wave of explosive turmoil? Specifically, what steps must be taken to create a more sustainable working relationship between the NYPD and the de Blasio administration?

We approached this assignment as an external case analysis. We proceeded as we would with any client project with the only difference being that, in this case, we weren’t hired by any particular organization. In light of this, we chose Commissioner William Bratton as our hypothetical client. We chose Commissioner Bratton as we needed someone to direct our analysis towards, someone central to the conflict. Thus, our assignment became: What should Commissioner Bratton (and by extension, the NYPD) do to respond to this crisis?

We can’t emphasize this enough: this is not an exercise in investigative journalism. There are members of the press who are far more talented and experienced than us in that regard. We are not trying to “get the story.”

Instead, we have a highly effective approach to understand and analyze problems, particularly large, complicated ones. We invested our time and effort because we are uniquely qualified to help and are experts in this field. We have divided our case analysis into seven parts, one for each step of the Dowling Street Execution Methodology (see inset), and will be releasing them over the next two months to share our analysis.

Dowling Street Execution (DSX) Methodology was developed from our wealth of diverse client experience to frame thinking and solve problems. It will guide our efforts as we move from Diagnosis to Strategy, and finally Execution

Dowling Street Execution (DSX) Methodology was developed from our wealth of diverse client experience to frame thinking and solve problems. It will guide our efforts as we move from Diagnosis to Strategy, and finally Execution

Step 1: Understand the Conflict

The first step in DSX is to understand the conflict, and to begin decoupling it from the underlying challenge. This distinction is paramount to addressing the root cause of organizational issues driving the situation, as opposed to dealing with the symptoms of the problem. The conflict in this case is well documented and we found nearly thirty events that seemed relevant. The underlying challenge is what we will determine during the Diagnostic phase of the project. But, before identifying the underlying challenge and considering solutions, we need to have a full grasp of the conflict, a critical portion of our work with any client. We divided the key events into three distinct phases: prior to July 2014, July 2014 – December 2014, post December 2014. Here are some of the highlights:

Prior to July 2014: A Legacy of Growing Tensions

Tensions between Mayoral administrations and the NYPD are not unique to the current mayor. In fact, squabbles have gone back at least as far as the late 1960s during the Lindsay Administration. Moreover, Dinkins, Giuliani and Bloomberg, each had varying degrees of dysfunction in their relationship with the NYPD.

We began with the de Blasio campaign in 2013. It is no secret that Mayor de Blasio ran on a platform that was highly critical of the Bloomberg policing strategy that has come to be known as “stop-and-frisk”. This included calling for a PD Inspector General and, during a mayoral debate, supporting a bill that would allow people to sue in state court by claiming racial profiling.

In November 2013, de Blasio was elected in a landslide victory and soon thereafter named William Bratton commissioner of the NYPD. Bratton served as commissioner in NY under Giuliani. Since then, he served as the Chief of Police of the LAPD from 2002 – 2009 and held several positions in the private sector.

Immediately upon taking office in January 2014, Mayor de Blasio vowed there would be changes. As early as his inauguration speech, he promised to reform the stop-and-frisk policy, stating that it contributed to a social inequality that threatens to unravel the fabric of NYC. He likened its effects on par with the fiscal collapse or terrorist attacks, affirming that it requires urgent attention.

July 2014 – December 2014: Eric Garner Dies and the Fallout Begins

In July, Eric Garner, an unarmed black man who was selling loose cigarettes, died after an encounter with police. During the arrest, a white officer used a chokehold that the medical examiner later concluded contributed to Garner’s death. Bystanders filmed the arrest and the video went viral. Social media erupted and protests were held nationwide. Celebrities and athletes were seen wearing shirts with the phrase “BLACK LIVES MATTER" and “I CAN’T BREATHE,” the last words gasped by the victim.

Later that month, Mayor de Blasio hosted a meeting to “air tensions” between his office and the NYPD. At the meeting, Commission Bratton sat to his left and Rev. Al Sharpton sat to his right. Rev. Sharpton harshly criticized the PD and demanded punishment for the officers who arrested Garner. Mayor de Blasio looked on while Sharpton pontificated.

In December, a grand jury declined to indict the arresting officer in the Garner chokehold case. Protests erupted both in the US and abroad. As Mayor de Blasio spoke at the subsequent news conference, he relayed that he and his wife spoke to their bi-racial son, Dante, on how to take special care in encounters with the police.

That same month, protests continued for days. Amidst the protests, five officers were assaulted. de Blasio quickly denounced the attacks, but curiously used the word “allegedly” as he described them. One of the unions soon thereafter invited members to sign a form that instructed the mayor not to attend their funerals, in the event that they died in the line of duty.

On December 20, Officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos were ambushed as they waited in their patrol car in Brooklyn. They were both shot and killed by a man who traveled from Baltimore vowing to kill officers in retribution for the Garner case. Patrick Lynch, head of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association soon thereafter announced, “That blood on the hands starts on the steps of City Hall, in the office of the mayor.”

In a display of silent protest, officers turned their backs on the Mayor. This occurred three times: first at the hospital where the slain officers had been taken, and then at each of their funerals.

Post December 2014: Arrests Plummet and then Normalcy Returns

For two straight weeks in January 2015, there was a sharp decline in making arrests and issuing summonses throughout the city. While some said it was a planned work slowdown, no sanctions were issued for any such work stoppage. PD leadership responded by denying all vacation and sick time until summonses numbers were back to typical numbers.

As January led into February and now into March, widespread displays of tensions have all but disappeared. From an outsiders perspective, it would seem that the fever pitch that rocked New York just a few months ago have now subsided. While hostilities have simmered down, it is apparent that nothing has changed to consider this situation resolved.

Furthermore, we believe the conflict that we saw play out in 2014 (and part of 2015) is just that: conflict. It provided great headlines for the media, a stage for some relatively unknown players, but too much time has been spent quelling the conflict. The conflict is a symptom of something much larger and far more systemic. And, until we identify this underlying issue and focus our efforts towards it, we are treading on borrowed time. New York is at risk of erupting into even more fiery mayhem than we saw in December and January.

What is the real challenge that we should be placing at the center of our collective attention?

We’ll dive into that next week as we continue our seven-part series with Part 2: Who are the Players?

In summary, what we did today

  1. Understood the conflict from the client’s perspective. Typically, this would be interviews and meetings. In this case, we used news reports since we didn’t have access to the client.

  2. Performed initial secondary research about the conflict to create a timeline.

  3. Did NOT race to identify a solution. Stayed in data-gathering mode.

Key events divided into three phases; relations between the NYPD and a mayor's administration are at an all-time low.

Key events divided into three phases; relations between the NYPD and a mayor's administration are at an all-time low.

Kobe Bryant and fellow LA Lakers wearing shirts saying "I CAN'T BREATHE" in pre-game warmup on December 7, 2014. (Credit: UTATSI/Getty Images)

Kobe Bryant and fellow LA Lakers wearing shirts saying "I CAN'T BREATHE" in pre-game warmup on December 7, 2014. (Credit: UTATSI/Getty Images)