Police Commissioner Bratton’s Remarks at Queens Black History Month Discussion Panel


I feel privileged to speak to you today, on this occasion.

In so many ways that count, Black History Month is American History Month, because American history and the black experience are inextricable.

And both are inextricable from policing.

Far more often than not, that’s been a good thing.

Many of the best parts of America’s history would have been impossible without police.

All the freedoms we enjoy—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear—sit on a foundation of public safety.

But sometimes the relationship has not been so good—and refusing to acknowledge it would not only be naïve, it would be reckless and irresponsible.

Because many of the worst parts of black history would have been impossible without police, too.

Slavery, our country’s original sin, sat on a foundation codified by laws and enforced by police.

And for nearly a century after the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery’s vile Jim Crow legacy sat on the same foundation.

Here in our city, black history and policing have been tied together since the Dutch first landed.

When Peter Stuyvesant became Director-General of New Amsterdam, the city was little more than a faltering business endeavor.

One of the first things he did was create a police force.

The colony’s lawlessness, drunkenness, and prostitution demanded it.

One of the next things he did was use slaves to build the colony’s first pier, slaves that the Dutch West India Company owned.

Since then, the stories of police and black citizens have intertwined again and again.

And the unequal nature of that relationship cannot and must not be denied.

Police maintained a legal and social structure in which blacks, whether free or slaves, were at the bottom.

Still, there were moments of heroism.

During the 1863 Draft Riots, police held off mobs attacking the Colored Orphan Asylum long enough to evacuate the children, saving them all.

But more frequently, perhaps, police actions could be a flashpoint.

One hundred and one years after the Draft Riots, nearly to the day, an NYPD lieutenant shot and killed a 15-year-old African-American boy in Yorkville.

The killing ignited six nights of riots in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant—and a half decade of urban unrest in cities across the country.

Those riots, a recession, a foreign war, a police corruption scandal, and a fiscal crisis ushered in twenty years of seemingly ineffective policing.

Throughout the 70s and 80s, police forgot that their duty was to prevent crime and disorder.

Instead, they did little more than respond.

For two decades, crime fighting took a back seat to report taking.

Crime and crack and chaos nearly obliterated some communities.

But twenty-five years ago, we began a new chapter in the story for black New Yorkers and the police.

Together, the police and the community said “enough” to rampant crime, and “enough” to drug wars in the streets, and “enough” to six murders a day.

Together, we took back the city, block by block.

From 1990 to today, major crime has dropped 78%.

Murders fell from an all-time high of 2,245 in 1990 to 333 last year, a modern all-time low.

And the vast majority of the lives saved—those thousands of lives—lives of victims spared and of offenders saved from prison—have been black and Hispanic.

We are safer than we have ever been.

Even our toughest neighborhoods are safer.

Our laws are fairer, our prisons are shrinking, the rampant disorder of the past is, almost everywhere, a receding memory—although it must remain a cautionary memory, lest we forget how things were.

But despite this magnificent accomplishment, we’ve seen in the past years that police actions can still be a flashpoint.

In Ferguson, riots.

In New York City, protests and marches about the death of Mr. Garner.

And everywhere, endless debate and discussion about a deepening racial divide in this city and this country.

Here in New York, that divide is deepest and widest in neighborhoods where disparity is deepest and widest, where the distance between the people and American’s dream is the farthest.

In this city, they’re the neighborhoods where crime hangs on.

When we make maps of crime complaints, of homicides, of robberies, of 911 calls and 311 calls, or arrests and summonses—we see these neighborhoods.

They are, largely, the same neighborhoods where crime was most rampant in the 1990s—and I would imagine in the 80s, and the 70s, and the 60s—although the crime that remains is dramatically reduced.

They are the same neighborhoods where poverty bites deepest, where families are most fractured, where schools are most challenged, where foreclosures are most common, where jobs are most scarce.

And they are the neighborhoods where the police are most needed.

In New York City, they are largely neighborhoods of color.

And in them, the relationship with the police has been ruptured.

In a talk at Georgetown earlier this month, my colleague FBI Director James Comey talked about “hard truths.”

I’ve talked about them, too.

The NYPD needs to face the hard truth that in our most vulnerable neighborhoods, we have a problem with citizen satisfaction.

We are often abrupt, sometimes rude—and that’s unacceptable.

Our actions—particularly the overuse of stop, question, and frisk—have been counterproductive.

But our critics need to face the hard truth that they misrepresent us.

My officers spent much of the fall being accused of terrible, untrue things.

They were shouted at, spat upon, even assaulted.

Two were assassinated for nothing more than being cops.

When protestors chant, “What do we want? Dead cops!” we have gone too far as a society.

And this was occasioned by false accusations of systemic brutality and injustice.

Abuse occurs, I do not deny that.

But it is not systemic in the sense that we do not condone it.

It is not a matter of policy.

It is not a matter of law.

And we root it out where we find it.

In our Department—in YOUR Department—officers use force of any kind in only two out of every hundred arrests.

In 2014, they intentionally used their firearms in only 42 instances, out of some 20 million contacts with civilians, 4.5 million radio runs, and nearly 400,000 arrests.

YOUR Department is one of the most restrained in the country.

Imprisonment in New York has fallen by 25% in the state prisons and by more than 40% in the city jails from respective peaks.

And this year we are exploring alternatives to arrest for minor offenses.

Efforts like Project Reset, which provides pre-arrest diversion for first-time non-violent offenders ages 16 and 17, will reduce the number of people “in the system” even further.

But there is another hard truth to face.

It’s that, in our city, there are intractable racial disparities in who commits and who suffers from crime.

Ninety-five percent of our shootings are committed by blacks and Hispanics.

Ninety-five percent of our shooting victims are blacks and Hispanics.

Ninety-five percent.

In a city where just half of our citizens are black or Hispanic.

For my officers, this hard truth about who commits and suffers from violent crime in New York City carries a risk of turning into bias.

It doesn’t matter if the officers are white or black, Hispanic or Asian—and, in fact, more than half of our police officers are minorities themselves.

If you see something again and again, it can infect your perspective.

And they see the same young men in the same neighborhoods committing almost all of this city’s violence against the same victims—often the same young men.

We need to fight against that.

For the community, this hard truth about who commits and suffers from violent crime in New York City cannot be ignored or wished away.

This is why Black History Month is so important.

Because if we as cops, or as a society, don’t want to fall into inaccurate stereotypes, we need to teach ourselves about slavery, about Reconstruction, about Jim Crow and Rosewood and Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street.”

We need to know about unequal access to VA home loans and the GI Bill after World War Two.

We need to remember blockbusting, and backlashes against busing, and the whole black experience.

But the lessons of Black History Month, all those terrible things I just mentioned and more, cannot prevent us from facing and doing something about the intractable disparity.

And that’s our challenge.

Confronting this great divide, and bridging this gap.

But there is no magic word, no quick fix that will bridge this divide.

And if someone could have found something to say—that one, perfect, healing thing that would make everything right, the balm in Gilead for our racial wounds—if someone could have found that, then trust me, someone would have.

Part of the American dream is an understanding, a belief, that each generation will do better than the one before.

That’s always been expressed as an economic dream, and doing better meant a better job or a better house.

I think the challenge to us now, as New Yorkers, as Americans, of all races and creeds, is to make it about a better life.

One that’s more fair, one that’s true to the best parts of our national story, instead of the parts we got so wrong during our history.

It’s ours to set right.

In YOUR NYPD, we’re pursuing a better Department.

The mayor and I are pursuing a safer, fairer city.

Our goal is a place where kids end up in a college or a career, not a crew.

A place where the cops know the people and the people know the cops.

A place where working folks in neighborhoods afflicted by violence don’t get treated differently than working folks in neighborhoods where shots DON’T ring out—although you better believe we’re going to stay in the neighborhoods that need us and we’re going to keep the pressure on those who are perpetrating the violence.

Broken Windows and Quality of Life Policing remain—and must remain—at the foundation of what we do.

We can never concede that some neighborhoods will be afflicted by disorder and others will not.

Public safety means public safety for everyone.

But we must do it in a way that bridges the divide.

One way is quality over quantity—targeting recidivists and “impact players.”

All of this cannot be achieved by the police alone.

Bridging the divide means leveling the playing field—in our policing, but in our schools and in our job markets, too.

Although I’ll tell you this: we’re closer to a level playing field in crime control than in any other aspect of society.

Of all our social ills, crime is actually the one we have the best handle on.

EVERYONE can use our subways, and EVERYONE feels safe in our great public spaces, and EVERYONE benefits from the prosperity that public safety creates.

It’s easy to be in favor of social equality when it’s an abstract principle.

Ask for concrete steps to achieve it, however, and there are fewer answers.

The NYPD has worked to provide some.

You, the community, have provided some.

We’re working on collaborative programs with community groups and other city agencies.

We’re developing alternatives to arrest for first-time offenders.

We’re actively seeking to make our Department—at ALL ranks—look more and more like the city it serves.

We’re involving the community in our training and our tactics.

But we can do more.

We must do more.

We can figure out new measurements for evaluating our work, measurements that include citizen satisfaction.

And while we have one of the most diverse police departments in America, we can do more to make it even more reflective of our city.

We can evaluate cops and commands by more than just crime numbers.

We’re already creating new organizational structures to make sure that cops know and care about the neighborhoods they police.

The police and the people—and the black community, in particular—we cannot change the past.

And we must not forget our history.

We must build on what we did well, and learn from what was done wrong, and move forward—all of us—together.

It’s ours to set right—all of us—together.

This is the opportunity of the age—for all of us—together.

Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long—but it bends towards justice.”


We must bend it more—all of us—together.