Resisting the Bratton brand: lessons from the US

Resisting the Bratton brand: lessons from the US


Written by: Rachel Herzing

Rachel Herzing of Critical Resistance in California warns that zero tolerance policing will have long-term social consequences if adopted in the UK.

I, like many people I know, watched the uprisings in Britain earlier this month with fascination and concern. More than merely being headline news, the uprisings and the police response to them were eerily familiar. I live in Oakland, California, thousands of miles away from London and five per cent its size. However, seeing the people in the streets, the cops in riot gear, the fires, brought back images of only two years ago in this small city, when uprisings rocked Oakland for days in response to a young Black man, Oscar Grant III, being shot by subway police. The murder was captured in still and video images on the mobile phones of transit passengers who were witnesses and who circulated the images widely. In response to Grant’s murder people from across the city took to the streets, lit fires, damaged police cars, storefronts and banks. Over 100 people were arrested in the protests through a coordinated effort between local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies. And while the two sets of uprisings are not the same either in scale or scope, the sparks of dissent and frustration that ignited the two resonate as does the response to them.

What caused the most concern as I watched the British news from afar was the suggestion that ‘supercop’ William Bratton should be brought in to advise British officials on gangs. Whether or not he’s an American or should have been named commissioner of the Metropolitan police is not the source of my concern. Bratton’s physical presence in London is not even particularly relevant as the concussive reverberations of his work are already felt throughout the UK and the world.

‘Broken windows’ theory

Bratton’s impact on international policing has been tremendous. He is one of the architects of what has become known as zero tolerance policing, although it’s a label he himself rejects. Bratton’s approach to policing is rooted in a social theory proposed by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, called ‘broken windows’ theory which proposes that minor social and physical disorder – broken windows, overgrown weeds, public urination, loitering – left unchecked, will inevitably lead to an increase in ‘serious’ crime. Beginning with what he called ‘the quality of life initiative,’ Bratton aimed at restoring public order by aggressively enforcing, through sweeps, ticketing, and arrest, minor quality of life infractions such as public drunkenness, littering, or begging. No crime, no matter how insignificant would go unnoticed and unpunished – zero tolerance.

Bratton’s approach also included surveilling persons suspected of being involved in higher level offences – drug-dealing, gang involvement – and using minor infractions as a pretext for fishing for additional incriminating evidence to use against them through stop and search tactics. For instance, a young person suspected of being in a gang might be stopped for loitering on a street corner, frisked, and searched for weapons or drugs.

Not only did Bratton institute a hyper-aggressive brand of policing, but he simultaneously increased the size of the New York Police Department (NYPD) by 7,000 cops, decentralised the police administration structure, putting much greater power in the hands of local precinct commanders, ‘taking the handcuffs off the cops’, and initiated regular Compstat (Comprehensive Computer Statistics) meetings during which precinct commanders were to share the results of their policing efforts during the previous month. While there is still active debate in the US as to the impacts of zero tolerance policing, the approach gained a great deal of favour among law enforcement officials, including those in the UK, France, and Australia since its rise to popularity in the mid-1990s.

Street cleansing and racial profiling

The social repercussions of zero tolerance policing are anything but favourable, however. The use of policing sweeps has become commonplace as police forces remove entire elements of communities from the streets – the homeless, queer and gender non-conforming people, youth – under the pretence that their very presence is causing disorder. Bratton’s ‘clean up’ handiwork can be seen from Times Square in New York City to Johannesburg, Mexico City, and Caracas. He’s also slated to make the disorderly invisible for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Increased autonomy for local precincts and individual commanders has led to increased complaints of police brutality and misconduct. Between 2007 and 2009 more than fifteen people were fatally shot by Oakland police. One only need extrapolate to imagine how widespread the problem could be. Similarly, while Compstat has become a central tool of police forces in the US and around the world that theoretically generates important crime data to be used by police forces, a 2010 survey of retired high-ranking police officials found that precinct commanders and supervisors felt under such enormous pressure to reduce crime rates that they distorted crime statistics entered into Compstat system toward that end.

Stop-and-search tactics have deeply engrained the logic of racial profiling in the practice of policing, as individual cops are given discretion to assess who is suspicious and worthy of stopping. In 2008 in New York, the NYPD stopped 531, 159 people (five times the number than just six years earlier) and of those people stopped 51 per cent were Black, 32 per cent Latino, and 11 per cent white. The practice has also led to the increased use of gang databases throughout the US to profile and track young people of color.

The rise in the use of zero tolerance policing has coincided with the increased militarisation of law enforcement, creation of specialised policing units, longer sentences, a tripling of the US prison population, and the increased use of solitary confinement within prisons. The number of arrests made related to the uprisings in the UK is a staggering departure from normal practice, as are the conviction rates and length of sentences. While William Bratton clearly is not responsible for every piece of the puzzle constituting the US prison industrial complex, the pieces fit closely together and create a clear picture of the direction of the US punishment system. Importing that system piece by piece or wholesale comes with certain costs.

Which returns my focus to Oakland. Even as people arrested during the Oscar Grant protests fought their charges, the FBI began investigating the Oakland Police Department (OPD) on charges ranging from regular corruption to falsification of evidence, to an investigation of a cop who kicked an arrestee to death. OPD Chief Wayne Tucker, a supporter of zero tolerance, resigned in disgrace just weeks after the protests. The next month, the City Council proposed a youth curfew that drew so much community opposition that it never even got a hearing.

Gang injunctions

Tucker was ultimately replaced as chief of police by Anthony Batts, who had served under Bratton in the LAPD. Batts maintained the status quo of law enforcement in the city by bringing all the classic Bratton plans with him: more cops on the streets, more policing of disorder, and an additional tool: gang injunctions. A gang injunction is a law suit filed by a city against a group of people considered a public nuisance and prohibiting them from participating in certain activities, including appearing in public with anyone police have labelled a ‘gang member’, being outside their homes at certain times, loitering, or wearing gang colours. [Editor’s note: Such measures have already been used in the UK, with ASBOs being used to prevent young people showing their gang affiliations through haircuts and clothing and new ‘gangbos’ were introduced at the beginning of this year under the Police and Crime Act 2009]

Gangs have become the bogeyman of the hour. Any violence that occurs, any social disruption is starting to become labelled as gang activity by city leaders and in the media as the OPD, faced with substantial budget cuts and limited resources, tries to maintain a feeling of crisis to justify its tactics. This is not to suggest that a real crisis was not the cause of and generated by the uprisings sparked by Mark Duggan’s killing.

It is to suggest that I worry when I hear that Bratton will be advising David Cameron on how to address the ‘gang problem’ in London. The Bratton solution to the gang problem is to suppress people’s activities; to limit their movement; to label and track them. The aggressive, zero tolerance approach packaged and sold worldwide by Bratton through his consulting services has made him famous and revered. It has also consistently alienated and frustrated poor communities of color and young people who are its primary targets.

And in Oakland, Los Angeles, and cities across the US those people are resisting this brand of policing. A strong surge of resistance to the racial profiling, curfews, sweeps, quality of life arrests, and suppression tactics used by zero tolerance advocates is generating increased ill will toward the cops and suspicion of their practices. The same logic of using mobile phones to document the Oscar Grant killing has become commonplace among Oakland residents. In fact, the fear of organising by mobile phone by law enforcement caused the local transit authority to shut off its cellular service last week after hearing plans of a protest.

Lessons from Oakland

Community-based organisations in Oakland are playing a strong lead role in alternatives to gang policing by implementing programs that provide young people with structured, meaningful activities after school hours that protect them as much from police violence as gang violence. The programs and their advocates continually demonstrate how much more stable and healthy neighbourhoods are when neighbours invest in each other’s well-being rather than in the sort of isolation and mistrust engendered through zero tolerance.

The more cops press down on the communities they police, the more resistance builds. In the words of Oakland youth, ‘They say get back, we say fight back.’ I hope the reach of Bratton’s policing does not extend any further into the life of Londoners than it already has. But if Bratton’s advice should be followed, I hope the Met police brace itself for the resistance that’s bound to follow.

Related links

Critical Resistance

Read an IRR News story: Reshaping the criminal justice system after the riots

Rachel Herzing is a member of Critical Resistance, a US-based group dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex. She can be contacted at

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

One thought on “Resisting the Bratton brand: lessons from the US

  1. Excellent piece — your article gives important and refreshing insight into the exportation of Bill Bratton and (the completely broken) strategy of broken windows policing. Your connection with broken windows policing and London is particularly insightful and echo’s exactly what Londoners have said through the George Floyd solidarity protests this summer.

    I agree with your perspectives — contrary to what Bratton says, broken windows policing is zero tolerance, more police, more surveillance, stop and search and ultimately fuels racial disproportionality in terms of incarceration and deaths in custody within the criminal justice system.

    My work focuses on the contexts of the UK and Australia within a BLM era — and while there is good literature on broken windows policing in the United States, there remains very little on how broken windows policing has been exported around the world. Thus, its very interesting to read your perspective on London!

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