Recently, British police raised an outcry over Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposal to name an American, William Bratton, as head of the Metropolitan Police Force. It’s not surprising that British police should desire one of their own to head the Met.
Yet ample evidence exists that the current British policing strategy fails to maintain order in public spaces, has seriously alienated many groups in the population, and clearly did not contain the riots earlier this month. Consideration of American policing experiences might prove valuable.
Clearly, American policing has its roots in the Metropolitan Police and the principles laid down by then-Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel at its creation in 1829. Peel’s core principle (paraphrased here) is that police are the people, and people the police; in short, if people in a democracy can govern themselves, they can police themselves.
It follows from this principle that police in a democracy emphasize citizen consent and cooperation, and operate through transparency, minimum use of force, and local accountability. It’s arguable whether U.K. or U.S. police best embody these values today, but the principles themselves persist in both systems.
U.S. police have led the world in police innovation for the past 20 years. While the history of these innovations is complicated, many arose following the complete failure of American policing during the 1950-70 era. Police tactics then had failed to prevent crime and provided the flash points for urban riots. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated police investigative practices.
To their credit, during the 1970s, American police began a decades-long search to rediscover both their mission and their core competence. Researchers joined police departments: Jointly they studied preventive patrol by automobile, foot patrol, criminal investigation, and special units and tactics.
This research produced ideas that innovative chiefs experimented with and adapted to their localities: problem-solving, a focus on quality of life and minor offenses in neighborhoods (“broken windows”), collaborations among justice agencies and with citizens themselves, confronting chronic offenders (“pulling levers”), an accountability and crime-analysis system developed by Bratton in New York City (Compstat), and others. Crime prevention — rather than proficiency at solving crimes already committed — became the new watchword in policing.
Worldwide, it is hard to think of another public-sector institution that so thoroughly reformed itself as American policing. The British police establishment has not gone through this process.
Furthermore, it is difficult to identify a single significant piece of police research or experimentation that has its origins in Britain. The stridency with which British police elites dismissed the idea of Bratton heading Scotland Yard — they referred to the still-active gangs in Los Angeles and suggested that American police don’t operate with consent — obscures their own failure to restore the Met’s prestige.
Bratton stands in the tradition of American research and experimentation in policing. He has challenged “academic” researchers who pontificate about police practices without ever going near a police car or
walking a beat.
Nevertheless, from his early days in Boston to more recent work in Los Angeles, he also has confronted conventional wisdom on both tactics and management. He embraced both community policing and the best crime-prevention practices that research could offer.
Is he, as described in the media, a “super cop”? If that term suggests gun-slinging aggressiveness, it is entirely a misnomer. Alternatively, if it’s meant to imply someone with a “grand” vision of policing, strong leadership abilities, and an eye for talent, then he is indeed a super cop.
This is why Bratton would succeed in the Met: his uncanny capacity to identify talent and motivate police to rise to challenges. Like Boston, New York and Los Angeles, the Met is loaded with talented people who need to be spotted, given leadership responsibility and held accountable for their efforts. William Bratton is the man for that job in every respect.
George L. Kelling is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a professor of criminology.