Even More Bill Bratton

Like Mark, I’m exceptionally impressed with Bill Bratton. Given the state of the LA police department before he hit town, the city really ought to erect a statue to him somewhere. I mean, a BIG statue.

The weirdest part of Bratton leaving, however, was his stated reason for doing so. According to the New York Daily News, “He said he was about to get hit with a big interest-rate bump on the seven-year adjustable mortgage on his Los Feliz home.” What? LA is losing the best police commissioner they ever had because he took out an ARM rather than a fixed-rate mortgage?

If Mark is right, Bratton was a major addition to the well-being of LA not just in his time in office, but also in the future. That is, Bratton was an investment that will continue to pay off in the future, because he so effectively restructured the department that it now has a strong pipeline of people ready and able to take over his job. LA was paying Bratton around $300,000 a year–is there any doubt that the value he added to the city, and the value that will continue to be produced by his time in office–will be some fantastic multiple of the amount the city paid him?

Which raises the question–how aggressively should cities be able to pay the most talented civil servants? With Bratton, it sounds (if the NY Daily News is to be trusted) like they could have held on to by just buying him a house. Could there be any efficiency calculation by which the city would not be better off for having done so? I think a lot of multi-city civil servants (like school superintendents) are massively overvalued. But Bratton has very solid evidence in multiple cities for his capacity to fundamentally fix up police departments that needed fixing up. So the question, I think, is whether we could come up with a rule whereby we were able to pay retention wages for someone like Bratton without creating a compensation arms race that would just push up the salaries of your average, not so incredible, head of the police department?

I’m also skeptical, as is Mark, that the FBI is the right place for Bratton. The right place for him is in DC. A department that has been underperforming forever, but in a city that is fundamentally on the upswing economically. If Mayor Fenty got Obama on the case, could Bratton really say no? I for one would accept an increase in my city taxes to pay for whatever Bratton demands.


A friend said that my argument for Bratton sounds suspiciously like the one made for bringing in Michelle Rhee, a “great man theory” of public administration. I responded that:

I think there’s a basic difference between Rhee and Bratton. Rhee didn’t really have any background in fundamentally restructuring a large bureaucracy, and lacked a lot of authority with the troops. A lot of the problems she has had come from the fact that she had a (short!) track record doing something completely different, and thought she could come into DC and get what she wanted because the mayor supported her. That’s not the case with Bratton. He would have a great deal of authority with the troops themselves, and he’s got a track record in other cities testifying to his ability to effect genuine transformation in the quality of public services. He’d be given leeway that Rhee wasn’t given. Bratton’s track record shows that he understood the politics of fundamental public service reform. He made common cause with the reforming faction of the police, and developed effective alliances with key constituencies outside of the department. Again, this was not something that Rhee did very well.

I have a lot of sympathy for Rhee, and I do feel like she’s on the side of the angels. But she didn’t really ever have a plausible political strategy for pulling off what she was doing (beyond mayoral support), and has had a tendency to attack the beast directly, which was sometimes but not always the right way to play the hand she was dealt.

Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.