Bill Bratton: What Beat Cops Can Teach Counterterrorists

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Former New York and Los Angeles police chief Bill Bratton discussed the connection between police work and counterterrorism in a conversation with ABC News' Pierre Thomas at the Washington Ideas Forum in Washington, D.C. He described how, in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, city police departments began to prioritize fighting terror and federal agencies learned from the police practice of focusing on prevention rather than response.
Washington Ideas Forum
Bratton, who has worked in city police departments since 1970 and is widely credited with helping to bring a historic reduction of crime to New York in the 1990s, said that much of the nationwide reduction in crime came after a revolution in police thinking. It was "the belief that police can prevent crime, we shouldn't just be responding to it." A generation of police leaders, of which Bratton was a leader, learned to be proactive by developing sources, working with communities, and "relentless follow-up." That same model, he said, has now spread to federal counterterrorism agencies. "If you think about it, that's the recipe for dealing with terrorism."


While federal agencies were eager to learn from his police methodology, Bratton says he struggled to get those agencies to reciprocate. He and other police chiefs were "fighting for a place at the table where it related to fighting a war against terrorism," he said. "It took a lot of addling, political maneuvering." He said that police departments still struggle to get the attention and resources of federal agencies such as the FBI when fighting terrorism. "There is still not a seamless" information-sharing system accessible to both federal and local agencies, although "it's being worked on" and "we're certainly in a much better place than we were after Sept. 11."

Bratton reminded listeners at the Newseum that preventative police work does not end terrorism, and that nothing likely could. "Crime is always going to be with us, terrorism is always going to be with us, but you can mitigate it very successfully," he said. Police work is a treatment, not a cure. "You start withdrawing the medication, that patient is potentially going to suffer again."

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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