Bill Bratton: The gang-buster cop who still hankers after Scotland Yard

Why does the American former police chief, who last year was linked with the Met's top job, still manage to raise hackles in the UK? He talks to Kunal Dutta
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The Independent Online

William J Bratton is, by all professional accounts, one of the most accomplished police officers in the world. His record for taming gangs in New York and Los Angeles is beyond doubt.

But in the UK, we find it hard to like him. That's not to say nobody does. He is a CBE and had the ear of David Blunkett as far back as 2004. David Cameron considered installing him as the Met Commissioner. Then Theresa May, the Home Secretary, stepped in, saying the job had to go to a British national. So Dave made him a special adviser. And now that has come to a halt.

So what is it that jars with Bill Bratton? You don't have to talk to him for very long to find out.

"The firearm problem in England is almost laughable in the sense of how small it is," he has said. Not as laughable, perhaps, as his advice that Scotland Yard should distribute "Most Wanted" posters of British gang members.

That's just the start. He is derisive about a study by the London School of Economics that cited community hostility to the police as central to last autumn's riots. "I remember reading it and shaking my head," he bellows down the phone from his office in Manhattan – he has been based there since 2009. "That's the sort of attitude we had in the US in the 1960s and 1970s. It's symptomatic of the entitlement society, where we excuse away all types of behaviour because of social problems."

Such certitude from the chairman of Kroll, a global security company, smacks of the US of yesteryear, trading on its days as a superpower, but out of touch with how the world has changed.

Isn't the Stephen Lawrence case the perfect example of how a community's relationship with the police should not be inflexible, how the police should be able to admit mistakes and culpability?

Again, in a tone disturbingly reminiscent of his now-deceased lookalike, Dennis Hopper, Bratton is curt, dismissive: "I'm sorry, but crime takes a conscious act to commit. It may sound difficult to hear but, unfortunately, a lot of people are criminals, and if they don't like the punishments that such things deliver, then too bad."

On stop and search – disproportionately used to target black and Asian young men – he says: "Welcome to the club. New York and LA are embroiled in it, as are many places around the world.

"And call it what it is: it's stop, question and frisk. You don't get to frisk until the officer feels there is a potential threat. Britain is certainly not unique."

This is Bratton's world: black and white, good and bad, simple. Law and order comes first; social responsibility and community cohesion as the result of that. And it is on this "thesis" that he made his name.

The so-called Broken Windows theory he used to turn New York around as police commissioner is based on one principle – that an uncompromising crackdown on crime keeps law and order by deterring would-be criminals. "Police have to apply more resources – the challenge is to do it in a way that engenders respect rather than hostility."

It is clear that his success at home has instilled in him an unshakable sense of being right, so how does he feel about not getting the top job in Britain? On this there is a, momentary, wobble. He struggles to hide his disappointment.

"Scotland Yard is unique in that it not only has responsibility for the policing of one of the world's largest cities, it also has a national responsibility for terrorism and counter-terrorism. In my country, we have nothing that has that duality of responsibility," he says. "It's also a highly fabled organisation and the subject of great tradition. I certainly would have entertained applying for it. But that's moot: it didn't happen and it's not likely to happen now."

Trying to find something positive to say, he applauds the setting up of the new Office for Police and Crime by the London Mayor to replace the Metropolitan Police Authority, and says the idea of Boris Johnson presiding over police budgets and allowing Scotland Yard full control of operational matters is the perfect example of "valuable collaboration" – the theme of a book out this week.

Despite his personal disappointment in failing to get the job of his dreams, Mr Bratton says British law and order is in safe hands. "You have sanity in your gun laws. What took us 60 to 80 years to get a handle on, you're on course to solve in one generation."