Scotland Yard is in trouble, plagued by reports of incompetence and corruption that have forced the resignation of Britain’s top cop. And Bill Bratton is available.
The question is: Is he eligible? The Brits are currently debating that issue.
“From my perspective, I have been interested in looking at that position, if it was open to people outside of Great Britain,” Bratton told me on Saturday as various British newspapers mentioned the former leader of the New York, Los Angeles, and Boston police departments as a possible replacement for Sir Paul Stephenson. “There are so many issues to be addressed at this particular time, and so they need to get a sense of stability in the leadership.”
Stephenson, the commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police, which is headquartered at the Yard, abruptly quit last month amid the ongoing phone-hacking and corruption scandal involving Rupert Murdoch’s News International newspapers and several non-Murdoch tabloids that may have paid police officers for private information about celebrities and politicians. Stephenson’s deputy, John Yates, also fell on his sword over allegations that Scotland Yard’s previous phone-hacking investigations were halfhearted and sloppy due to cozy relations between police officials and Murdoch executives.
“It’s one of the most prestigious positions in democratic policing in the world,” the 63-year-old Bratton said about Britain’s top-cop job. “I’ve had a long, almost 20-year affiliation with England, with the Met, and their role in democratic policing. I don’t know that there’s a major police chief in America or Canada, or for that matter in the British Commonwealth, who, given the opportunity, would not consider it.”
Speculation about Bratton—whose innovative policing techniques are credited with reducing crime in New York in the 1990s and in Los Angeles from 2002 to 2009—has been growing in the U.K. since Prime Minister David Cameron suggested in Parliament on July 20 that non-British candidates be considered for the post.
“Why should not someone who has been a proven success overseas be able to help us turn around a force here at home?” the prime minister asked—a hardly veiled reference to Bratton, probably the best-known American law-enforcement official in the U.K., who has been working tirelessly with his British counterparts since the 1990s and meeting with Cameron on law-enforcement issues since he was the leader of the Tory opposition.
Bratton’s British bona fides were further enhanced in September 2009 when Queen Elizabeth named him a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—a reward for his sponsorship of close interagency relations. He last visited London in November, when he testified before the House of Commons committee with jurisdiction over law enforcement and gave a speech to the Policy Exchange, a prominent London think tank.
“I’m very familiar with their issues because I track them very closely,” Bratton told me. “I’ve participated in any number of meetings over there, as well as meeting with their people over here. Those issues are quite clear.”
Namely, Bratton said, the next head of Scotland Yard must address the 2012 London Olympics and the threat of terrorism; ongoing budget cuts of 20 percent throughout the criminal-justice system over the next five years; public concern about disorder in the streets, burglaries, car thefts, and other crimes; and, of course, the issue of corruption that has recently damaged the reputation of law enforcement. Thankfully, Bratton added, severe restrictions on gun ownership have kept the British homicide rate low.
“Their issues tend to be much more about burglaries, car break-ins, traditional crimes against property, as well as concerns about public drinking,” he said. “These are all things that, it’s been felt, America has successfully addressed.”
The only problem with the Bratton scenario—and it’s a big one—is the opposition of Home Secretary Theresa Mays, a Cameron appointee who will choose the next top cop after consulting with London Mayor Boris Johnson. Mays has decreed that “applicants must be British citizens.” This requirement is not a matter of British law, simply a decision by the lady in charge.
“Within Whitehall, this is seen as a clear snub by Mrs. May to Mr. Cameron, and a neat piece of bureaucratic maneuvering,” Bratton supporter Charles Moore wrote in Saturday’s Telegraph. “There is not much the Prime Minister can do. As is often the case in British government, the establishment is trying to frustrate the wishes of Downing Street.”
Bratton, who since leaving the LAPD in 2009 has been the New York–based chairman of the Kroll private security firm, told me Mays’ Brit-only decree “was apparently a unilateral decision, and it’s never been determined if it was in consultation with the mayor of London …That would exclude certainly anybody from the United States, but it would also exclude, interestingly enough, police leaders from Canada, where there are some extraordinary candidates, or anywhere else in the British Empire.”
Bratton continued: “The irony of that is that the Brits have been for years sending out their police officials all over the British Commonwealth [to take high posts in various local police departments] … So they have no concern about sending people out from the British Isles to elsewhere in the British Commonwealth. But through her unilateral action, they’ve precluded not only United States police officials such as myself, but others in their Commonwealth. So I find that fascinating.”
Another irony: The home secretary hosted a dinner for Bratton during his most recent visit to London, and he has met more than once with members of her staff. Meanwhile, he has been talking to Boris Johnson since the latter was a candidate for mayor, when he visited then–police chief Bratton in Los Angeles to learn about his law-enforcement innovations and how they might be applied to Britain’s capital city.
Running Scotland Yard, Bratton pointed out, is more complicated bureaucratically than merely policing a city of nearly 8 million souls—itself a daunting task. The Met also has responsibility for counterterrorism, protecting the royal family and high public officials, and other problems not strictly associated with local crime. In American terms, it would be the local cops, the FBI, and the Secret Service all rolled into one.
“There is probably no police service, and no police leadership position, that is more complex in the Western world,” he said. “It’s a much more complex organization than anything in the United States. That’s what makes it so interesting and challenging.”
I asked Bratton if he thinks Theresa Mays’ “no non-Brits need apply” rule is reversible. His answer: “I just don’t have enough intimacy with the operations of the British government in terms of her position vis-à-vis that of the mayor of London vis-à-vis that of the prime minister.”