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Chief William Bratton

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Chief William Bratton, If the study of cities is a science, then Bill Bratton ought to be its Nobel laureate. As it is, the former chief of police of the Los Angeles Police Department, and police commissioner in New York and Boston, has a resumé unrivalled by any cop on the planet – perhaps in history.

When Bratton refers with reverence to Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing – which he does, frequently – one struggles to think of a modern law-enforcement official who has done more to honour his memory. Indeed, two years ago, Bratton, 65, very nearly became commissioner of the London Metropolitan Police Force founded by Peel himself in 1829 – a tale to which we shall return.

Imagine Clint Eastwood running a sociology department – Dirty Harry meets Malcolm Bradbury’s History Man – and you get a flavour of this remarkable public servant. Unashamed toughness mingles with astute social observation, a profound awareness of the context of law-breaking (not as an excuse, please note – “the cause of crime is people”), and the need to forge strong links with the right community leaders. It is no surprise, then, that civic and national leaders the world over – David Cameron and Boris Johnson among them – turn to him with such respect and with such justifiably high expectations; he was made a CBE in 2009.

To what extent, I ask him, is it possible to extract universally applicable lessons from different cities. Do the favelas of Rio really have much relevance to, say, the mean streets of Manchester, or the ganglands of Moscow? “Well, I think there’s a lot of commonality,” he says. “Cities have always fascinated me, going back to my earliest college days [he attended University of Massachusetts Boston]. The course I took back then was called “Urban Geography” and ran for two semesters. I loved that course because, at that time, in the early 1970s in America, cities were being written off, cities were ‘over’, everybody was going to move to the suburbs and that was the future. The cities were left to the poor and the minorities. And we have clearly seen that is not the case. We now have these huge cities of 18 million, 24 million people in some of the emerging third world countries… Cities are not behind us, they are the future of the world.”

To emphasise his point about “commonality”, Bratton chooses a surprisingly soft-edged analogy. “It’s like a Christmas tree – it looks the same in Britain as it does in America, but it’s the way you decorate it! You know, local customs and tastes, but it’s still basically years of community policing, democratic policing, Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing. They’re applicable over there and they’re applicable over here.”

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