Bratton’s Return: Buckle Up, de Blasio

The legendary former NYPD chief is returning to New York. Will his relationship with this New York mayor be smoother than it was the last time?

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Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Incoming New York mayor Bill de Blasio stands with Bill Bratton, who has been named New York police commissioner, in New York, Dec. 5, 2013.

People who like Bill Bratton are wondering if newly minted New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio knows what he’s getting into by hiring him to be his police chief.

Sure, de Blasio knows the good stuff. Bratton is a legend for having instituted policies, beginning in late 1993 as Rudy Giuliani’s first police commissioner, that helped cut murders in New York City by 70% in five years. And robberies by 55%. And burglaries by 53%. And car thefts by 61%.

And de Blasio knows he’ll get some political benefits from picking Bratton. After running a far left campaign built on bashing New York’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy, de Blasio will reassure centrist, law-and-order New Yorkers by appointing the man who invented stop and frisk in the first place. (See Bratton’s loose use of turnstile-jumping busts as a way to search subway passengers for weapons without overtly violating the 4th amendment).

De Blasio may even get the benefit of some of the technological work Bratton’s been doing in the private sector.

But 17 years after Rudy Giuliani pushed Bratton out, ending their effective but very stormy two-year partnership, even Bratton’s friends candidly say he remains a man of huge ego and endless ambitions.

A former Boston beat cop with the accent to prove it, Bratton detailed his combat with Giuliani in his 1998 autobiographical account of that time, Turnaround. Working the press from day one, Bratton and his staffers were repeatedly dressed down by Giuliani’s top aides for hogging the spotlight and talking to the media without prior approval from City Hall. And Bratton rankled Giuliani by courting the literati at Elaine’s (it was a big deal, once), and dining out in high-profile spots around the city.

But it wasn’t the ego-tripping so much as the ambition that turned Giuliani against him. Popular wisdom holds that Bratton was fired for gracing the cover of TIME in 1996, taking the credit for the crime drop that Giuliani thought should have been his own to claim. More likely, the polls showing Bratton more popular than Giuliani a year-and-a-half before the next mayoral election did him in.

When Bratton resigned in April 1996, it was amid “a widening mayoral probe of the top cop’s out-of-town trips” according to the Daily News. Bratton has since said he considered a run in the 1997 election against Giuliani, but opted against it. Giuliani’s probe against him never went anywhere, and Giuliani sailed to re-election.

Maybe Bratton’s mellowed with age. Maybe his ambitions will be satisfied with being New York’s police commissioner a second time around. Maybe the most we can expect is a few surprise appearances on the tabloid front pages.

But if in a couple of years de Blasio starts hearing about mystery telephone polls pitting him against Bratton for reelection, he may revisit what for the rest of New York is likely to prove a welcome choice for police chief.

1996 TIME Cover: Bill Bratton, New York City’s Top Cop