When former governor George Pataki went on MSNBC last week and said New York City police officers were told to “back off” enforcement of quality-of-life laws, and that topless women in Times Square were the new squeegee men, a New York Police Department spokesman fired off a quick response: “crime in New York City is down over 4 percent year to date. Period.”
This morning, NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton went on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” to offer a more detailed response, addressing perceptions of quality-of-life crime levels as well as homelessness. In doing so, Bratton demonstrated why he is often regarded as de Blasio’s most significant spokesman and validator.
When asked about Pataki’s assertion about police being ordered to back off, Bratton said, “Not at all.”
He said police officers are engaging even more than they did under the previous administration with homeless people on the streets, as part of a larger effort to control quality-of-life issues. And he attempted to explain why the city’s homelessness problem has, relatively suddenly, gotten so much public attention.
Without blaming Bloomberg or the media, as the mayor has at various points when addressing the same question, Bratton said it was a matter of perception, and that people simply began to notice it reached a “tipping point.”
“The homeless population has been steadily increasing,” he said. “It’s not as if we had a big warehouse where we locked them all up and then all of a sudden let them out on the street. This problem has been growing over a period of years. It’s been a steadily increasing problem that reached a point where it tipped, where people all of a sudden looked around and said ‘geez, where did they all come from?’ Not that they all arrived at the same time. They reached a tipping point.”
(Bratton acknowledged the phrase “tipping point” came from the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell, whose work he quotes frequently.)
According to Bratton, the NYPD recently broke up about 50 “encampments” set up by homeless people. He also said that the NYPD spoke to about 100 people living in those encampments, and, he said, “Only ten of them accepted services. This is a service-resistant population, who, for a variety of reasons, prefer to be on the street.”
He went on to describe his view of who makes up the street homeless population. Bratton said “40 percent” have some form of mental illness, and “2 percent of that 40 percent are really the ones that people are so fearful of, that act out, if you will.”
Bratton also said that city officials are left with limited options for dealing with homeless people who resist help.
“The laws, the tools we have to work with them, are really not adequate for the issues we’re facing,” he said.
It was the sort of fact-versus-perception argument City Hall has been offering for months, as a stream of “bad old days” newspaper headlines takes a slow but steady toll on de Blasio’s poll numbers.
Last week, the show’s host, former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough, delivered an angry speech about the rise in homelessness, questioning how long people would put up with a de Blasio mayoralty. He also said City Hall’s explanation that the rise was a result of cuts under the prior administration was “a lie.”
This morning, Scarborough was, if anything, deferential to Bratton, setting the tone for the interview by congratulating the commissioner for his father’s 89th birthday.