Former New York Police Chief Bill Bratton Talks About His Favorite Authors and Books

From a New York Times By the Book interview headlined “Bill Bratton Doesn’t Root for the Bad Guys”:

A fan of crime novels, the former police commissioner and the author, with Peter Knobler, of a new memoir, “The Profession,” loves Michael Connelly’s hero Harry Bosch — but adds, “I don’t have a favorite villain.”

What books are on your night stand?

At any given time I’m reading three or four books: one in the living room and one on my Kindle for travel. Usually a history, a mystery, a biography, a book on leadership and one on current political issues.

My interests gravitate toward in-depth stories about World War I, World War II and the Civil War, and it should come as no surprise that as a lifelong member of the policing profession I am interested not only in the military but in leadership tactics and strategies.

Right now I have Walter Isaacson’s “The Code Breaker”; Ian Toll’s “Twilight of the Gods: War in the Western Pacific 1944-1945”; “Hitler: Downfall 1939-1945,” the last volume of a biography by Volker Ullrich; Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land”; Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile”; Michael Connelly’s “The Law of Innocence”; Jon Meacham’s “His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope”; Elijah Cummings’s “We’re Better Than This”; Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste”; and Brené Brown’s “Dare to Lead.” I read everything I can find by and about Winston Churchill, going back to “The Gathering Storm,” published in 1948, the first of his six-volume history of the run-up to World War II. Any book about Churchill will wind up next to my bed.

What’s the last great book you read?

“1939: A People’s History,” by Frederick Taylor. The intimacy of its day-by-day investigation of what led up to World War II gave me an entirely new perspective on how the war came about.

Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?

“For Whom the Bell Tolls.” I had never read any Hemingway, and knew very little about the Spanish Civil War. One night, before the PBS series aired, I was watching television and there were Ingrid Bergman and Gary Cooper in the movie. The next day I was in a bookstore and picked it up. What a complicated man he was. I also recently read John Steinbeck’s short novel “The Moon Is Down,” about the military occupation of Norway in World War II….

What’s your favorite book that no one has heard of?

Alistair MacLean is well known for writing “The Guns of Navarone,” “Ice Station Zebra” and other highly successful novels. I picked up his first from my dad, “H.M.S. Ulysses,” which despite its making the Times best-seller list, no one seems to remember. It’s one of his few books that was not made into a movie.

What book, if any, most influenced your approach to criminal justice and policing?

“The Commissioner,” by Richard Dougherty, is the best book I’ve ever read about policing. I read it the year it was published, 1962, when I was 15, and it started me thinking about becoming New York’s police commissioner. Though it’s a novel set in the ’50s and ’60s N.Y.P.D., it’s an accurate depiction of the world I knew as both a young patrol officer and a police chief. I lived that book…. It was made into the 1968 movie “Madigan,” starring Henry Fonda and Richard Widmark, one of the top police movies I’ve seen. I could also not have been successful without reading “Varnished Brass,” by Barbara Gelb, “Target Blue,” by Robert Daley, and “Chief!,” by Albert Seedman and Peter Hellman.

Who writes especially well about police work and the issues facing police departments today?

The late George Kelling was the best chronicler of police and the issues facing them….George deserves to be read by anyone interested in the law enforcement profession. In his seminal 1982 Atlantic article “Broken Windows,” written with James Q. Wilson, he created the policing theory of which I am the principal proponent. His 1996 book, “Fixing Broken Windows,” co-written with his wife, Catherine Coles, updated those ideas. Joe Domanick is perceptive and informed on police matters and has written several excellent books about the L.A.P.D., particularly “To Protect and to Serve” and “Blue.”…

What book would you recommend to a young patrol officer? And to a police chief or commissioner?

For chiefs, “The Commissioner.” The issues of 2021 are the same issues of 1962. I refer to Jim Collins’s leadership book “Good to Great” frequently when I speak publicly. There can be no better advice for someone leading an organization than Collins’s recommendation to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and put the right ones in the right seats. For patrol officers, Jack Maple’s “The Crime Fighter.”…

Are you a fan of crime fiction? And what other genres do you particularly enjoy, or avoid?

I read every book, as soon as they come out, by Michael Connelly, James Lee Burke, Donna Leon and Daniel Silva. Their lead characters are tempted and human. I still own and treasure all the books by Robert Parker and Joseph Wambaugh. Joe Wambaugh understood cops; his books taught me a lot about the L.A.P.D. I’ve read several of Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. When I want to know what’s happening in the world of international terrorism, the frighteningly prescient writing of Daniel Silva is often a better source than the news and nonfiction. I don’t like sci-fi or fantasy….I’m more interested in the real world.

Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?

I read all the books of Thomas Friedman and Malcolm Gladwell, whose “The Tipping Point” was based in part on the turnaround of crime and disorder on my watch in New York. Two of the best historical writers working are Max Hastings and Andrew Roberts….

What’s the best book you ever received as a gift?

“Your Police,” by George Zaffo, was a nonfiction young adult book filled with colorful illustrations of the 1950s N.Y.P.D. As a boy, I didn’t know any cops — no one in my family was a cop — but between “Dragnet” on TV and so many ’50s black‐and‐white movies in theaters, policing was all I truly cared about. Here were squad cars and motorcycles, as well as all the paraphernalia every officer carried with him on the New York streets. I saw call boxes, helicopters, emergency vehicles — a full complement of real objects to fulfill a fantasy. It said: “We must always remember that wherever you see a policeman, he is your friend. He is there to protect you. … He would not hesitate to save your life at the cost of his own.”…

Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?

Michael Connelly’s L.A.P.D. homicide detective Harry Bosch is my favorite hero. He is a flawed person, which makes him real. There’s both a vitality and a morose quality to Harry; you’re rooting for him even when he acts out against his better judgment. You want him to win because he truly stands up for justice. I don’t have a favorite villain….

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

With all due respect, two of them: my books “Turnaround” and “The Profession,” both written with Peter Knobler. I think in order to keep the country safe and headed in the right direction it’s important that our chief executive have a strong awareness of the history and character of policing and law enforcement. There’s so much misunderstanding about the role and potential of our profession, and a president would do well to have a clear vision going forward. I would also recommend Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” about Lincoln’s predilection for surrounding himself with advisers of diverse outlooks. I build my leadership teams the same way; I want people who disagree with one in order for me to select the best path forward.

You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?

Tom Wolfe, Nick Pileggi and Pete Hamill. All premier raconteurs who captured the guts of New York. I read “The Bonfire of the Vanities” just before I became chief of the Transit Police in 1990, and found Wolfe accurately and devastatingly captured the city. His distinctive and highly idiosyncratic voice brought his characters sharply to life….Nick Pileggi intimately captures something New York is known for, the world of the gangster. He gets the Mafia; his book “Wiseguy” was turned into the movie “Goodfellas.” I ate at Elaine’s and attended various events with Pete Hamill. He lived New York and got under your skin. I loved his book “Downtown,” in which he walked from the southern tip of Manhattan to 42nd Street….

What do you plan to read next?

In my continuing love affair with New York, I’m about to start Robert Caro’s Robert Moses epic, “The Power Broker.” I’m also looking forward to reading what Stacey Abrams has to say about voter suppression, diverse empowerment and the difficulties of modern America in “Our Time Is Now.”

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