NEW YORK — The morning sun hangs low, but East Harlem already is like a sauna gone haywire.
The streets inflict a sweaty misery on drug dealers, the cops arresting them, bystanders--everyone, it seems, except Police Commissioner William Bratton.
His white dress shirt crisp, his loafers tasseled, Bratton steps out of a chauffeured black sedan and into a sneaker shop where officers have found bags of marijuana stashed in hoods of Malcolm X sweat shirts.
Two suspects with their hands up against a wall glance back at Bratton as he explains a crackdown on storefront drug-dealing to a group of reporters. After 15 minutes, he heads to his car, pausing only to inspect an officer's disheveled uniform and antiquated revolver.
"See how his gun hangs too low on his belt?" Bratton frets. "Not what I like to see."
Fighting crime may be a dirty job, but the leader of the nation's largest police department thinks it's important to look good doing it.
Since taking over the 31,000-officer New York City Police Department in January, Bratton, 47, has sought to make over the image of a department viewed by some as a bureaucratic behemoth mired in scandal and lethargy.
Early on, Bratton used outside donations to hire a private communications consultant, and picked a former television reporter as his chief spokesman.
He later installed a new set of fortysomething top chiefs to--borrowing a buzzword from corporate America--"re-engineer" the department, hastened a program for officers to replace their old .38 revolvers with more powerful 9-mm. semiautomatics with 15-round clips, and introduced myriad "strategies" for battling drug-dealers, gunrunners, prostitutes, wife-beaters, even truants.
"We will fight for every house in this city. We will fight for every street. We will fight for every borough," Bratton proclaimed the day he was hired for the $110,000-a-year post.
It was the first of many photo ops and sound bites that at times have upstaged his boss, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, a Republican elected largely on a law-and-order platform.
Twelve officers arrested in a corruption scandal? Bratton personally seizes their badges.
Youths staging dog fights in Central Park? An off-duty Bratton scares them off, then relates the story to a newspaper.
Powder blue police shirts a fashion faux pas? Bratton introduces new dark blue uniforms which, he tells reporters, promise a "more professional look. A crisper look. A getting-rid-of-the-'Mr. Goodwrench' look."
Among the Bratton sightings noted in the tabloids: court-side at Knick games. Boogieing with his wife, law professor Cheryl Fiandaca, at an HBO party in the Hamptons. Dining at Elaine's, the upscale Upper Eastside eatery popular with television anchors and soap stars.
Bratton's style has rankled some local officials clearly more comfortable with his predecessor, Raymond Kelly, a tight-lipped ex-Marine.
"The emerging profile is of someone who is anxious to get his puss on television," complained Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari.
"There's an advantage to being high-profile if there's substance to back it up. The jury is still out on him."
Bratton is unapologetic.
He readily admits he's equally passionate about running the department and promoting it through what the city's first police commissioner, Teddy Roosevelt, would have called the "bully pulpit."
"What sets me apart from many in my business is the appreciation of how important the message is . . . and how important the police commissioner is to the selling of that message," he said.
Bratton arrived in crime-weary New York amid high expectations.
A native of Massachusetts who tweaks the ears of some New Yorkers by pronouncing department "depaatment," he rose through the ranks of the Boston force before taking over New York's Transit Police Department in 1990. His tenure was marked by a drop in serious subway crimes that continued well after he returned to Boston as chief in 1992.
After briefly considering retaining Kelly, Giuliani recruited Bratton and initially declared the Police Department off-limits to the budget cuts being inflicted on other city agencies. Thomas Reppetto, head of a citizens' police watchdog group, likened Bratton's arrival to the Yankees taking Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox.
So far, Bratton's statistics look strong.
In the first nine months of 1994, 1,280 people were murdered in the city, compared to 1,499 at this time last year, a 14% drop. Reports of robbery, grand larceny and auto theft also are declining at double-digit pace--a rate Bratton considers critical to making city residents feel safer.
Public opinion polls also have been favorable, and Bratton has earned high marks from some minority and gay leaders.
"I think we can say he has been listening to us," said the Rev. Calvin Butts of Harlem's Abyssinian Baptist Church. "The mayor could learn something from him."
Within the department, Bratton is viewed with a mix of awe and skepticism.
Some see the commissioner and his inner circle advisers as media manipulators with little affinity for the cop on the street.
In a published rebuttal to reports that officers were not making enough arrests, Queens patrolman Wayne Brooks blasted Bratton's "spin doctors" for their "condescending criticism."
Those officials, Brooks charged, provided reporters with "a litany of one-line answers that made the patrol force look as if it was more interested in its next doughnut than its next arrest."
But most officers have been energized by Bratton's call for more aggressive policing, former chief of personnel Michael Julian says.
"He's got the cops' ear," Julian says. "He reminded them that they're crime-fighters first. And cops love to fight crime."