William J. Bratton
Bill de Blasio has announced that former NYPD Commissioner William Bratton (pictured here) will return to the top New York City law enforcement post under the mayor-elect's administration. Reuters

New York City Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio made perhaps the most important appointment decision of his transition on Thursday by announcing that former NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton will return to that role when de Blasio takes the city's helm New Year's Day.

The move comes as a welcome surprise to many police officers and other observers who worried that de Blasio, who has been highly critical of the controversial tactics employed by current Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, would choose someone less experienced and more likely to roll back the department's tough anti-crime measures.

“Bill Bratton is a proven crime-fighter,” de Blasio said at the news conference announcing Bratton's selection. “He knows what it takes to keep a city safe, and make communities full partners in the mission.”

By choosing Bratton, de Blasio essentially endorsed key NYPD policies including the city's effective and innovative CompStat crime-tracking system, which was developed under Bratton when he served under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the 1990s and has been lauded as a key factor in the city's massive reduction in crime over the past two decades.

A police source said that "every cop is ecstatic right now. Bratton is a legend. He is a real cop's cop. ... When the old-timers speak of Bratton, they talk about him like a legend. They say how he saved the city from ruin in the '90s with his new style of policing by using CompStat."

Bratton, who later served a stint as head of the Los Angeles Police Department, has occasionally spoken publicly about NYPD matters during Kelly's term, saying that his much-debated stop-and-frisk policy can be a good tool if it is applied properly. De Blasio railed against the practice during his campaign, saying it was a form of institutionalized racial profiling.

City Councilman Jumaane Williams, D-Brooklyn, an outspoken critic of stop-and-frisk and the NYPD's poor relationship with the city's minority communities, responded to the announcement on Thursday with a statement saying he is "cautiously optimistic," but that Bratton must take concrete steps to restore trust.

"Commissioner-designate Bratton must be responsive to all New Yorkers and restore the faith and trust that every resident must have in order for the NYPD to effectively protect and serve New Yorkers of all backgrounds, in every corner of this city," Williams said. "Far too many New Yorkers have witnessed their civil rights and liberties violated under a stop-and-frisk era, as the mayor-elect put it during his campaign, which has only bred distrust in many corners of our city."

Bratton alluded to the controversy over stop-and-frisk and other tactics employed by Kelly, like directing NYPD personnel to monitor Muslims in New Jersey, that caused rifts between New York City residents and the police force, saying that he would work to bridge the divide and restore public faith in the department.

"That can happen and it will happen in New York City," he said Thursday, acknowledging the downturn in public perception of the NYPD, according to the New York Daily News. “That is my commitment to this mayor. I love this profession, and I love this city.”

But the choice also suggests that de Blasio -- who was perceived by many in the city's political class including Mayor Michael Bloomberg as being a liberal firebrand who would weaken the NYPD, unraveling the hard-fought crime reduction gains the city has made in recent years -- will be a more pragmatic and traditional leader than many had predicted.

"It's definitely surprising. No one could have seen this one coming," another NYPD source said.