The Reformer, on Honeymoon

Joe Domanick last wrote for the magazine about the death of a mentally ill prisoner at the L.A. county jail. He is author of "To Protect and To Serve," a book detailing the history of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Dressed in a black suit and white collar, father David O'Connell looks as if he's just stepped off the set of the "The Bells of St. Mary's" for a quick smoke with Bing Crosby. Ruddy-faced, with gray hair, a full beard and a lilting Irish brogue, O'Connell has been a Los Angeles priest for 23 years and currently is pastor of two Catholic churches in South Los Angeles.

It's a Christmas season Monday afternoon, and O'Connell and 24 other members of a community federation known as L.A. Metro-I.A.F. are seated in a conference room at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department. Priests, rabbis, union and neighborhood organizers, all have trekked downtown to meet William J. Bratton, the new police chief from New York, still in his honeymoon period in L.A. They want to tell him--they need to tell him--about their embattled neighborhoods. "A week and a half ago, a member of our parish who owns a store across the street from our church was robbed and killed at 6:15 at night," says O'Connell. "Shot dead. In front of his family. Then, about a month ago, a 15-year-old was walking down the street--walking home from an event at church--and he got killed."

Another man tells of a bridge by a school in Lincoln Heights, a place where would-be gang members had been harassing children and women, and how one little girl was raped, murdered and dumped over the side of the walkway.

The stories tumble out, one by one. Many are devoid of emotion, as if the tellers had grown numb from the violence, but all are built around a single theme--a question, really, a plea: Where are the police? Can you give us some protection?

"People live like cockroaches around here," says Barbara Franklin, a public-school teacher in the Rampart area. "We don't see the parents. They're the ones working in sweatshops. If the police became involved at the community level, it would encourage the people to come out of their holes."

An anti-gang police unit had once worked the neighborhood where Franklin teaches, Pico-Union, a mean, hard place sprawling west of downtown L.A.'s skyscrapers, a community overstuffed with Central American immigrants doing the grunt work that makes Los Angeles run. The 8-square-mile neighborhood has the densest population west of the Mississippi. That police unit, known as Rampart CRASH, had been created to deal with about 30 local street gangs. Their members found family and status in the streets and acted out a code of honor whose raison d'etre dictated killing rivals over the merest slight, or to control a few blocks of turf where they could deal drugs or extort drug dealers. Every action caused a brutal reaction, a cycle refined over decades into a special gangbanging art form with its own weird logic.

Rampart CRASH's mission was to halt the bloodshed, and like the gangs, it developed its own inner logic: suppress the gangs by being tougher and more thuggish than they were. They shot unarmed people, administered brutal beatings, falsified reports, lied in court and planted guns and drugs. When news of its activities broke in 1999, the ensuing scandal started a chain of events that led former chief Bernard Parks to disband CRASH units in all 18 LAPD divisions, and ended with Bill Bratton sitting at this meeting today.

"Since Rampart CRASH left, there are so many wounds to heal," Franklin elaborates later. "The parents come around the corner to get their kids from school and walk right by a shooting victim, or witness a shooting. The parents don't want to go to the cops, and don't go to the cops, because they don't trust the police."

Seated at the table, one leg of his blue business suit draped over the other, the 55-year-old chief raises his hands, palms out, and takes over the meeting. "The most devastating thing this city has experienced in years was the horrendous activities of the officers in Rampart CRASH," he begins. "The haunting and the devastating effect of that, however, was that for three or four months, our gang units were not on the street, and the gangbangers were just doing what they wanted. And when the gang units were reconstituted, in greatly weakened form, they had all new people who had to make all new relationships."

William Bratton, America's self-described "top cop," makes it clear that he would not have committed such an ill-conceived, sophomoric mistake. "Why didn't you ask Parks: 'What were you thinking, disbanding all the gang units?' " Bratton then reminds the group that Parks also stopped the Senior Lead Officer community policing program, under which ranking officers in each police division met regularly with local neighborhood groups. Together, those two decisions by his predecessor dissolved the glue that bonded the community to police, however tenuously.

Then Bratton disdainfully uses Parks' leadership to announce the dawning of a new day. "Under Chief Parks, there was one big stop sign outside his office, and as a result, the division captains at the local level who should have been responding to you became incredibly risk-averse, because nobody could do anything without getting his signature on a piece of paper."

"You'll have access to me on a scheduled basis," he says, telling his audience what they desperately want to hear, "so I can get feedback from you and you get feedback from me. But it's really important that you interact with your division captains. They'll be authorized to act, instead of having to go to the chief's office to get permission."

It's a performance shrewd in its candor by a man running hard to build public support as he tries to reform the previously unreformable LAPD. Bratton is still on his honeymoon, and the rules of the game say that when you're new to the job, you blame the past on the fellow you replaced and promise to make everything better. As the title of Bratton's 1998 autobiography puts it, "Turnaround: How America's Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic," he is famous for reviving the New York City Transit Police, the Boston Police Department and, of course, the New York Police Department. He came to L.A. with a template that worked strikingly well in New York, confident that the techniques he applied there will work here.

If you had shadowed Bratton for a few days during his current honeymoon period, as I did last month, you would have seen a brash, articulate man with a smooth politician's charm who constantly works the crowd, especially the press. You would have seen how remarkably different he is from any chief before him in the LAPD's modern era. You would have begun to see which levers he will pull, and even begun to glean how his philosophy and his big persona could fail here.

Above all, you would have seen a cop with an East Coast sensibility starting to grasp the vast differences between the city he left and the one he's come to, and already trying to adjust his formula for success.

One day after meeting with O'Connell, Bratton is standing with L.A. Mayor James K. Hahn in the courtyard of a South-Central community center with 120 local organizers and uniformed cops, a couple dozen members of the media and two African American men holding a large sign that reads: "Stop the Killing. Choose Life, Not Death."

Hahn, the man who got rid of Parks and hired Bratton, has called a news conference to announce some new anti-gang initiatives. As his grim poster-boy example, he's chosen the death of Clive Jackson Jr., a 14-year-old student who was standing in front of a doughnut shop when he got into a scuffle with a 17-year-old member of the Rollin' 40s Crips and was shot and killed. Bratton and Hahn hope Clive Jackson's death will finally wake a city seemingly inured to gang violence--just as a senseless death in New York City did 12 years ago, helping to galvanize that city, where more than 700,00 serious crimes had been committed in 1989, about one for every 10 New Yorkers. During the 1990 U.S. Open, a young tourist from Utah named Brian Watkins and his family were attacked by a gang of muggers in a subway station. When Watkins came to his family's defense, he was stabbed to death.

"The whole catalyst for the turnaround in crime in New York City occurred right then," Bratton recalls. At the time, Bratton was the new chief of the New York Transit Police. "Watkins' murder became a cause celebre; his death the face of crime in New York City. I received a phone call the next day" from then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. " 'I'm giving you $40 million,' " Cuomo said. 'See what you can do with it.' " Bratton did wonders, turning around a slothful, ill-equipped and demoralized department. He instituted internal reforms to improve the training, performance and deployment of transit officers and put into practice social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's controversial and highly influential "Broken Windows" theory of crime. Public drunkenness, aggressive panhandling, street prostitution and loitering, Wilson and Kelling argued, create an atmosphere of fear and permissiveness that leads to more serious crimes. Therefore, cops needed to challenge that kind of behavior in the same way that broken windows must be repaired or they'll lead to a neighborhood's gradual deterioration.

During the next two years under Bratton, subway felonies dropped 75%, with robberies falling 64%. New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani noticed the numbers and, in 1994, hired Bratton to head the NYPD. For the next 2 1/2 years, New York police showed new aggressiveness in enforcing even the most minor crimes, while Bratton instituted smart new computer crime tracking and officer deployment systems. Following a national trend, serious crimes dropped, with New York City experiencing a 33% decline. Homicides fell 50%. Bratton was hailed as New York City's savior. He sought and loved the adulation, and wound up a Time magazine cover boy. But Giuliani, feeling that his publicity-hungry chief was getting the credit that rightfully belonged to him, unceremoniously dumped Bratton. That was six years ago.

Today, in Los Angeles, Bratton has another chance to make history. Clive Jackson's father is nearby, inconsolably rocking back and forth on his feet, deep into his grief. His mother stands stoically, eyes on the ground as Bratton steps to the microphone. "The gangs of Los Angeles are in fact much more of a national threat than the Mafia was," he says. "If we don't deal with them effectively, the disease that these gangs represent will spread across this country. We need to enlist as partners the federal government, just as we are seeking to do with probation and parole and various entities."

Then Hahn asks for a letter to be read. It is dated Nov. 13, 2002, and is addressed to UCLA. "My name is Clive Jackson," it begins. "I would like to know how to get into college so I can get ready . . . who do I have to talk to? . . . How can I get a scholarship? . . . I don't want my mom to pay for everything."

Following the news conference, I ask Bratton about the focus on Clive Jackson. "It's the whole idea of personalizing this problem," he replies. "This kid was just a good kid; he could be the one to put a face on crime here in L.A. . . . I describe it as the Rosetta stone effect. I'm looking for that stone that really strikes a responsive chord."

But it wasn't to be. Clive Jackson's tragic death quickly faded from public discourse. The city did not rise up as New York did with Brian Watkins. California Gov. Gray Davis did not call offering tens of millions of dollars to help. Bratton didn't find his Rosetta stone.

In fact, his situation in L.A. could scarcely be more different than when he arrived in New York. There the economy was beginning its 1990s boom, crime was dropping nationwide, federal money was flowing in for training, equipment and new officers, and Giuliani's predecessor, David Dinkins, had started the hiring process that would lead to an NYPD of 40,000 officers for a city of 8 million people.

But William Bratton has come to Los Angeles with the city, county and state all in fiscal crisis. The LAPD has about 9,000 cops to police a city of 3.7 million. Many of those officers are so poorly supervised or trained that while in pursuit of motorists in 2001, they were involved in 283 collisions that left 139 people injured. The city has authorized an increase in the force to 10,500 officers, and Police Commission President Rick Caruso says the hires will be made, eventually. So the chief who caught the economic wave in New York is hitting the undertow here, leaving him without the ability to improve the number and quality of police officers in a city whose population is exploding.

Without that money, the road to reforming the department, to improving its relations with the community and to reducing crime could be rocky. Even so, Bratton believes the department could do a much better job on the streets. There are "so many officers inappropriately assigned that there's phenomenal room for increased productivity," he says. Toward that end, Bratton asked the Police Commission to change a department policy requiring officers to respond to all home security alarms that sent police to more than 100,000 false burglar alarms in 2002. The commission responded this month by authorizing the police to react only to alarms verified by homeowners or private security agencies, a move met with strenuous objections from the home security industry, which was planning an appeal to the Los Angeles City Council. The commission also voted to prohibit LAPD pursuits of motorists for minor traffic infractions, which accounted for 60% of pursuits in 2001.

Striding out of his office on the way to a meeting in Brentwood, Bratton zips into an elevator and quickly introduces himself to the two passengers. One, a young blond, is so clearly awestruck that she sticks out her hand and stammers, "Thank you very much, chief." The other, an equally young woman, fights off the giggles and says, "I know you chief already, I know you." "That's right," Bratton replies, a grin lighting up his face.

Unlike many officers in the LAPD of old, who seemed like Arnold Schwarzenegger clones, Bratton is a slender man of medium height with the unimposing physicality of someone who could easily be mistaken for part of the office furniture. Then his body language changes and he takes charge, speaking clearly, relentlessly, rarely pausing to search for a word, as if he'd just pulled an all-nighter and wanted to share what he had learned. He is not, however, a man to be jollied.

"Some people are great back-slappers, quick with an embrace, a peck on the cheek or a pat on the butt," he says. "I didn't grow up with that." Instead, he puts people at ease with a salesman's smooth affability. In private homes and before civic groups around the city, Bratton is reaching out, displaying a desire to embrace L.A. that is every bit as strong as his predecessors' inclination to circle the wagons.

For Daryl Gates and Bernard Parks, it was more "us against them" than all of us against the criminal few. Those chiefs focused on internal issues and fought off public criticism of the department. Bratton openly criticizes his department, as he did on the very day he was sworn in Oct. 25, when he said: "The department is not strategically engaged in fighting crime. We have 9,000 officers smiling and waving as they drive around in their cars."

He's already made critical moves to begin internal reforms. Deputy Chief Mike Hillmann, who looks like an LAPD officer out of central casting--tan, slightly grizzled, gray-white hair, tailored blues--has been made Bratton's drug czar. In Hillmann, Bratton is getting more than a smart guy who's respected throughout the department. Hillmann also knows how to kick ass. He's worked in SWAT and in the elite Metropolitan Division, which the LAPD has traditionally deployed as its roving shock troops.

Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell has been a friend of Bratton's for 23 years, since their days together on the Boston Police Department. He headed Bratton's transition team, overseeing compliance with one of Bratton's first requests: that all 114 members of the department's command staff submit their resumes and a list of their accomplishments, and write detailed thoughts about where the department should be headed.

The request worked on several levels. First, Bratton got to see, as he never tires of repeating, "who was thinking outside the box." Also, by demanding that all members of the old LAPD hierarchy justify their existence, he put himself in the position of judging them as opposed to the other way around, which is what helped trip up Willie Williams, the hapless chief from Philadelphia who replaced Daryl Gates. Bratton says he finds the LAPD bureaucracy far more resistant to change than its counterparts in New York and Boston, in part because the police forces in those cities had always been subject to civilian control. But he also seems almost contemptuous of the thought that he will meet active resistance.

The Police Protective League already has gotten its two top priorities from Mayor Hahn--a three-day workweek and the dumping of Parks. The union, therefore, is in no position to cause trouble for Hahn's new chief unless it wants to bite the hand that fed it. As Bratton's team works on the internal, he seems more occupied with the external, meeting with groups small and large, using his bully pulpit. "There's no public official, apart from the mayor, that has the same potential impact, good or bad, as a police chief," he says. "It's all about marketing. I don't have a marketing budget, but I have the media."

If Bratton can use the press to energize the community, he can pressure public officials to put up the money and approve changes he seeks. As Bratton told O'Connell and the others as their meeting broke up: "One of the great things about this city is that there's no shortage of people who want to get involved. It's a strength that's really not recognized in this city--how many people, despite the dangers, time commitments and the effort, want to get involved."

From the moment Bratton was sworn in as L.A. police chief, he's been obsessed with gangs. Not the gangs of Pico-Union as much as the African American gangs of South Los Angeles, an area where 271 of the city's 656 murders occurred in 2002. He knew people were saying that Los Angeles was replacing Chicago as the "Murder Capital of America."

Sixty percent of the city's murders, Bratton pointed out, were committed by gangs. He called them a cancer and said he intended to be the cure. Time and again in his early weeks he virtually declared "war on gangs," telling his police officers to stop waving from cars and start hitting the streets. In Los Angeles, however, the words ricocheted off a very different history than New York City's, one instilled by the creator of the modern-day LAPD, former Chief William H. Parker, a man so cool and distant that Gene Roddenberry--who worked as an LAPD sergeant under Parker--was said to have based the "Star Trek" character Spock on him.

Parker created the LAPD's bedrock policing philosophy: confront and command; you own the streets; seek them out and shake 'em down; control the lice. Daryl Gates later followed the model as if it had been handed down by Moses from the Mount, no matter how much trouble it brought him and his department throughout his calcified tenure of the '80s and early '90s. Were they not the Golden Boys? America's Cops?

Then came Rodney G. King, the 1992 riots and public revulsion with the LAPD. Now here was Bratton talking about stomping out cancerous gangs and rousting people under an aggressive "Broken Windows" policy. To many Angelenos, law-abiding minorities first among them, smiling and waving officers in squad cars sounded preferable to officers being even more confrontational on the streets. Whether Bratton realized it or not, he was revealing a basic misunderstanding of the depth of fear of the old LAPD. In the words of former California state legislator Tom Hayden, who has worked long hours on gang issues: "Zero tolerance policies like Broken Windows can't be executed even-handedly in a city where enormous racial and economic divides exist. During the period 1997-98 alone [using policies Bratton initiated], the NYPD stopped 45,000 individuals for suspicion of having a gun, but no weapon was found in 35,000 of the cases. They made 9,500 arrests in these instances; half were dismissed for lack of evidence."

Moreover, as crime dropped significantly in New York City, police brutality complaints rose by 50%.

I ask Bratton about the drawbacks of applying Broken Windows in a city with such a volatile relationship with its police department. "We changed the culture of permissiveness in New York that for 30 years had said, 'Don't bother people with the little things.' You know, they're poor, they're black, they're brown. It was a failure not to recognize that they were just like everyone else; they wanted peace, tranquillity and a civil environment to bring their kids up in. But they also want police who will respect them, police who are focused, who are not just randomly coming in and throwing them up against the wall. Am I right, or am I right?"

But in L.A., I reply, "the LAPD has always thrown people up against the wall," and in a very unsystematic way, frequently harassing, intimidating and humiliating them. "I think what happened in Los Angeles," Bratton replies, "was reflective of the screws being tightened too much. And it was the police who were effectively being rebelled against as much as anything else in society. That's why this time we have to do it very differently. We have to do it with the spirit of community policing, the idea of partnership, working with ministers who will say to their congregations, 'We want the police--that the police are going to come in and work on a targeted basis to reduce crime.' We're going to have to have tactics and a philosophy that doesn't appear that we're just going back to the way we were. At the same time, communities have to understand that for the police to get a handle on this, they're going to engage in stop and frisks. But there is a delicate balance that has to be maintained."

Certainly William Bratton deserves credit for being publicly outraged at gang violence, that the poorest among us are living daily in desperate fear, and that, incidentally, 10,000 young African American and Latino men have died in gang killings over the last two decades. But it's also hard to imagine Bratton maintaining that "delicate balance." Thanks to the Rehnquist Supreme Court, cops, in reality, no longer need probable cause to stop and frisk someone. As Georgetown University Professor David Cole has written: "Federal agents have asserted all of the following traits as parts of a drug-courier profile: arrived late at night, arrived early in the morning, arrived in the afternoon, traveled alone, traveled with a companion, acted too nervous, acted too calm."

Bratton, moreover, is a cop who believes that economic and social conditions influence but do not cause people to commit crimes--that it's their choice. He talks very little of the essence of the violence in the ghettos, of the "influences" causing the killings of those 10,000 people, or of the fact that one in three African American males in California between the ages of 20 and 29 is either in jail or prison or on probation or parole.

Winding his way through the worn-out basement corridor of Parker Center, Bratton emerges in the dingy parking lot behind the building. He takes off his suit jacket and slides into the passenger seat of his gleaming black LAPD Ford sedan. We're heading to a private home in Brentwood, where Bratton will speak to the ACLU of Southern California, a vocal and consistent critic of the LAPD. As we pull out, his driver/bodyguard hangs up his cell phone and says out of the side of his mouth: "So the wife is living with two daughters away from the father. The father finds out where she lives, shoots her three times--one right in the eye. She's dead at the scene. He turns the gun and shoots himself in the head, but does not die. He's Code Green at the hospital. The 9-year-old witnessed the homicide/suicide. The 4-year-old's in the apartment, but did not. And today's the wife's birthday."

Bratton has ordered his staff to brief him on every homicide that occurs in the city, so that, in his words, he can "feel the pain of the family, of the city." "One of the things we tend to overlook is how much other crime there is in the city," he says. "We have such a focus on gangs, when gangs constitute about half of the homicides. [But] we have no shortage of the traditional type of crime."

He grabs his car phone and begins punching in numbers. It's evening rush hour. As we inch toward Brentwood, his driver again lays down his cell phone. "Chief," he says, "We got another one. A man is parked, arguing with his wife. [A] suspect walks up to him, shoots him in the head. Suspect flees, the gun's recovered, but the suspect is not in custody. And on top of that, the victim was sitting there with a gun in his lap."

"You need a scorecard to keep track of it all," Bratton says. Finally we arrive at an enormous wrought-iron gate barring the way to a Brentwood enclave surrounded by massive walls, with a guardhouse the size of a bungalow. "Looks like the ACLU's doing all right for itself," Bratton says. Inside the neoclassical mansion, Bratton stands before about 40 people seated on metal folding chairs.

"I'm being asked to try to reinvigorate the organization, to get it back into the game, back into policing the city in a way that is constitutional, is lawful, is respectable, and is done under the framework of the consent decree," he says. (The decree was forced on the city by the U.S. Justice Department after the Rampart scandal. It requires that the LAPD undergo a series of reforms within five years, under the direct monitoring of a federal judge.)

"I work to change organizations in trouble and turmoil," Bratton continues. "Re-engineer them. So in me, you have somebody who is committed to the idea of reform, but, most importantly, believes strongly that it can be done."

"The consent decree's intent is to reform the culture of this organization. Its culture can be reformed. Quite frankly, what I'm looking for at the end of this five-year period of time is to have the federal government and, by extension, hopefully you--the ACLU--saying that the LAPD is no longer corrupt . . . ."

Over dinner later, I ask for his thoughts about the ACLU and the O'Connell contingent. "You see a commonality of concern about the department," he says. "This trust issue--I'm seizing on that word 'trust' because it's just one that I hear over and over again."

The L.A. Metro group "had a very realistic understanding of the department--that it has its flaws, but it's an organization that has a lot going for it, and that it's the entity that they have to work with. The group tonight, absent their involvement in the ACLU, would probably never have an interaction with a police officer. Two totally different strata in society. But in some respects they both want the same thing--a police department that they can trust and respect and an awareness that they also need the police."

He seems at this moment like a man whose eyes are being opened, who's beginning to understand that for decades the LAPD has acted as if people should stick to their homes and stay out of sight.

We have begun to talk about movies. Bratton and his wife are movie buffs. Out of the blue he mentions "Chinatown," the classic film of 1930s L.A. politics, corruption and police hubris. "You know," Bratton says, "everyone thinks the last line of 'Chinatown' is 'Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.' But it isn't."

"What is it?" I ask.

The new chief answers: "Get off the streets."

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