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Bratton’s Biggest Goal Still Elusive

Times Staff Writers

In his first weeks in Los Angeles, Police Chief William J. Bratton talked to anyone who would listen about his ideas for revolutionizing the LAPD.

He spoke of Compstat, a computer system he planned to implement that would pinpoint high-crime areas and allow the department to instantly deploy additional officers where they were needed most.

He spoke of his commitment to police reform, promising that his command staff would embrace the federal consent decree arising from the Rampart corruption scandal.

Crime would drop. Morale would rise. And ultimately, he promised, he would restore luster to an LAPD badge tarnished by a decade of scandal and tumultuous leadership.

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In the two years since being named chief, Bratton has by no means achieved all he set out to accomplish. Most notably, he has failed to pry more money for additional police officers from city coffers or voters’ pocketbooks, leaving staffing levels proportionately far below those of other big-city departments.

But he has made good -- at least partially -- on many of his other pledges.

In Bratton’s first year as chief, the city saw a 21% decline in homicides. He promised a further 20% decline during his second year, something he has failed to deliver (the homicide rate for the year is about the same as for 2003), but he has presided over a 19% jump in arrests over the last two years and an 18% reduction overall in violent crime during the same period.

Michael Cherkasky, the court-appointed monitor charged with overseeing the Los Angeles Police Department’s compliance with the Rampart consent decree, said the LAPD has made substantial progress on such things as disciplining officers, documenting procedural operations and monitoring gang unit activity.

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But he said the department has not yet gotten a mandated computer system for identifying rogue officers up and running; it is something that may require an extension of the court’s oversight.

The chief’s political accomplishments are mixed. He lost a fight with the City Council over funding for additional officers soon after his arrival, and his relationship with some council members is still rocky. But Bratton is the first police chief in decades to have won the simultaneous respect of his officers and the communities they police.

“Daryl Gates related to the department, and Bernard Parks to the community. But they always chose one side or the other,” said Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and a frequent critic of the LAPD, referring to two of Bratton’s predecessors. “The secret to Bratton’s success is that he understands the need to get both the public and his officers on board.”

Not known for his modesty, Bratton would agree that he has accomplished more than his predecessors did.

“During Gates’ time, the department was starved,” he said. “What was accomplished with blustering and bravado?”

Of his immediate predecessor, Bratton is equally dismissive: “Parks was fighting everyone. It gets you nowhere.”

Bratton has walked a fine line. He has moved aggressively against corrupt or unprofessional officers. But he has done so, by and large, without alienating rank-and-file cops.

“He has brought us into discussions on key issues, and we’ve never had a relationship with a chief like that before,” said Bob Baker, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League.

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That relationship seems to be paying off. In a recent departmentwide anonymous survey conducted for Bratton by an outside public relations firm, 85% of the 2,300 officers who filled out an online questionnaire agreed with the statement “I am confident the chief of police is leading us in the right direction.” This is in contrast to a January 2002 poll of its members by the Police Protective League, which found that 93% of those who took part in the survey had “no confidence” in then-Chief Parks.

Both polls were conducted by parties with strong stakes in the results, and there have been no independent measurements of Bratton’s popularity. But political consultant Bill Carrick, Mayor James K. Hahn’s chief strategist, said there is no reason to question Bratton’s appeal, both within the department and in the community.

“I don’t have any numbers on Chief Bratton, but you’d have to be on another planet not to understand that he’s popular, and he clearly has captured the public’s imagination as a new police chief who is doing a really good job,” Carrick said.

And though there is still a generalized distrust of the LAPD in parts of Los Angeles, Bratton has won the respect of many traditional critics of the department, particularly in South Los Angeles.

“The chief had the deck stacked against him coming in,” said Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack, noting that despite “decades of tense relations between the LAPD and African Americans, and the removal of Bernard Parks,” Bratton has “been embraced” by black community leaders.

“Through his presence in communities, Bratton has got more people to buy into his program,” said the Rev. Leonard Jackson of the First AME Church. “He believes the police can serve the community without abusing the citizenry, and people are listening.”

These positive comments come, paradoxically, at a time when complaints about officers are rising. The number of formal complaints filed during the first nine months of 2004 was up 21% over the same period in 2003.

Bratton said the increase in complaints is easily explained. First, he said, it reflects an end to “smile-and-wave” policing. His officers are making more arrests and having more direct contact with people in the community, and that, he said, means more complaints.

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He also points to stings the department has conducted to ensure that citizen complaints get reported up the chain of command rather than buried. This, he said, means that complaints that once were quickly dismissed are now reflected in statistics.

Bratton, who came to Los Angeles after having headed police departments in Boston and New York, attributes the goodwill he has built among his officers and the community in part to his having put in the long hours it took to make his presence felt in both places. But he said he also has been careful to listen and to act on the things he could control.

Some of it has been more symbolic than substantive. LAPD officers wanted Glock .40-caliber pistols and flat badges that were less bulky. These things, Bratton said, were easily accomplished.

Other actions took more thought. The officers complained that under Parks, discipline had become punitive and unnecessarily bureaucratic. After studying the situation, Bratton agreed.

Though he insisted that each complaint get a fair evaluation, he also decided that “the department had too onerous a system for investigating complaints. Every complaint doesn’t have to be investigated like it was a felony,” he said. “I’m not shy about going after officers we feel are problematic ... but I am not going to waste department resources investigating claims that are completely frivolous.”

Bratton also labored to repair decades of damaged relationships between police and the city’s African American community, putting in extra hours to attend community events and listen to people’s concerns.

A recent weekend, he said, was typical. Bratton and his wife, attorney and television legal analyst Rikki Klieman, stopped at Lawrence Tolliver’s barbershop on Florence Avenue near Western Avenue to offer condolences on the death of the owner’s father.

Then, he said, they dropped by the home of community activist Sweet Alice Harris to discuss a Christmas toy drive.

Earlier this month, Bratton and Klieman attended the star-studded final sermon of the Rev. Cecil L. “Chip” Murray at First AME Church.

Bratton said it is that kind of bridge-building that has helped him weather the storms that come with the job, as happened in June, when an LAPD officer was videotaped repeatedly hitting suspected car thief Stanley Miller with a large, metal flashlight as he tried to surrender.

In the past, such an incident might have set off a firestorm in police-community relations, and it did spark criticism of the department. But unlike similar situations in the past, the storm passed quickly. Ultimately, Bratton said, it was seen as an aberration.

“Fortunately, the investment of the year and a half I had been here in the African American community allowed for cooler heads to prevail,” he said.

That’s not to say that Bratton’s community relations have been problem-free. The chief has more than once made statements that required him to spend weeks mending fences, as when he referred to black activist Najee Ali as “one of the biggest nitwits in Los Angeles,” or to gang members as “tribal,” “thugs” and “terrorists.”

“Is he beloved? No,” said civil rights attorney and longtime department critic Connie Rice, who oversees a panel investigating the Rampart corruption scandal, which occurred before Bratton’s arrival. “Is he respected and his concern appreciated? Yes.”

Nowhere has the chief run into bigger problems than in his attempts to win more funding for his department, and he acknowledges that he is at least partly to blame. After arriving in Los Angeles, he expected quick approval from council members for a proposal to hire 320 more officers.

When they balked at the plan’s cost, Bratton became belligerent, accusing the council of being in cahoots with Osama bin Laden and of having gone “missing in action.” He challenged council members to “start attending some of the funerals of the victims of crime.” Later, he wrote a letter of apology to each council member, but the damage had been done.

Today, Bratton refers to the incident as his “only serious misstep here in the sense of relationship-building.” But he still finds it hard to accept “that in a city that so desperately needed police and always had, this issue is not being responded to.”

Bratton suffered another blow this month when Measure A, a ballot initiative that would have provided funding for an additional 1,260 officers, failed to win the two-thirds majority it would have taken to pass. It is a failure he now blames on a bad marketing effort.

The campaign, which attempted to play on voters’ fear of crime, was too negative, Bratton said recently, and should have instead played up positive contributions of police. But during the campaign, he and county Sheriff Lee Baca defended an ad featuring a terrified mother with a small child begging a 911 operator for help as an intruder breaks into their house. Bratton said the ad brought home the point that “no matter where you live, no matter what your status in life, crime can still reach you.”

Regardless of why Measure A lost -- and part of the problem was that the initiative had insufficient support in South Los Angeles, where a desire for better police protection is tempered by a history of negative interactions with LAPD officers -- the fact that he has too few officers has kept Bratton from being able to fully implement some of the projects he touted when hired.

One key piece of his plan for crime reduction was to be able to move teams of officers nimbly from one part of the city to another in response to upticks in crime. But this has been impossible with staffing shortages.

“The LAPD is struggling to hold off an inferno of criminal activity,” Bratton said. “As soon as the department puts out one fire by mustering its scarce resources to respond to a flashpoint of violent crime, the violence jumps to a new location.”

Bratton also came to town promising to implement a “broken windows” style of policing that he said helped turn around New York. The theory, articulated by social scientist James Q. Wilson, holds that if police come down hard on petty crimes such as graffiti and litter, it has an effect even on more serious crimes.

But the chief said he quickly realized that he “didn’t have the resources to other than symbolically speak to broken windows.” Currently, the department has 9,095 officers, down 215 from when Bratton arrived in 2002.

In a recent address to 40 community relations officers from 18 divisions around the city, he spoke ruefully about the defeat of Measure A. In the meantime, Bratton told them, he intends to make good on another pledge he made when arriving in Los Angeles: to deploy many officers with desk jobs into the field on temporary assignments. “Anyone in this department has to be in position to get back on the street,” he said. It was a speech that could have alienated the group of non-patrol officers, but they seemed not to be put off.

Sgt. Rick Leiphardt, a 32-year officer near retirement, was enthusiastic. “This is really, really the first time I’ve seen such dynamic leadership,” he said. “Day to day, the word on the street is we’re doing some great things.”

Bratton’s self-assessment is not much different. “If I was grading myself,” he said in a recent interview, “I’d certainly make the dean’s list.”

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Stretched thin

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton has struggled to win funding for more officers. A comparison with some other large U.S. cities:

Ratio of police officers to population and area

*--* Per 1,000 Per square No. Of population mile officers Washington 6.89 58.7 3,604 Baltimore 5.07 41.4 3,350 New York 4.96 128.8 39,779 Philadelphia 4.87 54.8 7,400 Chicago 4.84 61.9 14,075 St. Louis 4.61 17.8 1,100 Detroit 4.34 29.8 4,130 Boston 3.63 45.1 2,164 Los Angeles 2.41 19.7 9,241*

*--*

*Authorized in current budget

Sources: LAPD Plan of Action, Book II


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