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The Cost of Change at the LAPD

William J. Bratton is chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

The people of Los Angeles must make a decision.

Do you want a city that is safe for families and businesses to thrive? Or do you want to rely on hope that the gangs and violence endemic to some neighborhoods won’t threaten the places where you live and work?

During the last two years, the Los Angeles Police Department has shown that it has the courage and knowledge to reduce crime and to do it largely in a lawful and accountable way. But to achieve our goals, we need greater resources. Throughout our history, we’ve been asked to do too much for too long with too little.

During those years, as a result of staffing levels that have always been too low, a highly aggressive style of policing emerged. Officers, who could not be certain that they would get enough backup in time to deal with what could quickly become overwhelming odds, took the kinds of actions they thought necessary to preempt every contingency. This is not the way we want to do the job.

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The LAPD can -- and has found -- innovative ways to use our officers more efficiently. That’s part of the reason serious crime is down 16% in the last two years. But there is a limit to what too few officers can accomplish, even with excellent strategies and tactics.

Because we have too few police, Los Angeles is the U.S. gang capital. There are 80,000 gang members in L.A. County, with a majority of them in the city. Gang members outnumber police here by a ratio of 5 to 1.

We’re continuing to battle them. But at the same time, we’re changing the culture of the department. Like many big-city police departments, the LAPD was once racist and was often brutal in its practices. This created what can only be described, at best, as an ambivalence toward police and reluctance to trust us with greater resources to do our jobs. Today, any questionable action by an officer inflames the deep-rooted anger and mistrust born in those days.

But that anger is fed even more by a widespread conviction in many of our minority communities that the leadership of this city doesn’t care enough to solve the crime problem in their neighborhoods.

The fact is that police, as has been proved in New York and other big cities, can take back mean streets. We can help good kids stay that way by alleviating the need they feel to carry guns to be safe or to join murderous gangs. We have shown that we can help catalyze economic and social revival (though we can never be the full answer to every social problem).

To do the job, we have asked for 12,500 properly equipped and trained officers -- 1,000 fewer than Chicago, which has a million fewer people than L.A. -- to cut crime by 50% and dismantle violent gangs.

We are capable of casting the demons from our house so that good schools and drug-free playgrounds and jobs can proliferate.

But only if we have the resources we need. Last week, we missed an opportunity when a minority of the City Council blocked a ballot measure that would have raised city sales taxes to pay for more police. It was blocked despite the fact that 64% of the people of Los Angeles backed a similar initiative in a countywide referendum in the last election.

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The people must make this happen. When they do, L.A. will show the rest of the nation that gangs, drugs and crime will destroy no more of our youths, that racial and ethnic prejudice will divide no more of our communities and that LAPD officers will be seen by all as nothing less than guardians of their safety.


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