Tensions Flare Between Council, Chief Bratton

Times Staff Writer

Long-simmering friction between Los Angeles' current and former police chiefs boiled into public view Thursday, as the Police Commission met to consider a new report on the Rampart Division corruption scandal.

The flashpoint was not over misconduct within the Los Angeles Police Department but over the agency's hiring practices. And before the day was out, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was taking steps to intercede and reduce tensions.

A group of five Los Angeles City Council members -- led by former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks -- requested that the Police Commission launch an investigation into what they called "unprofessional and unnecessary" public comments made by current Chief William J. Bratton.

In a pointed three-page letter, the lawmakers questioned Bratton's ability to lead the department after having made several comments critical of council members.

The council members said they were especially miffed that Bratton had said in a July 6 KTLA-TV Channel 5 appearance that two council members "do not know what the hell they're talking about" after they complained about a recent change in LAPD hiring practices.

Parks and Councilman Dennis P. Zine, two of the letter signers, had criticized the chief during a council committee meeting for hiring some new police officers who admitted to having used drugs in their distant pasts. Council members Jan Perry, Jose Huizar and Tony Cardenas also signed the letter.

In calling for an investigation, the council members said the chief once instructed two councilmen -- again Parks and Zine, a former LAPD officer -- to "mind their own business." They also cited a Bratton comment that the council was "missing in action" because some members had raised questions about funding requests for the LAPD and suggesting they "start attending some of the funerals of the victims of crime."

They also cited his refusal to heed a request by council members for records of money spent by the Police Foundation, a private group that uses donations to help pay for LAPD projects and initiatives.

The council members also complained that Bratton had at various times made "negative references to large segments of the community or individuals," citing a 2004 Times story headlined "Chief says he didn't mean to offend blacks." In the article, Bratton said he was apologizing for using the word "nitwit" when referring to Najee Ali, an African American community activist. Two of the letter-signers, Parks and Perry, are African American.

"We are now formally voicing our extreme displeasure with the chief's recent comments and requesting that the Police Commission formally investigate them," the letter said.

The council members said the commission should look at whether Bratton's "ongoing actions and attitude impact his ability to discipline LAPD personnel for similar behavior."

They also suggested he be forced to undergo training in the separation of powers between the City Council and department heads.

"Chief Bratton's poor judgment is significant because he is a high-ranking representative of our city, his duties call for him to come into contact with countless numbers of people and, most disturbingly, since his arrival, he has routinely made public comments that could be described as insensitive or just plan rude," the letter said. "These types of comments are definitely not befitting a general manager."

Police Commission President John Mack said he had not seen the letter but that the commission would take it seriously.

Bratton said he had no plans to apologize for past comments and did not believe he needed to undergo training over the dispute.

"Quite obviously we have agreed to disagree on the issue of how effective the department hiring policies are, particularly as it relates to drug screening," Bratton said, smiling. "Basically it will now go through the appropriate forum. The Police Commission will accept it as a personnel complaint and do their investigation."

Parks presided over the LAPD during much of the Rampart scandal investigation, but his tenure was not renewed by the Police Commission in 2003 and he was eventually replaced by Bratton.

The two men have sparred on other occasions but never as forcefully as Thursday.

Late in the day, Villaraigosa issued a statement that said he was trying to bring the sides together.

"I spoke with Chief Bratton about his comments during my weekly meeting with him," the mayor said. "I will also be speaking with council members Parks and Zine.

"My hope is that this matter can be resolved as quickly as possible so that we can move forward together taking on the public safety challenges we face as a city."

The letter from the council members created a buzz as it circulated among city officials at the Police Commission hearing on the Blue Ribbon Rampart Review Panel, which recommended significant changes to address problems raised seven years ago by the Rampart Division scandal.

The commission ended up asking Bratton to report back next week on the panel's review, noting the reforms he believes should be pursued and his plan to implement them.

The blue ribbon panel called for a major expansion of the police force -- even as the city is already attempting to hire 1,000 additional officers over the next five years.

In his first public remarks on the Rampart report, Bratton said he took issue with some of its findings, but told the commission he supported its general proposition that the department must be expanded and move fully into community-based policing.

"In sum, while we have worked hard to get where we are, we are still not where we have to be," Bratton said.

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