Police chief says he still has plenty to prove
William J. Bratton stepped into a drab, cramped room at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters on a recent Tuesday morning.
The 61-year-old chief took his seat, slipped on a pair of reading glasses and waited for his bosses -- the five civilian commissioners who oversee the LAPD -- to begin their weekly meeting. As they do each week, the commissioners soon turned their attention to Bratton, who ticked off the department’s latest crime numbers.
“Homicides down 8.9%, rapes down 14.2%, robberies down 3.4%, aggravated assault down 6.4%.” Bratton read on at a quick monotone clip: Burglary, grand theft auto, gang crimes, shooting victims -- all down. The whole thing took about a minute. A commissioner thanked Bratton and the meeting moved on.
It seemed a perfunctory moment, a dry exchange of numbers the city has come to expect after six years of falling crime under Bratton.
But for Bratton, the most influential cop in America today, the numbers are everything.
They are the hard evidence he has spent a career trying to amass: proof that he has the blueprint for fighting crime in urban America.
The numbers have dropped long enough and far enough now that Bratton could call it quits in Los Angeles, say “mission accomplished” and move on. Many city leaders have long been convinced that he is, in fact, on his way out. Some assumed he’d take over the Department of Homeland Security, others say he is certain to be the next director of the FBI. Every year or so, the British tabloids nominate him anew as a sure bet to take over Scotland Yard.
The speculation is not completely unfounded. Bratton is driven by ambition if nothing else and has already finished much of what he brazenly told the city he would do when he took over. And he is not someone who likes to coast. “I never want to go and just maintain something. I want to be able to fix something,” he said.
It remains impossible to tell how much Bratton, over the years in Los Angeles, has come to think of himself as an LAPD cop. He talks nostalgically about his days at the head of the New York Transit Police and in Boston. He wears a large ring that is a replica of his New York Police Department badge and is still treated as a minor celebrity when he walks the streets in Manhattan. And although he says he enjoys life in L.A. and has learned to navigate the balkanized politics of the city, he remains very much the earnest, brusque East Coaster with the thick Boston accent he was when he arrived.
His constant travel to attend conferences and give speeches is viewed as evidence that he’s looking for something new. And he seems to think the department doesn’t need his guidance anymore. “If I left tomorrow, this would continue after I’m gone,” he said.
But, for all that, Bratton -- who has been chief of the LAPD longer than he held his three previous posts combined -- insists he’s not going anywhere. Los Angeles is the place where he wants to prove that he can do more than just make crime numbers go down, where he can complete what he calls “the next phase of policing.”
A mess in L.A.
Bratton inherited a department in turmoil in 2002. Crime had spiked in the three years before his arrival. Cops and their union had feuded openly and bitterly over discipline issues with the previous chief, Bernard Parks. And, in the wake of the of the Rampart corruption scandal, the department was struggling to get started on a sweeping set of anti-corruption reforms that had been forced on it by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The mess attracted Bratton.
“It was another laboratory,” he said. “Once again, I had an opportunity to take a major police department that was in crisis and show that police count, that cops matter. If we could get it done here, with a much smaller police force, it would reinforce the importance not just of how many [cops] you have, but how you use them.”
Bratton promised to deliver on three things when he was hired and has largely done so: Crime rates have fallen steadily every year since he took over, with violent crimes down nearly 50%; the department’s anti-terrorism bureau has become a formidable intelligence-gathering force; and nearly all of the major reforms required by the Justice Department have been pushed into place.
He has also forged a solid relationship with the police union and is praised by leaders of other law enforcement agencies for pulling the LAPD out of its bunker mentality and encouraging collaboration.
As important, Bratton has cultivated a close, mutually beneficial relationship with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor has left Bratton largely alone to run his department and took a considerable political risk in raising voters’ garbage collection fees to hire 1,000 new cops. In return, Bratton has given the mayor impressive crime numbers to tout during an otherwise uneven first term.
It is telling that Villaraigosa, a self-professed progressive with a civil rights background, has made the law-and-order issue of hiring more police a priority. To the mayor -- and to other liberal-leaning politicians -- Bratton is an appealing hybrid: a police chief who has figured out a way to deliver on crime while also working to rehabilitate the department in the public’s eye.
Credit hardly goes to Bratton alone. Much of his success in Los Angeles, as in New York and Boston, has stemmed from his ability to identify talent within the department and a willingness to delegate authority.
“You’ve got to give it to him. He has a brilliant sense of his players and he puts people in positions where they are going to get his plan done,” said Andre Birotte, a civilian watchdog for the Police Commission.
Bratton has methodically promoted all but a few of the dozens of captains who run the police stations throughout the city. They are the people Bratton relies on heavily to sell his ideas on policing to the department’s roughly 9,300 rank-and-file officers.
Similarly, he has rebuilt the top layers of authority at the LAPD. When he arrived, he depended heavily on outside consultants and old confidants for guidance. Today, his inner circle is made up of the department’s deputy and assistant chiefs, many of whom have spent their entire careers in the department. Bratton has placed control of day-to-day operations largely in their hands and, several insiders said, has grown far less confrontational as he has gained more confidence in them.
“If his time here has been a book, the early chapters were rough,” said Charlie Beck, the deputy chief in charge of detectives. “He didn’t respect the leadership of the department and thought we were taking the place in the wrong direction. We’re beyond that.”
Bratton’s most persistent detractors are social scientists who believe the chief ignores economic and other factors when he says cops are responsible for driving down crime. “I remain a skeptic,” said Andrew Karmen, a sociologist at City University of New York. “He deserves some of the credit, but certainly not all.”
Another academic, Bernard Harcourt at the University of Chicago, said the LAPD’s aggressive tactics to clean up the skid row area downtown and other pockets of blight can do more harm than good. “The fundamental problem with Bratton is that he thinks police can solve all of society’s ills,” he said.
In Los Angeles, critics are harder to come by. If there is a vein of dissatisfaction, it runs through some older, midlevel officers who continue to view him as a stranger.
“I don’t think Bratton has put a personal stamp on the LAPD, in the sense that one can say it’s ‘his’ department,” said one veteran officer, who writes for the National Review about LAPD issues under the pseudonym Jack Dunphy and is one of the chief’s most outspoken critics. “Most cops see him as remote and aloof, more concerned with his political ties and his next job than he is with his cops.”
Bratton, of course, disagrees. What keeps him in Los Angeles, he says, has everything to do with his cops. He needs them to buy into an idea that has slowly taken shape in his head over the course of more than three decades of police work.
In the late 1970s Bratton was a patrol sergeant in South Boston, helping to escort black students into schools that had been forcibly desegregated as the city disintegrated into racial violence. The period made a strong impression on Bratton, and he traces the roots of what he is trying to accomplish in Los Angeles back to those ugly days.
He has come to believe that a city’s race relations, for better or for worse, are shaped by its cops. So he thinks that the LAPD, more than L.A.'s politicians, community leaders or any other public figures, has the potential to heal the city’s racial wounds, which were ripped opened during the Watts riots in 1965, the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the subsequent riots and the Rampart scandal, which came to light in the late 1990s and roiled the department for years. The wounds have never closed.
Bratton wants Angelenos -- especially those in minority and crime-ridden areas -- to think they are safer today not just because crime numbers are going down but also because they can trust the cops instead of fearing or being skeptical of them.
To pull it off, he must pry the department away from an ideal that it has clung to and cultivated for decades. In the 1950s, the LAPD’s modern-day patriarch, Chief William H. Parker, transformed it into a taut paramilitary organization that kept itself separate and isolated from the city it served. At its best, the LAPD offered up a cop who was “caring but insensitive, everything by the book,” Bratton said. At its worst, it produced what he and others call a “robo-cop.” What he wants instead is what he calls “high-road policing.” He tells his cops he wants them to police “consistently, compassionately and constitutionally.”
“Joe Friday is not the role model anymore,” Bratton said, referring to the character from the classic LAPD radio and television show “Dragnet.”
The idea of so-called community-based policing is not new to Los Angeles. Chiefs before Bratton had talked about the need for police to be better integrated with the city. But it never really took root under them, either because they were overwhelmed just trying to keep crime in check with too few cops or because they didn’t know how to go about changing the way an entrenched, behemoth department like the LAPD thinks and acts.
Last year, Bratton was reminded how far the department still has to go when scores of officers marched through MacArthur Park wildly swinging batons and firing foam bullets in an effort to clear a May Day crowd of mostly peaceful demonstrators urging immigration policy reforms. The LAPD’s planning for the event had been poor and no one was clearly in charge. Scores of protesters and journalists were hurt. In a scathing address to commanders, Bratton later called it “the most embarrassing experience I’ve had in 38 years of policing.”
Since then Bratton has remade the way the department prepares for such events and has pressed ahead with efforts to build ties with community leaders. His command staff knows he expects them to do the same. Bratton and others meet with religious leaders, leaders from gay and lesbian communities, Asians, Latinos and African Americans. Recruiting efforts have changed the face of the department as well, from its old image as a bastion of white men to something that more closely resembles real Los Angeles.
Bratton is trying to expand the notion of what the LAPD should be doing. He holds up as an example Kenny Garner, one of his deputy chiefs, who is working with the Urban League to develop a reentry program for convicts returning to South L.A. from prison. “When did you ever have a deputy chief from the LAPD proposing reentry strategies?” he asked, beaming. “The only entry strategy we were focused on was breaking down doors to get in and make an arrest.”
Progress has been made, but it remains unclear how far into the guts of the department Bratton’s ideas have seeped.
Dramatic changes in the way recruits are taught at the Police Academy recently have begun to result in officers more in line with Bratton’s vision. He knows that real, lasting changes won’t take hold until every grunt cop working the graveyard shift from South L.A. to Van Nuys embraces his ideas.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “We’re at the tipping point, when this department truly emerges into the 21st century and leaves behind all the excesses and the negatives of [the past]. . . . It’s not all coming together by happenstance. Why would I leave this now?”
Rubin is a Times staff writer
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
William J. Bratton
LAW ENFORCEMENT CAREER
* Appointed chief of the LAPD in October 2002 and appointed to a second five-year term in 2007.
* Commissioner, New York Police Department, January 1994 to April 1996.
* Commissioner, Boston Police Department, March 1993 to December 1993.
* Chief of Police, New York City Transit Authority, April 1990 to January 1992.
* Graduate, FBI National Executive Institute, 1989.
* Bachelor’s degree in law enforcement, Boston State College, University of Massachusetts, 1975.
U.S. Army 1966-69
Married to attorney Rikki Klieman; has one grown son.
Sources: LAPD, Times reporting