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L.A. police polish their public image

After several years of court-ordered reforms, the Los Angeles Police Department has heightened its image among Angelenos and made significant improvements in the performance and attitudes of its officers, according to a new Harvard University study released Monday.

In asking for the study and giving researchers unusual access to the department, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton had hoped it would find that the LAPD has changed for the better since being forced eight years ago by federal officials to adopt a sweeping set of checks and balances that resulted from the Rampart corruption scandal. Bratton increasingly has chafed under the stigma of federal oversight and, in recent months, has been waging a public campaign to convince federal officials that the department is fit to keep its own house in order.

However, with budget debates raging at City Hall and the City Council considering a proposal to freeze the hiring of new officers, Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wasted no time using the report to serve a more immediate need.

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“After all the hard work to turn this department around, the years of fighting and struggling and striving to build a larger, more progressive police force, we cannot turn our backs on our officers now,” Villaraigosa said at a news conference at which the study was released. “This is not the time to go back to the old ways of the LAPD, to the days when the cops were underfunded and under-equipped, overworked and overextended, pushed to the limit and stretched far too thin. This is the moment to recommit ourselves . . . to a larger LAPD.”

With many of his other endeavors falling short, Villaraigosa has made public safety -- specifically a promise to add 1,000 new officers to the LAPD’s ranks -- the cornerstone of his administration. Bratton, who has long argued that the LAPD needs far more officers to adequately police the sprawling city, has supported the mayor’s efforts strongly, going so far as to say that the LAPD would not be able to maintain its current successes if the city makes serious cuts to its budget.

As of Monday evening, the City Council had backed away from the idea of a complete hiring freeze, announcing that money had been set aside to hire 480 officers in the upcoming fiscal year. In a department that loses about 525 officers each year to retirement, that would still result in a net loss for the LAPD but would spare it a drastic decline in its ranks.

The nine-month study, written by Christopher Stone, a criminal justice professor at Harvard, found “the LAPD much changed from eight years ago.” In presenting his findings, Stone highlighted department statistics and the results of surveys of residents and officers that, he said, pointed to a dramatic about-face by the LAPD.

There was a nearly 50% increase in the overall number of traffic and pedestrian stops made by officers between 2002 and 2008, as well as a similar increase in the percentage of those stops that resulted in arrests. Those numbers, Stone said, along with the responses of officers in surveys, disproved early concerns that officers would be hamstrung by the audits and reports called for in the federal consent decree.

At the same time, the public’s assessment of the LAPD, the frequency with which officers are using serious force on suspects and officers’ attitudes about the job have improved.

More than eight of 10 Angelenos, for example, said they believe the LAPD is doing a good or excellent job, and about two-thirds of LAPD cops agreed or strongly agreed that the department is a better organization than it was three years ago, according to the study.

Although the study did not break much new ground, it did tie several issues together.

“We’re talking about a department that has been able to reduce crime, increase satisfaction with the community, while increasing law enforcement activity,” Stone said.

U.S. District Judge Gary Feess, who oversees the LAPD reform effort, is to review the department’s progress next month and decide whether to free it from federal oversight. Bratton said Stone will present the study to a team of monitors that keeps Feess up to date on LAPD efforts.

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joel.rubin@latimes.com


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