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William Bratton: Lauded chief of troubled LAPD

The former chief of police of New York and Boston explains why policing in Los Angeles is different from anywhere else, and how he's working to change the LAPD culture.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 6, 2007

Los Angeles

Sixteen years after the beating of Rodney King made the Los Angeles Police Department the international poster child for police abuse, Chief William Bratton sits in his office fielding a question that never seems to go away.

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Hasn't anyone been able to change the warrior-style police culture here – often caught on videotape for the world to see? The latest headline-grabbing incident: Riot police dispersed immigrant demonstrators and reporters with batons and rubber bullets in a downtown park May 1, injuring at least 32.

Pointing out the window at low buildings and sprawl, the former chief of the Boston and New York police departments explains why policing in L.A. is different from anywhere else. With 50 percent more area than New York and half as many cops, the city averages only a third as many officers per square mile, which keeps them in cars – not walking beats.

"The unofficial motto here is, 'too few who for too long have been asked to do too much with too little,' " says Chief Bratton, seated at a long oak table in dress blues.

That translates to a siege-and-react mentality from police who don't get to know their community residents and who zoom in from afar only when trouble erupts.

Changing that culture of police isolation has been the biggest challenge, says Bratton, who was approved unanimously June 19 for a second, five-year term. That decision by the civilian police commission makes him the first L.A. police chief to win a second term since voters opted for limited-tenure chiefs in 1992, the year after the beating of Mr. King.

Crime down 30 percent in five years

Bratton is considered by both police watchdog groups and commissioners to be one of the most skilled police leaders in America. His accountability tactics are credited with helping to cut serious crime 30 percent in five years, putting the city in the forefront of antiterrorism readiness, and restoring faith in a department plagued by serial scandals ranging from King to O.J. Simpson to a corruption scandal, called "Rampart," in which one officer implicated some 70 cops for planting evidence and framing suspects.

He has embraced a list of reforms – use-of-force guidelines, pursuit, training, recruitment, officer-tracking – to meet the requirements of a federal consent decree to promote "police integrity."

"Bratton has been able to regain the public trust early by reducing the crime rate visibly and making everyone feel L.A. is a safer place," says Merrick Bobb, executive director of the Police Assessment Resource Center, a national police accountability group based in L.A.

Among methods at the heart of that effort is CompStat, a computerized system of logging and analyzing crime statistics and then directing limited resources in the most useful ways. "He has been able to lay a groundwork of established community and civic networks that permit communications across key neighborhoods, so that if untoward events happen, they can be weathered," says Mr. Bobb.

Bratton handled the May 1 riot police incident in MacArthur Park through a series of public meetings and by holding officers accountable. In doing so, say many observers, Bratton avoided the conflicts that have erupted here for decades.