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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

"MacArthur Park is a clear demonstration of Chief Bratton's exemplary, decisive leadership by addressing command-and-control problems and launching several comprehensive investigations," says John Mack, president of the police commission and former head of the L.A. Urban League. "He aggressively reached out to individuals, victims, [and] civil rights and civil-liberties leaders and organizations."

With the incident largely behind him, Bratton is seizing the moment – the positive light of reappointment, the negative light of scandal – to hone the point that he emphasized in his first term: cops count. In 16-hour days, seven days a week, he takes the message to church, civic, educational, and interpolice groups.

"I have committed my whole professional life to making the public aware of the importance of police," he says, from a high-backed leather rocker in his office. "The average Joe, the average informed person, and even political leadership need to be constantly reminded how essential we are in maintaining what democracy promises, which is freedom."

That idea resonates, says Anthony Pacheco, one of five police commissioners. "Other chiefs talk about issues of staffing and promotion and diversity and equipment and resources, but Bratton is able to work with city leaders to get action on them."

Another key Bratton point: Policing does not exist in a vacuum. "He is [promoting] the message that crime goes way beyond policing – to education, poverty, homelessness, housing, hopelessness," says Mr. Pacheco.

Bratton takes that message to the rank and file. "He is not afraid to go to roll call and have the unpleasant discussions that are easier to ignore," says Pacheco. "He will challenge them up front in candid ways and at the highest to lowest level."

Some observers say Bratton's achievements may be overstated, given that falling crime rates in L.A. might be part of a similar reduction nationwide that is occurring for other reasons, such as an improved economy and a demographic shift that has meant that older teenagers and young adults make up a smaller share of the overall population. They note that Bratton has not been able to solve an increase in gang violence – one of the city's most entrenched crime problems.

"Bratton has done a good job, but his work is incomplete," says Najee Ali, a leading black activist. "The LAPD still has an ingrained culture of violence. When confronted in major situations, they overreact. But Bratton is succeeding where other chiefs have failed in focusing on eradicating that 'us versus them' mentality."

A turning point for LAPD

For his part, Bratton has been embracing new relationships with federal agencies – the CIA; FBI; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives – to confront gangs, and winning local approval.

And 16 years and four police chiefs after the Rodney King incident, the LAPD has reached the "tipping point," he says. The city council is finally giving him more officers – 320 on the way, 1,000 to 2,000 more in coming years – and the community, including long-disgruntled black neighborhoods, better understands the police role and its limitations.

"Because of all this progress, I push back on the idea that nothing has changed here," he says, returning to his original question, while strapping on a Glock 9-mm handgun in holster and meeting the driver who will take him to his next public speech. "We are going in the right direction, and that's why I wanted to stay and finish the job."

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