Can 'top cop' polish the LAPD's badge?

Appointment of former New York police chief is being watched nationwide as experiment in reform.

The selection of William Bratton to head the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) places one of the most successful names in American policing atop one of the nation's most troubled, and largest, city departments.

Mr. Bratton, who comes here after high-profile successes in lowering crime at previous posts – including chief of both Boston and New York City police – was chosen after a search to replace former Chief Bernard Parks, ousted by Mayor James Hahn last spring.

Because he comes from outside the long-entrenched culture of the LAPD, Bratton is considered a bold choice. He is also considered a litmus test for whether outside leadership and new management ideas are the answer for reform-resistant police departments in cities such as Chicago and Baltimore.

"Everybody in America who is interested in how this country can manage these giant police bureaucracies in this day and age will be watching this bold experiment very closely," says Sam Walker, a criminologist and expert on police accountability at the University of Nebraska.

Ambitious ideas

Bratton has wasted no time in touting a host of reforms since his appointment, announced last week by Mayor Hahn. These include reconfiguring overspecialized gang, homicide, and drug units; added focus on computerized crime reporting; the tracking of racial profiling; and graffiti cleanup as a way of establishing pride and order.

In doing so, Bratton will be trying to successfully copy here what he has accomplished in previous posts. In 27 months at the helm in New York, for instance, he is credited with double-digit drops in overall crime rates, a 50 percent drop in homicides, and a one-third drop in felonies.

Bratton's methods are outlined in his recent autobiography, "Turnaround: How America's Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic." A persuasive leader who knows what beat cops face on the job from his own experience, Bratton emphasizes reforming bureaucracies and increasing accountability. "Bratton's experience and track record in fighting crime make his comparison to other candidates, as well as previous LAPD chiefs, the difference between night and day," says Rick Caruso, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission.

Outsider's challenge

But whether the same ideas and leadership style will work within a different city and police culture is something police analysts will be watching carefully in coming years to. Like Willie Williams before him, Bratton is an outsider who has no experience with the traditions and training of LAPD officers. Mr. Williams, a successful Philadelphia police chief brought to Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots, was never accepted by top LAPD brass, and many think he was undermined in his goals because of that.

"The culture of the Los Angeles police has been ingrained for decades. That will be his biggest challenge," says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation, based in Washington D.C. "The community makeup is different, the city makeup is different, and he won't have nearly as many cops per population to help him."

The NYPD has about 40,000 police (one for every 209 residents) compared with LA's 9,000 (one for every 409 residents). Although Los Angeles saw the same drop in crime that other American cities reported through the 1990s, it has seen recent upticks in violent crimes – including a 40 percent rise in homicides since 1998. Because of both these trends, at least one expert wonders whether Bratton will be able to bring about change here.

"People would do well to tone down their enthusiasm for Bratton until he shows some results," says Mary Powers, president of the National Coalition on Police Accountability in Chicago. "They can bring in the smartest, best person in the world, and if the rank and file resist his authority, as they did with Williams, then it's all in vain."

One positive sign for Bratton, other observers say, is that the Los Angeles police union is behind his appointment.

"We have had to go to the bargaining table time and time again to try to get previous chiefs to make the reforms that Bratton is already pushing for. We think he is just what the city needs now," says Mitzi Grasso, head of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents the 9,000 rank and file.

Morale problems

Whatever else Bratton brings in the way of ideas, a top priority will be dealing with declining morale.

On top of riots after the beating of Rodney King and unrest after the trial of O.J. Simpson, the department became embroiled in the largest American police scandal this century, known as Ramparts. Dozens of beat cops were implicated for shooting suspects, falsifying testimony, and routinely planting evidence to obtain convictions. Bratton has been a consultant to the federal monitor overseeing the department to enforce reforms.

"We think that his wide perspective on American policing should help raise the awful morale in the department," says Merrick Bobb of the Police Assessment Resource Center, which monitors responsible policing.

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