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Pick the Best Chief, Period

July 29, 2002

The array of candidates for Los Angeles police chief is a happy dilemma for the panel that must choose the top three, and for Mayor James K. Hahn, who gets final pick. William Bratton, the former head of the New York Police Department, wants to lead the Los Angeles Police Department. So do Portland, Ore., Police Chief Mark Kroeker and Oxnard Police Chief Art Lopez, both former LAPD deputy chiefs. In all, nearly 50 candidates applied.

Mayors forced out the last two chiefs after single five-year terms. Those LAPD leaders were buffeted by the hardball tactics of the police union and by a demoralized rank and file that dreaded reform. The new chief must forge a team from this dispirited enmity.

The entry of Bratton into the competition should at least invigorate the debate over how to finally and firmly transform the LAPD, a job far from completed by the last two chiefs.

Willie L. Williams, an African American and an outsider, arrived from Philadelphia in 1992 in a city that had been racked by riots. The LAPD command had tolerated bad cops, didn't bother to track which officers most often roughed up suspects and disregarded the gulf between the by-the-book policing taught in the academy and what happened in the street. Williams calmed the animus between the department and the black community and put cops closer to neighborhoods but couldn't deliver most reforms.

His successor, Bernard C. Parks, also black, left the department last month in much better shape than he found it. During his five years as chief, he promoted diversity and developed a stringent discipline system. The police force investigated citizen complaints instead of tossing them. But Parks, an LAPD veteran, scorned the community policing instituted by Williams, seemed blind to the systemic problems that allowed the police corruption and brutality of the Rampart scandal to fester and fought the federally mandated improvements sparked by that scandal.

The next chief will need to strengthen civilian oversight, track officers' records by computer and collect racial data during traffic stops, among other reforms, to satisfy the federal consent decree. Also, the department must be brought to its budgeted strength of 10,000, a goal that may be within reach because the LAPD has slowed the number of officers departing for retirement or other jobs.

Bratton, who until recently was a monitor of the LAPD's progress on the consent decree, would not have added his high-profile name to the list if he thought the fix was in for any candidate. A citizens panel is developing the selection criteria, and the Police Commission will winnow the field by late August. The final three candidates should detail their leadership ideas in public forums. The more the public knows, the more easily Hahn can defend his choice.

The mayor should not choose a chief on the basis of who would appease San Fernando Valley voters leaning toward secession or black voters still angry that Hahn dumped Parks or Latino voters seeking the department's first Latino chief.

What the LAPD does need is an acknowledged leader who can inspire commanders and the rank and file alike to follow, not obstruct, a vision of reform and community policing.

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