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What About Reform, Chief?

November 03, 2002|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick is the senior fellow at USC's Annenberg School Institute for Justice and Journalism.

For months now, Police Commission President Rick Caruso has been saying that rising crime and sagging officer morale are the most critical issues facing the Los Angeles Police Department. He has apparently forgotten the overriding reason why William J. Bratton was hired as the new chief: to fundamentally reform the department. Better crime-fighting techniques and happier police officers, though commendable objectives, fall well short of the larger goal.

So far, Bratton's emphasis has been misplaced as well. He has had far more to say about graffiti than reform at a time when many people wonder how he intends to deal with the cowboy-cop culture that has mired the LAPD in crisis after crisis since four officers severely beat up Rodney King more than 11 years ago. Yes, Bratton has been chief for only about a week, and the kind of fundamental departmental reform that's needed requires careful planning and implementation. But it would be reassuring to hear him talk more about his strategy, even if only in broad strokes, for attacking the root cultural causes of LAPD problems.

This isn't to downplay the disturbing fact that crime, particularly the number of murders, is rising in Los Angeles. After dramatic drops in the late 1990s, homicides have jumped in 2002 by almost 15%, or 27% since 2000. Police say gang killings account for about 75% of these murders.

Bratton says that increasing arrests by 16% to 20% will slow down the killing. But in Los Angeles, with its deeply rooted, intergenerational gang culture, you can't simply arrest your way out of gang violence. Truth be told, arrest rates are more a reflection of crime rates than a deterrent to criminality. During high-crime-rate years in the 1980s and early 1990s, the large number of gang arrests made by the LAPD did not deter murderers in the city. Conversely, when homicides and gang killings in L.A. dramatically dipped in the latter half of the 1990s, as they did in other big cities, arrests came down too. A booming economy that enabled large numbers of people to move out of poverty, fewer people in the crime-prone age groups, the end of the crack wars, longer prison sentences, gang truces and smarter policing had more to do with falling crime rates than numbers of arrests.

Moreover, Bratton's focus on arrest rates overlooks a more important truth about the LAPD, one that he must accept if he is serious about changing the department's image. When commissioner of the New York Police Department, his philosophy was to arrest more people for minor crimes -- "quality of life" arrests, as he calls them -- in order to stop more serious ones, and it seemed to work. NYPD cops whom New York residents regarded as ineffective on the job were suddenly on the streets making arrests.

But enforcing the letter of the law has never, until recently, been a problem in L.A. In fact, for decades, the LAPD has made quality-of-life stops and arrests -- often accompanied by prone-outs, harassment and policy through intimidation. These tactics, more than anything else, have alienated and enraged the city's impoverished minority residents.

Arrests have fallen in L.A. because of officer attrition caused by the face-off between former Chief Bernard C. Parks and the Police Protective League over Parks' arbitrary disciplinary system. Fewer cops on the street mean fewer arrests. And many cops who remain on the force have backed off from aggressive enforcement out of a fear of being disciplined for trivial rule infractions. For Bratton to tell his officers, as he did at his swearing-in, that he didn't want them driving by "smiling and waving" but "out on the streets and in the parks," presumably making arrests, may thus send the wrong message: that it's OK to return to the policing style that has gotten the department into so much trouble.

This isn't to deny that gangs, gang violence and graffiti aren't intertwined. Territorial tagging leads to turf wars, and graffiti is a blight that saps the aspirations and deflates the pride of entire neighborhoods. To the extent that it can be stopped, it should be. But enforcing graffiti laws is treating a symptom. Arresting ever more taggers won't alleviate the underlying problems that lead to gang killings and violence.

Once Bratton settles into office, he will, it is hoped, formulate a strategy to deal with gang violence, build on the smart gang-prevention programs that the LAPD has initiated or been involved in, and work with community activists, former gang members, civic-minded business and union leaders and other government agencies to promote gang truces and devise solutions. In the meantime, a little smiling and waving, rather than the legendary Robocop sternness of LAPD cops, is a good, not a bad, thing. It is what hiring a new reform chief was all about.

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