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The Gang-Bratton Face-Off

November 21, 2002

Supermodel Cindy Crawford chatted up super-cop Bill Bratton last week at a billionaire bash at 20th Century Fox. While Los Angeles' elites feted the new police chief, so did the city's criminals. Since Friday night, they have dropped 16 bodies on the welcome mat, raising Los Angeles' annual homicide rate to levels not seen in six years.

And that's not counting five LAPD shootings: Two men died from gunfire and two juveniles were killed in a car crash after officers fired at their vehicle. Each of these officer- involved shootings may well turn out to be justified, but lest Bratton underestimate the strength of the rogue subculture he is up against within the LAPD, the Department of Justice left its calling card. It has opened a civil rights investigation into 3-year-old charges that officers on an alleged vigilante mission tracked down and beat a young man who had thrown a beer can at an off-duty cop's car.

In urging cops to get out of their cars and go after criminals, the new chief needs to make sure that officers also heed the rest of his message, which is to attack crime in a way that's constitutional.

Even before Bratton arrived, some forward-thinking LAPD officers were working quietly to transform the department's cowboy mentality. One example: Then-Cmdr. George Gascon taught a leadership course on how to keep a situation -- whether responding to a tossed beer can, answering a noise complaint at a Halloween party or confronting a screwdriver-wielding homeless woman -- from escalating. That's a lesson that needs to be taught to new recruits and reinforced, from the chief down, and it's encouraging that Bratton has elevated Gascon to be one of his top deputies.

The infamously understaffed LAPD has long projected a macho image to make up for what it lacks in manpower. When Bratton was asked by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce what size the force should be, he said 12,000 minimum -- 3,000 officers more than now. He's right; even at 12,000 the LAPD would be among the lowest of large U.S. police forces in terms of officer-to-citizen ratio. He also knows that he'll have to build the public's will to pay for new officers; there is no money now.

All this means that to end the chokehold that criminal street gangs have on too many of the city's neighborhoods, Bratton is going to have to substitute brains for what the force lacks in brawn. He is smart to say he intends to put together an interagency approach that combines county, state, federal and community resources. To that list of resources he would be wise to add input from the state's prisons, where gang leaders call the shots inside and out.

Bratton knew what he was getting into when he sought this job, but that doesn't make the numbers from the last week any less sobering. Already the former top cop in Boston and New York City has pronounced Los Angeles' gang, graffiti and homeless problems the worst he's seen and its ratio of police officers to population the lowest. Bratton can have all the caviar he wants as long as he maintains an even greater taste for the challenge ahead of him.

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