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NEWS ANALYSIS

Will N.Y. M.O. Work in L.A.?

Chief: Crime plummeted on Bratton's watch there, but some doubt he can repeat that success here.

October 04, 2002|BETH SHUSTER and GEOFFREY MOHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Now that New York City crime fighter William J. Bratton has been selected to head the Los Angeles Police Department, the question becomes: Can he do it here?

In his 27-month reign as police commissioner in New York City, Bratton oversaw double-digit declines in crime; violent felonies fell by a third and homicides were cut in half. It was that record that made him one of the country's best-known chiefs and that helped him secure the top job at the LAPD.

Bratton, who titled his 1998 autobiography "Turnaround: How America's Top Cop Reversed the Crime Epidemic," is one of many who credit the NYPD and his leadership with playing a large role in reducing New York crime.

Still, there is considerable skepticism among academics and policing experts that Bratton can neatly replicate New York's crime statistics from those years in this city at this time. Among other things, the LAPD is far smaller than the NYPD.

But Bratton is widely admired for his creativity and insistence on accountability. His admirers say that bodes well for crime fighting in the nation's second-largest city under Bratton's watch.

"It's not going to be the Bill Bratton method applied to L.A.," said Richard Emery, a New York City civil rights lawyer and Bratton's lawyer as well. "I don't think that's what will occur. It's going to be the creativity of Bill Bratton for L.A. That is the key factor here."

In New York, Bratton employed a computer statistical program aimed at identifying problem areas, directing resources there and holding supervisors accountable for reducing crime.

As commissioner in New York, Bratton defined those methods as community policing, and positioned himself as a leading advocate of that law enforcement style. Indeed, he said Thursday he will expand the system for tracking crime in the LAPD and that he will encourage officers "to take back the streets" of Los Angeles--an echo of the rhetoric he employed in taking over the NYPD in 1994.

"What we effectively did in New York was use quality-of-life control by the police--understandably with a much larger police force--that literally for 25 years did not have a modicum of quality-of-life enforcement," Bratton said at a morning news conference.

But Bratton will have far fewer officers in a far larger geographical area, making cop-on-the-beat policing difficult. That's likely to provoke a debate over exactly what is meant by community policing here in Los Angeles--the assertive style of Bratton's NYPD or the more community-relations oriented approach the LAPD has practiced in recent years.

"There are probably 150 visions of community policing," said former Philadelphia Police Commissioner John F. Timoney, who was a finalist for the LAPD job and who was one of Bratton's most trusted aides in New York.

"The bottom line is his [program] is problem solving, not just dealing with the immediate problem but fixing it once and for all."

For New York, community policing meant the broken window approach: cracking down on small problems in a neighborhood in order to avoid the bigger, more violent ones.

"I would say his biggest challenge is he will not have the number of people in proportion to the population that he had in New York City," said James Q. Wilson, a retired UCLA professor who is considered the godfather of that theory. "In New York, you have enough officers to do ordinary and specialized patrols. Here, you need virtually every officer."

The NYPD has nearly 40,000 police officers, compared to more than 9,000 in Los Angeles. Although New York is the bigger city, that still amounts to one officer for every 209 residents of that city and one for every 409 Los Angeles residents.

"It will be the greatest challenge of Commissioner Bratton's career to take on the complex crime problems in Los Angeles with a force that's much smaller than what he had," said Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia University professor of law and public health.

Bratton's arrival in L.A. reignites an old debate: the question of how much the police in New York were responsible for that city's drop in crime in the 1990s.

"Historians like to argue that things are intertwined and one factor can never explain a phenomenon, but he gets a lot of credit, and of course the 40,000 men and women [in the New York Police Department] get a lot of credit, for what happened here in New York," said Robert McCrie, chairman of the law, police science and criminal justice administration department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan.

"If we list the forces that can have an effect, good or bad, policing would be at the top, and Bratton was the police chief," he said.

In his autobiography, Bratton skewered academic experts who at first explained away New York's double-digit drop in crime during the mid-1990s: "We lined up their alternate reasons like ducks in a row and shot them all down," Bratton wrote, dismissing arguments that the strong economy and changing demographics, among other things, were the real reasons for the drop in violence.

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