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A Solid Bet for a Better City

October 06, 2002

"I want to make Los Angeles the safest big city in America."

Mayor James K. Hahn's mission for a new LAPD must strike residents of neighborhoods where homicides are skyrocketing and weapons poke from passing cars as a naive dream. His choice of a brash, goal-oriented, anti-crime crusader as police chief makes that vision less farfetched.

In picking former New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton, the mayor defied political convention and made an appointment based on record and reputation. In picking an unyielding out-of-towner, he showed that he can stand up to the LAPD's infamously insular insiders. In nominating a showboat, he proved he's not afraid of having his less-than-commanding presence overshadowed.

Despite a few predictable squawks, the City Council will confirm Bratton swiftly, and then the chief needs to attack two interlinked priorities hard. Lowering violent crime must top his list. On Friday, Bratton expressed an eagerness to take on the city's criminal street gangs, and we encourage him to do so within the community policing strategy he has embraced. Feasibility will be in the details. He plans to bring the Los Angeles Police Department into the new century by using computers to track crime and assigning cops (with Palms no less) where needed. He also plans to focus on seemingly small, "quality of life" issues, and has astutely targeted graffiti--especially gang tags--as a problem that undercuts Los Angeles' civic pride.

Unlike in New York, however, he can't clean up this sprawling city by sending in beat cops on foot and bicycle--even if he had New York's 40,000 officers, even if the 9,000 men and women who wear an LAPD badge were all perfect humans.

Unfortunately, they're not. And quality of life is a hollow promise if some residents feel disrespected by and remain frightened of the people who are supposed to protect and serve them. So, after a decade bracketed by the Rodney King beating and the Rampart scandal, Bratton also must face down criminal cops. He has to break the code of silence, protect whistle-blowers and accelerate the department's implementation of the internally unpopular consent decree--a bold goal he and Hahn have already discussed. He has to push his cops from their bunker mentality and into problem solving. All this will annoy some cops, at least initially, making it even trickier to achieve what should be Bratton's second goal: improving officer morale. Without that, nothing else will happen. Luckily, his obvious affection for his fellow cops will help. Bratton has been enamored of the LAPD since he first watched TV's "Dragnet." "I loved that show," he said. "Now I'm getting to live it."

He already has a plan for shaking up the command and a knack for recognizing talent. Insiders he seems likely to lean on include Cmdrs. Jim McDonnell, Sharon Papa, George Gascon and Deputy Chief David Kalish. If the confidence he exudes is genuine, LAPD old-timers who refuse to get with the program had better get out of the way.

In this heavily Latino city, many hoped for a chief who could trill his Rs. They got instead a native Bostonian who drops them completely. But if Bratton can achieve the "pahtnership" he envisions between the people and the police, Los Angeles just may stand a chance of becoming the country's safest city.

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