YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Chief's Most Important Job

October 27, 2002

One bullet cut down an 8-year-old boy playing in a city park. Another blew away an 11-year-old girl in a parked pickup. Separate shootings felled three 19-year-olds -- one a construction worker, one a private security guard, one a Marine home on leave to visit his mother. The blast that ended the life of a 25-year-old ABC sitcom assistant came as he waited to make a left turn.

William H. Bratton will be publicly sworn in Monday as Los Angeles' police chief. His most important and toughest job will be to protect and serve neighborhoods under siege, not by a sniper but by the street gangs responsible for each of the above deaths.

In a city where gangs are suspected in more than 300 of the 539 homicides so far this year, kindergartners in the killing zones know to duck under desks at the first crack of gunfire. The year's toll includes a 3-year-old killed in his father's arms and a 2-month-old strapped inside a car in front of her grandmother's house. Even without a warning from a maniacal sniper, parents in these neighborhoods know that their kids are not safe anywhere, anytime.

Bratton shows good instincts in making murderous gangbangers his priority, ingenuity in using computers to map and target their criminal benders. Because shooting each other is seldom gangsters' sole antisocial behavior, Bratton will make sure robbery detectives tell the gang detail when, say, Crips are suspected in a market holdup.

In the chief's old turf back East, juveniles kill and get killed in the hours between school and dinnertime. In balmy Los Angeles, the peak time is late at night, winter, spring, summer or fall. Back East, gangs and drugs are like bagels and lox. Here, some gangs sling crack, but others blast away solely over slights and turf in neighborhoods crammed with new immigrants.

Computer mapping -- and smart insiders -- will help the new chief learn these patterns and assign officers accordingly. Then Los Angeles residents will have to adjust. Targeted policing cares less about the random patrols and rapid response that make relatively safe residents feel safer than about predicting where criminals are going to do bad things and getting cops there ahead of time.

Bratton's critics say New York's dramatic drop in crime while he was chief would have happened anyway, as it did nationwide during those years. By 1994, the crack epidemic that caused such mayhem in the 1980s had waned; the 6% of young men who criminologists tell us regularly become chronic offenders were either in jail or the morgue. And the economy boomed -- providing not only jobs but money for New York to hire hundreds of additional police officers.

Now the economy is shrinking, the population of young men in the crime-prone adolescent years is swelling, homicides are up, money is tight and Bratton's department is short 1,000 officers -- although if that number were hired tomorrow he'd remain woefully understaffed. And starting tomorrow, the chief will be routinely attacked by cops and citizens who will loudly proclaim themselves experts on all the problems they've spent years failing to solve.

What an opportunity for the new chief to prove the critics wrong -- and what better way to do that than by finally taking the city back from the criminal gangs that terrorize too many neighborhoods.

Monday: Ways to get it done.

Los Angeles Times Articles