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Finding the Best Chief

September 22, 2002

The city has heard more from Mayor James K. Hahn in the last week than it's heard from him in a month of Sundays--how he's going to change the Los Angeles Police Department and its "reform-resistant" culture, how he isn't going to worry about being "politically correct."

The mayor was sending up a flare, telling Los Angeles that he was going to do something unanticipated. And indeed, the three finalists for police chief are all from outside the department, and that's surprising. The question remains which of these three men is best suited to do the hard work that must be done: effectively fighting crime without abusing power, winning the trust of the rank and file and maneuvering through the banal and petty politics that often govern City Hall.

Hahn's vote is all that truly matters, since the City Council is expected to endorse his decision. We suspect he will act quickly.

The choices are former New York Commissioner William Bratton, former Philadelphia Commissioner John Timoney and Oxnard Chief Art Lopez.

Bratton was on the team monitoring the LAPD's federal consent decree, which the city entered into last year after the Justice Department found a "pattern or practice" of civil rights violations. He is celebrated on the East Coast for New York City's precipitous drop in crime in the mid-1990s. Not everyone gives him credit for the decline, however, and some criticize the methods used by the NYPD, pointing to a more than 50% rise in complaints of police misconduct in minority communities.

Timoney, who worked as Bratton's deputy in New York, can claim familiarity with many of the problems plaguing the LAPD from his stint overseeing a troubled and demoralized Philadelphia department, also under federal oversight. But his roots are in the East, he doesn't know Los Angeles and in at least one case that we know of he failed to discipline an officer who badly need it.

Lopez spent almost 30 years in the LAPD, working his way from beat cop in North Hollywood to deputy chief and commanding officer of the Central Bureau before he became police chief of Oxnard's 325-person force. Last year, Oxnard officers fatally shot five people, three of them mentally ill.

No veteran police chief could have a career without tribulations, and certainly Bratton, Timoney and Lopez have had theirs. The victor should be the man who has consistently demonstrated how to fight crime aggressively without abusing anyone's civic rights and how to balance officer morale with discipline. Hahn must probe their commitment to civilian oversight and definitions of community policing.

Finally, Hahn's decision will understandably be influenced by personal chemistry, but that shouldn't be the determining test. After all, though former Chief Bernard C. Parks may have taken the idea to an extreme, Hahn needs a chief who is unafraid to tell him what he doesn't want to hear.

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