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The Reformer, on Honeymoon

William J. Bratton Came to L.A. With Plenty of Confidence, but Only Now Is He Beginning to Understand the Public's Mistrust of the LAPD

January 19, 2003|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick last wrote for the magazine about the death of a mentally ill prisoner at the L.A. county jail. He is author of "To Protect and To Serve," a book detailing the history of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Dressed in a black suit and white collar, father David O'Connell looks as if he's just stepped off the set of the "The Bells of St. Mary's" for a quick smoke with Bing Crosby. Ruddy-faced, with gray hair, a full beard and a lilting Irish brogue, O'Connell has been a Los Angeles priest for 23 years and currently is pastor of two Catholic churches in South Los Angeles.

It's a Christmas season Monday afternoon, and O'Connell and 24 other members of a community federation known as L.A. Metro-I.A.F. are seated in a conference room at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department. Priests, rabbis, union and neighborhood organizers, all have trekked downtown to meet William J. Bratton, the new police chief from New York, still in his honeymoon period in L.A. They want to tell him--they need to tell him--about their embattled neighborhoods. "A week and a half ago, a member of our parish who owns a store across the street from our church was robbed and killed at 6:15 at night," says O'Connell. "Shot dead. In front of his family. Then, about a month ago, a 15-year-old was walking down the street--walking home from an event at church--and he got killed."

Another man tells of a bridge by a school in Lincoln Heights, a place where would-be gang members had been harassing children and women, and how one little girl was raped, murdered and dumped over the side of the walkway.

The stories tumble out, one by one. Many are devoid of emotion, as if the tellers had grown numb from the violence, but all are built around a single theme--a question, really, a plea: Where are the police? Can you give us some protection?

"People live like cockroaches around here," says Barbara Franklin, a public-school teacher in the Rampart area. "We don't see the parents. They're the ones working in sweatshops. If the police became involved at the community level, it would encourage the people to come out of their holes."

An anti-gang police unit had once worked the neighborhood where Franklin teaches, Pico-Union, a mean, hard place sprawling west of downtown L.A.'s skyscrapers, a community overstuffed with Central American immigrants doing the grunt work that makes Los Angeles run. The 8-square-mile neighborhood has the densest population west of the Mississippi. That police unit, known as Rampart CRASH, had been created to deal with about 30 local street gangs. Their members found family and status in the streets and acted out a code of honor whose raison d'etre dictated killing rivals over the merest slight, or to control a few blocks of turf where they could deal drugs or extort drug dealers. Every action caused a brutal reaction, a cycle refined over decades into a special gangbanging art form with its own weird logic.

Rampart CRASH's mission was to halt the bloodshed, and like the gangs, it developed its own inner logic: suppress the gangs by being tougher and more thuggish than they were. They shot unarmed people, administered brutal beatings, falsified reports, lied in court and planted guns and drugs. When news of its activities broke in 1999, the ensuing scandal started a chain of events that led former chief Bernard Parks to disband CRASH units in all 18 LAPD divisions, and ended with Bill Bratton sitting at this meeting today.

"Since Rampart CRASH left, there are so many wounds to heal," Franklin elaborates later. "The parents come around the corner to get their kids from school and walk right by a shooting victim, or witness a shooting. The parents don't want to go to the cops, and don't go to the cops, because they don't trust the police."

Seated at the table, one leg of his blue business suit draped over the other, the 55-year-old chief raises his hands, palms out, and takes over the meeting. "The most devastating thing this city has experienced in years was the horrendous activities of the officers in Rampart CRASH," he begins. "The haunting and the devastating effect of that, however, was that for three or four months, our gang units were not on the street, and the gangbangers were just doing what they wanted. And when the gang units were reconstituted, in greatly weakened form, they had all new people who had to make all new relationships."

William Bratton, America's self-described "top cop," makes it clear that he would not have committed such an ill-conceived, sophomoric mistake. "Why didn't you ask Parks: 'What were you thinking, disbanding all the gang units?' " Bratton then reminds the group that Parks also stopped the Senior Lead Officer community policing program, under which ranking officers in each police division met regularly with local neighborhood groups. Together, those two decisions by his predecessor dissolved the glue that bonded the community to police, however tenuously.

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