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Bratton Touts a Year of Progress at the LAPD

October 28, 2003|Megan Garvey and Richard Winton | Times Staff Writers

William J. Bratton arrived here a year ago with an outsized reputation, an ego to match and a bold promise: He would make Los Angeles the safest big city in America.

"I will not fail you. I will not fail this department. And I will not fail this city," the slightly built Boston native promised as he was pinned with the badge of Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department.

But after less than a month on the job, Bratton entertained a rare moment of doubt. There was a surge in killings -- 16 in one five-day stretch in November. Soon, it became clear the department would, that year -- for the first time -- handle more homicides than any other city in the nation.

"I was extraordinarily frustrated," Bratton recalled in a recent interview. "I was questioning what I had gotten myself into."

After Rodney King, the riots, the Rampart scandal and years of unflattering portrayals in the media, Bratton, 56, took command of the LAPD confident that he knew what was wrong with the once-vaunted police force.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 31, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 53 words Type of Material: Correction
Bratton profile -- An article in Tuesday's Section A about LAPD Chief William J. Bratton reported that he had reversed a ban by former Police Chief Bernard C. Parks on a type of leather utility belt. The ban in question was for a type of leather polish favored by the rank and file.

Arrests were down. Many communities viewed officers with suspicion. Veteran officers had left the force. Gang units were largely dismantled. Most detectives worked day shifts, and were home during the city's high-crime hours. Sick days were high, and many officers were, as Bratton called it, "missing in action, conscientious objectors."

A year later, Bratton touts a turnaround from the previous two years, when crime was going up. Homicides are down 23% over the same period last year, with all violent crime down 4.5%. Arrests are up 12%. Complaints against police also have risen by 12% during Bratton's watch.

Compared with crime statistics of other large American cities, only Los Angeles appears headed toward a significant drop in homicides this year. Although many experts caution against reading too much into any one year of statistics, Bratton differs.

"Crime just doesn't change on its own," Bratton said, "particularly when it goes down as dramatically as it has."

"Other than changes in the Police Department with very strong and specific focus on crime reduction -- particularly gang crime -- you'd be hard-pressed to identify anything else that would have prompted it," he said.

In his first report card, the civilian-run Police Commission that hired him concluded on Oct. 14 that Bratton's overall performance "exceeds all standards." Police Commission President David S. Cunningham, the lone vote last year on the commission to retain former LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks, said Bratton has changed how he thinks about crime.

"I believed increasing crime was largely a matter of socioeconomic issues. But the chief has shown that with good policing, you can reduce crime," Cunningham said. "He has gotten that message out to the community and in particular in the south part of the city.... Meetings have gone from complaints and griping to people participating and working together to take back the streets."

The brash East Coast native has suffered missteps, has stepped on toes, failed to win City Hall funding for more officers and lost a public battle with the burglar alarm industry.

Still, in a city with few political stars, Bratton has made a quick mark.

*

Hit the Ground Running

Bratton began remaking the department from the start, determined to disprove the widely held opinion that an outsider would not fare well in the insular LAPD family.

The day after the pomp and circumstance of his installation, Bratton called a meeting of the 114 members of his command staff. As they sat in rows in a dark-paneled room at the Police Academy, bouquets of lilies brought from the earlier festivities gave the gathering the look and smell of a wake.

He let those present know he was hearing rumors that some unhappy with his appointment had boasted that they planned to coast into retirement. Bratton said he would not tolerate such attitudes, which he characterized as stealing from the public.

I will make your life miserable, Bratton warned would-be slackers.

Within months, no assistant chiefs and only two deputy chiefs from the previous administration remained; the others retired, were demoted or otherwise moved out.

"In the past, a new chief would come in, but the LAPD administrators would undermine them," said Sgt. Ron Cato, who is president of a foundation representing African American officers. "By putting in his own people, he was able to push through changes successfully."

To a large extent, Bratton credits the successes of the past year to the policing methods he brought with him, emphasizing officer responsiveness and accountability through a crime tracking system called Compstat.

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