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The chief in context

July 21, 2005

Struggling with his response to public protests over the death of a toddler killed by a police bullet, LAPD Chief William J. Bratton was at first insensitive, even callous, in defending his force. But there can be little doubt that Bratton is committed to suppressing gang violence and raising the quality of life for the city's least fortunate.

Bratton reacted hotly to the first protests over the accidental police shooting on July 10 of 19-month-old Suzie Marie Pena. The child was being held hostage by her father, who was also killed as he shot at officers summoned to his used-car lot by calls about his threats.

Police are "damned if they do, and damned if they don't" in such situations, Bratton said two days after the incident. He called Jose Pena "a coldblooded killer" and scorned as "nonsense" family statements about "how loving and caring this individual was."

Bratton had good reason to say what he did. But his statements made a difficult situation worse, forcing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to try to ease tensions by uttering soothing words without defending either the chief or the protesters.

Bratton, it now seems obvious, was simply looking at events of a single day. The protesters (who are not universally supported in the Watts neighborhood) were viewing the tragedy of July 10 from a perspective that reaches back decades.

The Pena shootout occurred just a few months after a Los Angeles Police Department officer shot and killed 13-year-old Devin Brown, who backed a car toward the officer after a police chase. The boy was unarmed. Bratton, to his credit, responded to that incident by demanding specific new rules to reduce confrontation and harm in police chases. He reacted last year to the flashlight beating of a car-theft suspect with a rule requiring smaller police flashlights. He is now conducting a detailed and mostly public examination of the SWAT team assault in the Pena case, as he should.

But the ghosts that haunt the LAPD remain, and Bratton has no control over them. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Watts riots, and the 14th of the videotaped beating of Rodney King. The King case led to the acquittal of the officers involved and then to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, so badly handled by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates. In 1998, a petite, mentally ill woman named Margaret Mitchell got into an argument with a bicycle officer, who shot her after she allegedly brandished a screwdriver at him. Under former Chief Bernard C. Parks, that fatal shooting was pronounced justified.

Bratton could help his cause in the present by paying more attention to this past. At the same time, his critics should not judge him simply on this incident but on the results of his tenure so far.

The neighborhoods that have the most tense relationships with the LAPD are also the most victimized by gangs and violent crime. Some neighborhood residents who did not join the Pena protests told The Times that police did what they had to; one man worried that police were not hard enough on local toughs.

Bratton deserves credit for his openness and his innovations, in particular his focus on clusters of crime. Violent crimes, especially homicide, continue to decline in the city of Los Angeles even as they surge in some parts of Los Angeles County.

Bratton needs and deserves more officers, if only to put more of them in places such as Watts without triggering cries of unfairness from the Westside and San Fernando Valley.

After so many tightly wound chiefs, Bratton's brashness can come across as forthrightness -- or as grating insensitivity. If Bratton thinks first of the LAPD's ghosts in challenging public situations, he'll do honor to his broader success. And if his critics acknowledge his accomplishments, their complaints may get a wider hearing.

And both sides, not incidentally, could make the mayor's pledge to try to unify the city a little easier.

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