On Wednesday, a Newsday columnist speculated that Los Angeles Police Chief William "Hollywood Bill" Bratton may be planning to return to New York and run for mayor in 2009. That wouldn't surprise me. Soon after Mayor James K. Hahn appointed Bratton to head the LAPD, officers began hearing that the chief had turned his office into a shrine to his own ego, filled with photographs of himself posing with movie stars, authors, politicians and various other figures from New York's elite social circles.
No matter, I said. As long as Bratton provided the type of leadership here that he did in New York, his cops wouldn't care if he had lunch at the Polo Lounge every day. One person, however, offered a warning: "It's all about him," he said. "He'll sell out the cops in a minute if it gets him his next job."
I refused to accept this assessment of the man I welcomed as the long-awaited savior of the LAPD. I have since apologized for doubting that critic.
Bratton arrived in 2002 to find the LAPD in disarray. Former Chief Bernard C. Parks had simultaneously enraged police critics and alienated his rank-and-file officers, all while crime was on an alarming upswing in the city. And when Hahn finally let him go, Parks left behind a command staff best suited for a police department in the Emerald City of Oz: no heart, no brain and no courage. Only an outsider of Bratton's stature could have swept in and done the housecleaning the department so badly needed. Today, however, his officers are beginning to sense the sellout I'd been warned about.
Faced with impending defeat in the runoff with Antonio Villaraigosa, Hahn is desperately trying to win back some of the black voters he disaffected by refusing to reappoint Parks. Sadly, Bratton has lent his prestige to this effort. But in serving the needs of a diminished politician, the chief has only diminished himself, especially in the eyes of the officers he purports to lead.
In his 1998 autobiography, "Turnaround," Bratton wrote proudly of stiff-arming Al Sharpton when the self-appointed civil rights leader tried to inject himself into a racially charged police incident at a Harlem mosque. "[Sharpton] had no role in this situation," Bratton wrote, "and I wasn't about to let him get on his soapbox and use this issue to establish himself as a player with this administration."
Today, it's Bratton who has "turned around," for the demands of politics have revealed elasticity in his convictions. Following the televised June 2004 arrest of suspected car thief Stanley Miller, in which an officer was shown striking Miller with a metal flashlight, Bratton abandoned his earlier criticisms of Sharpton and welcomed him, soapbox and all, to a meeting in L.A. The Sharpton sit-down might have been excusable had Bratton continued to demonstrate the pro-cop mettle he had shown in New York. When he announced he would move to ban the offending metal flashlights, it was clear that he was placing Hahn's best interests over those of his officers.
And, in another apparent sop to Hahn, Bratton waited until April 28, more than 10 months after the incident, to announce that six officers would face discipline for their perceived errors in the Miller arrest. Incredibly, two of the officers face the prospect of being fired, this despite the fact that Miller was only slightly injured while being taken into custody. And though the records in the case are supposedly confidential, the department instantly provided reporters and so-called community leaders with copies of the relevant internal affairs documents. This disclosure served the interests of the mayor, not the morale of the force.
Consider another recent episode: Though the structure itself was completed months ago, Bratton waited until May 1 to open the LAPD's new police station in Mission Hills. The department says that the building, while 70% occupied by March, didn't have its final safety inspection until April 29. A cynic may well suspect that this opening, with its accompanying lavish press coverage, was timed to provide Hahn with a preelection media showcase in the San Fernando Valley, where he hopes to mine enough votes to fend off Villaraigosa's challenge.
Crime is indeed down in Los Angeles, at levels unthinkable had Parks not been replaced. But there are signs that officer productivity is also on the decline, with arrests for violent crime down 10% from a year ago. Today, LAPD officers take to the streets wondering if they will be the next cop thrown under the wheels of the Hahn campaign bus (and then, perhaps, the Villaraigosa bus, and then -- who knows? -- Bratton may have his very own bus in New York).
Meanwhile, as the chief's ambition rises, can higher crime be far behind?