CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED? A turf battle between the Los Angeles Police Department and the city's separate airport police force seems to have exposed a rift between Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton. Bratton slammed a plan to beef up airport police powers last week, only to have Villaraigosa publicly distance himself Friday from his remarks. "I don't associate myself with the remarks made by the chief," the mayor said, adding that the chief "may not have been aware" of coordination efforts. Ouch.
For his part, Bratton, referring to his department's need to take charge in the event of a terrorist incident at the airport, told the Daily Breeze newspaper: "So when the plume goes up out there, don't be pointing the finger at the Los Angeles Police Department and the chief of police that we didn't say, 'We told you so.' "
There is good reason to worry about the health of the mayor-chief bond. The history of Los Angeles is inextricably intertwined with the degree of rapport between the city's top elected official and its chief law enforcement officer. The months-long stony silence between Mayor Tom Bradley and Chief Daryl F. Gates until midway through the deadly 1992 riots is a well-known chapter in the city's narrative. And remember Chief Willie L. Williams' failure to click with Mayor Richard Riordan?
James K. Hahn hired Bratton, a move widely hailed as the last mayor's deftest decision. The relationship worked, in part because a mayor without much of an instinct for the photo op didn't fight for the spotlight with a media-savvy chief. Bratton, one of the nation's most highly regarded law enforcement officials, came close to locking horns with then-Councilman Villaraigosa during a tense campaign-season City Council debate on a proposed ballot measure to raise sales taxes to pay for more police. It's been natural, then, to wonder how the chief would get along with a newly elected mayor who thrives in the spotlight.
Not so well, judging by how the two men are handling the escalating rancor between the LAPD and the airport police over an Assembly bill that would for the first time give airport officers full law enforcement status on their own turf. The mayor hasn't taken a position on the legislation, even as he scolds Bratton for speaking out against it.
Such mixed signals are intolerable. Dealing with a possible terrorist attack or other airport calamity requires close coordination between local and federal agencies. The mayor should make sure the locals at least are on the same page.