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Inspecting the chief

Police commissioners must take a big-picture look at Bratton before deciding on his reappointment.

June 04, 2007

AS THE POLICE Commission nears its decision on whether to reappoint Chief William J. Bratton to a second five-year term, commissioners have before them a record of accomplishment, including falling crime, improving community relations, increasing diversity and strong leadership. They also have -- or at least they should have -- some concerns and questions.

The May 1 MacArthur Park incident may well have been an aberration, as Bratton has insisted, and it might have had little effect on his reappointment had it not occurred in the middle of that process. But the timing provides commissioners with an opportunity to assess the chief's record in its entirety -- with the cautionary notes raised by command failings in the park as well as due regard for his many achievements over the last five years.

The commission has until July 27 to act. Though it may vote sooner than that, reappointing Bratton without knowing why the command-and-control system failed last month would signal a lack of interest, at best, in the opinion of the City Council, which has scheduled a follow-up hearing. At worst, it would risk minimizing the public's well-founded concern over the incident. Selecting, overseeing and supervising the chief are the most important functions the commission performs. This is thus a test not just of Bratton but of the commission itself.

The reappointment process is relatively new in L.A. It began with a 1992 ballot measure correcting flaws in the old system, which guaranteed the chief's independence from political meddling but left the LAPD with insufficient oversight. A chief remained in place as long as he wanted to, a fact underscored by then-Chief Daryl F. Gates' resistance to calls that he step down around the time of the Rodney King beating and its aftermath.

So is the new system more political? Unquestionably -- and that is not inherently a bad thing. It reflects a belief that the city's top elected official, the mayor, should have significant, if indirect, discretion over who leads the Los Angeles Police Department. Chiefs are appointed to a five-year term and, with the commission's consent, can serve one, and only one, additional term. They report to the commission, but that five-member panel reports to the mayor. Neither of Bratton's two predecessors, Willie L. Williams and Bernard C. Parks, won a second term, and it mattered little whether the commissioners were justified in their decision. The mayor wanted the chiefs out, the commissioners wanted them out, so they were out.

That means the current commission members need not adopt or adhere to any particular criteria in deciding whether to reappoint Bratton. But to their credit, they declared their intention to use criteria adopted by an earlier commission and to judge the chief on his vision, leadership, respect for civilian oversight and commitment to reducing crime, among others. On those bases, Bratton has compiled an impressive record.

Bratton was already considered one of the nation's foremost law enforcement professionals when Mayor James K. Hahn appointed him chief in 2002. The two worked well together, and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has further strengthened the relationship between City Hall and the chief. Critics worried that the media-savvy Bratton would clash with the mayor, or that he would be unable to modulate an outspoken style more suited to the political culture in other cities. They have been proved wrong on the first count and only partly right on the second. Bratton has had no problem accepting civilian oversight and direction.

The chief has improved processes for tracking crime and assigning officers to combat it. Crime rates overall continue to fall in the city, although the number of murders remains high, largely attributable to flourishing gang crime. Still, last week Bratton was able to report a 32% drop in gang-related homicide and a 24% reduction in all murders this year because of stepped-up enforcement. Combating crime is the most basic challenge for any police chief. Bratton's success thus constitutes the strongest reason for granting him a second term -- and his record in this area over the next five years would be the most important measure of his accomplishment.

To be sure, there has been controversy. Suspected car thief Stanley Miller was unnecessarily beaten with a flashlight while the scene was taped from a helicopter hovering above. Comparisons with the King beating were inevitable. Critics were mollified as officers were disciplined -- and police flashlights were replaced with smaller models. But an officer's fatal shooting of 13-year-old Devin Brown rubbed many African American Angelenos raw and drew comparisons with violent LAPD actions in earlier eras. Controlling excessive force is a historic challenge for the department; another five years would give Bratton the opportunity to demonstrate resolve there.

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