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Why L.A. renewed Bratton

A drop in crime, better relations with minority communities are cited.

June 20, 2007|Andrew Blankstein and Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writers

William J. Bratton on Tuesday became the first Los Angeles police chief since the 1992 riots to win a second term, a milestone for a department that has been struggling to recover from years of scandal and discord that brought down his last three predecessors.

The Los Angeles Police Commission voted unanimously to give Bratton a second five-year term, citing his aggressive efforts to reduce crime and work with community groups that have long been critical of the LAPD's treatment of black and Latino residents.

Bratton's first term was marked by its share of controversial incidents, including videotaped beatings by officers -- most recently when police fired foam rubber bullets and struck reporters and demonstrators with batons at an immigration rights rally last month in MacArthur Park.

But under Bratton, crime in Los Angeles dropped significantly, particularly in high-crime areas such as South L.A.

Equally important, LAPD watchers said, is that he managed a balancing act that had eluded previous chiefs: maintaining the support of rank-and-file officers while also gaining trust from longtime LAPD critics. He pressed the flesh at barbershops, churches and community events, using the chief's position as a bully pulpit to take on gang members, politicians and others with whom he disagreed -- even if he had to apologize later.

"He's the right leader at the right time," said Police Commission President John Mack, who as the former head of the L.A. Urban League was a vocal critic of Los Angeles Police Department practices.

Erwin Chemerinsky, a former USC law professor who led the city's elected charter reform commission, said Bratton has brought important reforms to the department.

The Christopher Commission, formed after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King, called for the chief's job to lose civil service protection. The Police Commission can decide whether to appoint the chief for a second term.

"He's increased the morale of the officers, which had been a huge problem," Chemerinsky said. "He's worked to change the culture of the department."

Warren Christopher, the former secretary of State who headed the commission that bore his name, agreed, saying: "This is a sound decision that provides for a continuity of strong leadership with a commitment to further reform."

Continuity of leadership has long been a problem at the Police Department since former Chief Daryl F. Gates stepped down following the 1992 riots, which erupted after the four officers who beat King were acquitted in a criminal trial in Simi Valley.

He was followed by Willie L. Williams, then the police commissioner in Philadelphia.

Crime dropped under Williams. But he was widely seen as an ineffective leader, and the commission decided not to give him a second term. Williams was replaced by Bernard C. Parks, a respected LAPD veteran.

Crime continued to drop during the first part of Parks' term, and he was credited with instituting programs to reduce racism and brutality by officers. But then came the Rampart scandal, in which police working the gang detail at the Rampart Division near downtown were accused of widespread corruption, including framing suspects. Parks responded with strict disciplinary policies that alienated some officers and prompted numerous battles with the police union.

The Police Commission, with then-Mayor James K. Hahn's concurrence, decided not to reappoint Parks.

Hahn ultimately tapped Bratton, former commissioner of the New York Police Department who had won widespread acclaim for his efforts in the early 1990s for cleaning up that city's streets.

When the Police Commission announced the reappointment Tuesday, Bratton smiled broadly, his eyes meeting first those of his wife and then Mack as he turned to face the commission.

The chief credited the officers and leaders of the Police Department with his success.

"I have a profound love for the men and women of this department," he said.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was quick to cite the drop in crime since Bratton took office in 2002.

From 2002 to 2006, serious crime including murders, rapes, robberies and assaults fell 34%, including a 39% reduction in homicides and a 29% decrease in gang-related killings, according to LAPD statistics.

"The numbers simply don't lie," the mayor said.

There has been much debate among academics about the degree to which police tactics -- and the LAPD's in particular -- affect crime rates. Some say the drop is demographic and economic.

But Bratton and his allies have credited the drop to their own work and to CompStat, a computerized tracking system to map crime that the chief instituted. The data allowed police to tailor crime-fighting strategies and deploy officers to hot spots around the city.

Bratton also identified areas where he wanted to beef up the police presence, such as Hollywood and skid row, to make them more attractive for businesses or visitors.

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