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Police chief says he still has plenty to prove

With crime falling, Bratton wants his cops to earn L.A.'s trust.

December 07, 2008|Joel Rubin

William J. Bratton stepped into a drab, cramped room at Los Angeles Police Department headquarters on a recent Tuesday morning.

The 61-year-old chief took his seat, slipped on a pair of reading glasses and waited for his bosses -- the five civilian commissioners who oversee the LAPD -- to begin their weekly meeting. As they do each week, the commissioners soon turned their attention to Bratton, who ticked off the department's latest crime numbers.

"Homicides down 8.9%, rapes down 14.2%, robberies down 3.4%, aggravated assault down 6.4%." Bratton read on at a quick monotone clip: Burglary, grand theft auto, gang crimes, shooting victims -- all down. The whole thing took about a minute. A commissioner thanked Bratton and the meeting moved on.

It seemed a perfunctory moment, a dry exchange of numbers the city has come to expect after six years of falling crime under Bratton.

But for Bratton, the most influential cop in America today, the numbers are everything.

They are the hard evidence he has spent a career trying to amass: proof that he has the blueprint for fighting crime in urban America.

The numbers have dropped long enough and far enough now that Bratton could call it quits in Los Angeles, say "mission accomplished" and move on. Many city leaders have long been convinced that he is, in fact, on his way out. Some assumed he'd take over the Department of Homeland Security, others say he is certain to be the next director of the FBI. Every year or so, the British tabloids nominate him anew as a sure bet to take over Scotland Yard.

The speculation is not completely unfounded. Bratton is driven by ambition if nothing else and has already finished much of what he brazenly told the city he would do when he took over. And he is not someone who likes to coast. "I never want to go and just maintain something. I want to be able to fix something," he said.

It remains impossible to tell how much Bratton, over the years in Los Angeles, has come to think of himself as an LAPD cop. He talks nostalgically about his days at the head of the New York Transit Police and in Boston. He wears a large ring that is a replica of his New York Police Department badge and is still treated as a minor celebrity when he walks the streets in Manhattan. And although he says he enjoys life in L.A. and has learned to navigate the balkanized politics of the city, he remains very much the earnest, brusque East Coaster with the thick Boston accent he was when he arrived.

His constant travel to attend conferences and give speeches is viewed as evidence that he's looking for something new. And he seems to think the department doesn't need his guidance anymore. "If I left tomorrow, this would continue after I'm gone," he said.

But, for all that, Bratton -- who has been chief of the LAPD longer than he held his three previous posts combined -- insists he's not going anywhere. Los Angeles is the place where he wants to prove that he can do more than just make crime numbers go down, where he can complete what he calls "the next phase of policing."

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A mess in L.A.

Bratton inherited a department in turmoil in 2002. Crime had spiked in the three years before his arrival. Cops and their union had feuded openly and bitterly over discipline issues with the previous chief, Bernard Parks. And, in the wake of the of the Rampart corruption scandal, the department was struggling to get started on a sweeping set of anti-corruption reforms that had been forced on it by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The mess attracted Bratton.

"It was another laboratory," he said. "Once again, I had an opportunity to take a major police department that was in crisis and show that police count, that cops matter. If we could get it done here, with a much smaller police force, it would reinforce the importance not just of how many [cops] you have, but how you use them."

Bratton promised to deliver on three things when he was hired and has largely done so: Crime rates have fallen steadily every year since he took over, with violent crimes down nearly 50%; the department's anti-terrorism bureau has become a formidable intelligence-gathering force; and nearly all of the major reforms required by the Justice Department have been pushed into place.

He has also forged a solid relationship with the police union and is praised by leaders of other law enforcement agencies for pulling the LAPD out of its bunker mentality and encouraging collaboration.

As important, Bratton has cultivated a close, mutually beneficial relationship with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. The mayor has left Bratton largely alone to run his department and took a considerable political risk in raising voters' garbage collection fees to hire 1,000 new cops. In return, Bratton has given the mayor impressive crime numbers to tout during an otherwise uneven first term.

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