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Will Bratton's reforms survive after his departure?

How well LAPD Chief William J. Bratton's philosophy has been embraced among rank-and-file officers will be the critical factor in determining how sustainable his legacy will be.

August 06, 2009|Jack Leonard and Richard Winton

He came to Los Angeles in 2002, a brash New Englander in a hurry to make his mark and unwilling to mince words.

When a community activist attacked the department, Chief William J. Bratton went on CNN and labeled him a "nitwit." When the City Council refused his request for more officers, he bellowed: "Let them start attending some of the funerals of the victims of crime."

But behind the sometimes in-your-face demeanor, Bratton was also a listener, a skilled politician and -- above all -- an effective cop.

He quietly made his way through South Los Angeles, meeting with black ministers and community activists to talk about race and crime. He demanded that his officers change the way they police and imposed strong discipline for misconduct -- yet he maintained the support of the rank and file.

He presided over a steep drop in crime that left the city safer than it has been in decades. And he managed to persuade two successive mayors to make hiring more officers a top priority -- even when that meant cutting into other programs.

Now, as Bratton is about to leave the city's political stage, some civic leaders expressed concern Wednesday about whether his impressive legacy can be sustained and whether he exited too early.

"I wish he had stayed at least another two years," said Connie Rice, a civil rights attorney and longtime advocate for police reform. "I would not be surprised to see the organization slip back."

Finding a successor with Bratton's skill set -- blunt but empathetic, an old-fashioned cop who believes computer databases can make streets safer -- is going to be difficult.

Bratton came to L.A. in 2002 already a law enforcement superstar who appeared on the cover of Time magazine in the '90s for his success at reducing crime as New York's police commissioner.

Among his top priorities was replicating those efforts in his new town.

Bratton harbored an almost religious belief that police can drive down crime -- that, in his words, "police count." His theory was controversial, with many social scientists discounting the idea that police can be as effective as social forces in reducing crime.

But Bratton viewed Los Angeles, where violent crime was rising when he arrived, as a perfect laboratory for his ideas.

He demanded that commanders use computer-generated crime data to better focus their resources in hot spots. And he identified areas where he wanted to beef up police presence, such as Hollywood and skid row.

Crime, of course, is at least partly cyclical. And some social scientists said Bratton's crime-reduction was somewhat a result of good luck.

Nevertheless, the results were striking.

The city's crime rate has fallen to its lowest levels in 50 years. Violent crime has been sliced by nearly half. In contrast, violent crime in New York dropped by about a quarter over the same period and throughout California by just 8%.

"We have seen such a great reduction in violence and death," said Andy Bales, executive director of the Union Rescue Mission in the heart of skid row. "The chief took on what others long neglected and made skid row a safer place."

Skid row, however, is one of the areas where Bratton's methods have come under fire. Last month, a national homeless advocacy group faulted the department for its aggressive approach toward the homeless and ranked Los Angeles as the meanest city in the nation.

"The LAPD doesn't deserve any praise when it comes to the needs of the homeless," said Carol Sobel, who successfully sued the department over the crackdown.

But most LAPD watchers credited Bratton on Wednesday with transforming a department where critics had typically been kept at arms' length.

Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest and executive director of the gang intervention program Homeboy Industries, said he was once treated as "the enemy" by LAPD commanders. But he said he was impressed when Bratton sought his advice and embraced Boyle's belief that not every gang member is irredeemable, despite the chief's tough talk on gangs.

"He got humility in a hurry, and then he really learned," Boyle said.

Bratton's success in reducing crime also gave him the political cover to make controversial reforms within the department. He is widely credited with rehabilitating the LAPD internally and in its relationship with the city.

As previous chiefs learned only too well, it takes just a single televised incident to open the old wounds of community mistrust of police. But Bratton was able to navigate several of those minefields in ways that previous chiefs were not.

After officers were caught on television beating suspected car thief Stanley Miller in 2004, Bratton banned officers from carrying the large metal flashlights that had been used to strike Miller.

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