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William Bratton: A top cop

He faced doubts as L.A.'s police chief, but he proved he was the right man for a tough job.

August 06, 2009

The thing that made William J. Bratton's 2002 appointment as Los Angeles police chief so astounding was how poor a fit he seemed for this city, at least to observers who knew him mostly from his press clippings. A brash Bostonian by way of New York, he had a reputation for clashing with politicians, hogging the spotlight and offending the sensibilities of numerous interest groups. He was coming to town after the Rampart corruption scandal, with the Police Department operating under a federal monitor pursuant to a consent decree, succeeding two African American chiefs who had tried but failed to end the legacy of mistrust between the LAPD and the city's black and Latino communities. He was certain to meet his match, as have so many others, in the low-key, nuance-laden backroom political environment that is Los Angeles. If he somehow managed not to antagonize quiet Mayor James K. Hahn, who appointed him, he was certain to battle for camera time with the flashier Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Now we know better. Bratton was the right person in the right place at the right time, and it wasn't because of some East Coast brand of toughness and bluster. It turned out, in fact, that in addition to being a talented leader and police administrator, Bratton had an unusual knack for understanding the histories and sensitivities, the needs and demands of Los Angeles communities. He could be refreshingly candid and colorful, calling people nitwits or knuckleheads, verbally skewering members of the City Council (but never the mayor), and he could at the same time court neighborhoods and defuse tensions. In leading the LAPD, he may have done more to improve race relations in Los Angeles than anyone since Tom Bradley. He put his talents to work redeeming the LAPD's professionalism and integrity while jettisoning much of its self-destructive, insular, backward-looking culture.

In retrospect, all those clippings from his previous posts told more about the politicians for whom he worked than about Bratton, his talent and his approach to policing. In Boston and in New York, but most sweepingly in Los Angeles, he has transformed what we expect of a police department. It once was accepted wisdom that this city, like others, had to choose between two types of policing: one that was aggressive and brutal, trampling on the rights of suspects and bystanders, alienating communities, especially the poor and nonwhite, while cracking down on crime; or one that was restrained on the street, respectful of civil rights and human dignity but weak on crime. Bratton showed that the city didn't have to make that choice. He demonstrated that effective policing demanded officers with the best equipment, the most up-to-date training, capable administration, respect for the communities they serve and an unswerving commitment to ridding the streets of crime.

During his tenure, homicides decreased by 42%, forcible rape by 44%, robbery by 22%, aggravated assault by 63%, all violent crime by 49%. This giant, sprawling city will never feel to residents like the safe hamlet Los Angeles appeared to be half a century ago, but the statistics show that the city has a crime rate and crime trends not seen since the 1950s.

Bratton achieved those numbers with tools such as Compstat, a computerized crime-tracking system, which allowed him to quickly target problem areas on the street and prevent crime from metastasizing. He used a similar tool to protect against corruption, laziness and excessive tactics among his officers.

There were problems. Bratton's tenure included officers' 2004 beating of Stanley Miller with a flashlight; an officer's killing of 13-year-old Devin Brown; the accidental shooting by SWAT officers of 15-month-old Suzie Pena; and the 2007 May Day fiasco in MacArthur Park, in which officers beat and fired nonlethal rounds at peaceful demonstrators.

Each shooting, each clash was serious and raised tensions in the city, as they had under previous chiefs. The difference is that under Bratton the tensions dissipated, in large part because the chief made it clear that he took anger and outrage seriously, that while he backed his officers, he was willing to question their actions, training and command, and that he was intent on making sure the same mistakes never happened again.

His success instilled confidence, and that allowed Villaraigosa to make headway on a long-standing goal for the department, something that could not be achieved by Hahn or Mayor Richard Riordan before him -- to expand its ranks to a consistent and sustainable 10,000 officers. To do it, the mayor and the chief joined forces repeatedly to increase the police budget. The council balked, but in the end came around -- precisely because members believed that Bratton knew what he was doing.

If he knew what he was doing, though, the chief didn't always share it with the rest of us. He has pushed for LAPD transparency, but he also has asserted that because of his achievements, residents and reporters should trust the department more. His skin is as thin as any Los Angeles politician's, and his ego -- let's call it self-confidence -- is legendary.

But on balance, he has been a boon for Los Angeles and will be hard to replace. He came in with the consent decree; having rebuilt the department, he leaves with the decree's end.

Bratton said toward the end of his first term that he needed about seven years to ensure that the cultural shift and institutional changes he brought to the department become permanent. He's been right on many things. Let's hope he's right on this as well.

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