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Goodbye to the chief

August 06, 2009|James Q. Wilson | James Q. Wilson teaches at Pepperdine University and is the author of "Thinking About Crime."

William J. Bratton has been the best thing that happened to the LAPD since William H. Parker, the man who created our modern Police Department over half a century ago. Bratton came to a city plagued by high rates of crime, rampant gang violence, the unhappy memory of the Rodney King riots, deep distrust between the police and the black community and a consent decree in which a federal judge made clear his intention to make wholesale changes in how we were policed.

Now he will leave a city -- for a job with a private security firm -- with a much lower crime rate, less gang violence, restored confidence between blacks and the police and progress in implementing (often for better but sometimes for worse) the consent decree, which was lifted last month.

I have no idea why he has decided to leave now except, perhaps, the thought that one ought to leave 'em laughing. Or, in this case, smiling in gratitude.

Bratton came out of a working-class Boston neighborhood. After serving in Vietnam, he became a Boston cop and quickly rose in rank. Within 10 years, he was the executive superintendent of that department, the youngest in its history.

In 1990, he became chief of New York City's transit police, where he adopted new tactics that ended graffiti on subway cars, stopped riders from jumping over turnstiles to evade the fare and restored order to the grim tunnels in which millions of New Yorkers waited for transportation.

Then he went back to Boston to head its Police Department. In 1994, he became the top cop in New York. That is where I first met him. He came to see me at a private meeting to say that he knew how to cut crime but most criminologists and many reporters didn't believe him. I told him that most criminologists and reporters didn't trust me either, and so we had a lot in common.

Working with Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he developed tactics that the city's police force had not seen for many years. One was to focus on public order as well as major crime, in part because citizens valued order and in part because improving order might help reduce crime as law-abiding citizens made more frequent and peaceful use of the streets.

A dozen years before, George L. Kelling and I had published "Broken Windows" in the Atlantic, making just this argument, but when Bratton took over the NYPD not a single scientific study had been done to test our theory. That did not bother Bill.

But that was only a small, and probably minor, part of what he did. He put in place Compstat to track crime and to hold precinct commanders accountable for the crime rates in their districts. That sounds like an obvious thing to do, but it wasn't: Until then, most police chiefs managed the inputs (money, people, radio cars) their subordinates used, not the outputs (public safety) they produced.

He also created a street anti-crime squad that confiscated guns being illegally carried in public places. This is not easy. The Supreme Court, in a ruling over half a century old, held that police can stop and pat down a person if they are "reasonably suspicious" that the person may be carrying a gun. Thousands of guns left the streets.

Within two years, the New York crime rate dropped by one-third. When the mayor and the chief got into a quarrel about who would get the credit for these gains, Bratton left. After a few years in private life, he came to L.A., appointed by a mayor, James Hahn, who never got into a quarrel over who should take credit for improvements in public safety.

When he came here, in 2002, Bratton faced a huge problem: Not enough police officers -- in New York City, he had 35,000; in L.A. then, about 9,000. There are nearly 10,000 now, but that problem still has not been solved. Still Bratton made the crime rate drop, for six consecutive years.

It has been extraordinary. Crime rates have risen in some California cities, but they've fallen in its largest one. It will be a long time before scholars unravel what happened. In the meantime, another nice thing happened: Studies in Jersey City, N.J.; Lowell, Mass.; and New York City (and in one town in the Netherlands) showed that worrying about public order and minor offenses indeed helps bring down the crime rate. The Broken Windows theory survives, a quarter of a century after it was written. But Bratton had the instinct to worry about minor street offenses even without the data, because it seemed right.

The new chief will have big shoes to fill. But there is still a lot to do. We need more officers; the department needs more money. Defusing gangs remains an urgent priority. And the city can finally come out from under the consent decree.

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