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Choosing the next L.A. police chief

Villaraigosa, saying it will be his most important decision as mayor, favors a candidate who would largely continue the policies of the departing Bratton.

August 07, 2009|Phil Willon

Appointing a new police chief will be "the most important decision I make as mayor," Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said Thursday as he indicated that he favors a candidate who would largely continue the policies of departing Chief William J. Bratton rather than shake up the Police Department.

"The next chief has got to be someone who has the respect of the men and women of the LAPD," Villaraigosa said after an appearance with Bratton in Hollywood.

"They've got to be committed to the kind of team building . . . that's made us so successful."

The emphasis on continuing Bratton's approach will make the process of selecting a chief notably different from the last several efforts. The appointments of Willie Williams in 1992, Bernard C. Parks in 1997 and Bratton seven years ago were all driven by a sense that the LAPD needed fundamental change. Not surprisingly, two of those three chiefs were chosen from outside the department's ranks.

This time, Bratton has openly urged the mayor to choose from among his existing command staff.

An inside candidate would be best "because of their intimacy with this organization they would have a big head start over any outsider," Bratton said in an interview Thursday.

He also urged the Police Commission and mayor to move quickly to select a replacement, not just to maintain stability at the department but also to keep interest groups from pitting candidates against one another.

"I can guarantee that every activist group in town is going to be banging on the door," Bratton said.

Two of Villaraigosa's predecessors made a similar point Thursday, emphasizing the political pressure that choosing a police chief brings.

"It's the toughest choice you have to make, and the most important," said former Mayor Richard Riordan.

Former Mayor James K. Hahn, who selected Bratton, said he believes his decision to oppose reappointing Parks to a second five-year term was a major reason he lost his reelection bid to Villaraigosa in 2005. Replacing Parks, who is black, with Bratton angered many black voters who had previously supported him, Hahn said.

"It was a lot of pressure," said Hahn, who was recently appointed as a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. "But sometimes you have to make tough decisions, even if they make you unpopular. That comes with the job."

For his part, Villaraigosa promised the city would cast a "wide net" for a diverse field of candidates, looking both inside the department and across the country.

He insisted he would not be cowed by the racial politics that has surrounded the selection process in the past.

"The next chief is going to be a leader," he said. "They could be black, white, Latino, Asian, be a woman. It could be a Muslim, a Catholic or a Jew. It's going to be somebody who meets that threshold of experience, leadership, qualifications and vision for the future."

Bratton's success at forging bonds with minority communities may reduce the pressure to pick a candidate of a specific race or ethnicity this time around.

Bratton was able to win over the city because he showed he "cared about the African American community" and delivered with greater police resources, said the Rev. Eric P. Lee, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles.

"I would venture to say we need a police chief who would be willing to stand up to the mayor to ensure that same level of service and reforms go forward, as they have with Bratton," Lee said.

The mayor addressed the selection process at a news conference with Bratton at the Hollywood & Highland shopping complex, where they announced the permanent deployment of 40 additional officers to the popular tourist area.

Afterward, Villaraigosa referred to Bratton as a "partner extraordinaire," crediting the chief for driving down violent crime to the lowest level in decades and touting his own support for Bratton's goal of expanding the number of police officers.

Bratton and Villaraigosa have developed a tight political alliance in the last several years. The mayor reappointed Bratton to a second term and spearheaded efforts to add 1,000 additional officers, while Bratton aggressively campaigned for Villaraigosa's reelection and ballot initiatives.

Bratton's departure will not only be a political loss for Villaraigosa, but will also place the future successes and failures of the LAPD firmly on the mayor's shoulders, said Rick Caruso, the real estate developer who was president of the Police Commission when Bratton was appointed in 2001.

Caruso, who flirted last year with running against Villaraigosa, criticized the mayor for taking credit for Bratton's successful efforts to reduce crime even though "he had nothing to do with it."

"He wanted to own it before, to take credit for it . . . and now it's his department," Caruso said.

The city's personnel department may formally begin the selection process as early as next week. The department ultimately will present at least six candidates to the Board of Police Commissioners, which will narrow the list to three candidates and send them to the mayor in ranked order. The mayor's choice will be presented to the City Council for confirmation.

Bratton plans to leave the job Oct. 31.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

Times staff writers Joel Rubin and Maeve Reston contributed to this report.

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