More than any other major American city, Los Angeles' modern history is inextricably linked to that of its Police Department. For that reason alone, William Bratton's achievements as the LAPD's chief merit a well-lighted niche in our civic memory.
The reform agenda he has pursued so vigorously over the last seven years has utterly transformed the department, dramatically improving not only the quality of policing but, just as important, the quality of his officers' relationship with the minority communities they serve. Bratton inherited a demoralized, scandal-ridden department that had consented to judicial supervision to prevent a federal civil rights lawsuit the city surely would have lost. He will leave a police force that is internationally admired, has pushed most crimes down to levels not seen for decades and is back under local control.
That makes this week's events all the more perplexing, for it also must be said that the manner and timing of Bratton's departure is almost breathtakingly irresponsible. It also raises troubling questions about his relationship with Michael Cherkasky, the court-appointed monitor who evaluated the LAPD's compliance with the federal consent decree, and about Cherkasky's role in convincing the federal judge to terminate oversight of the department.
The timing of Bratton's exit couldn't be worse. The city faces a fiscal crisis of unprecedented magnitude that will force the LAPD to do at least as much -- and perhaps more -- with far less. Hiring freezes, furloughs and budget reductions are bound to strain the department in deep and unforeseen ways, potentially threatening much of the progress that has been made over the last seven years. When the chief gave Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa his notice, he ensured that the department for which he professes such great affection will have to confront the grinding challenges ahead with a new chief and, inevitably, a new command staff. It's hard to escape the suspicion that Bratton was glad to lead the LAPD through an expansive era in which he had the vast majority of budgetary considerations his own way, but is reluctant to manage it through rough times in which simply hanging on to what's been achieved will be a triumph.
Bratton's decision may also have been influenced by City Councilman Greig Smith, who, since his ascension to the chairmanship of the council's Public Safety Committee, has demonstrated a pointlessly intrusive, almost absurd propensity to assert micromanagerial authority over the LAPD, involving himself in deployment and other issues that clearly exceed the lawmakers' competence. Bratton's impatience with this development has been obvious to associates, but handing off the problem of dealing with an overreaching council committee to a new chief won't help the LAPD one bit.
The lasting impression created by Bratton's abrupt departure is of a leader who was happy to occupy the spotlight when his department was riding high, wide and handsome, but unwilling to get his hands dirty -- and perhaps to dent his reputation -- when the going got institutionally tough.
Bratton's tenure at the LAPD is the longest of his career. As distinguished as his record is, he seldom has held a job for much more than two years, and the glittering, highly marketable international reputation he now enjoys is built in some major part on his "long-term" success as a transforming reform chief in Los Angeles. It's an ill-kept secret that the chief probably could have had either the federal Homeland Security or drug czar posts but declined to be considered for the jobs, which would have required a substantial cut in pay from the $350,000 he receives as chief.
That brings us to the troubling questions raised by Bratton's new professional association with Cherkasky. The two have worked together before, back when Bratton was between public assignments, and Cherkasky -- the former head of the international security firm Kroll -- is known to be an admirer of the chief. As the head of a new security firm, Altegrity, Cherkasky plans to build a brand around Bratton, using his reputation to secure not only international advisory jobs but some of the lucrative consulting contracts that Atty. Gen. H. Eric Holder Jr.'s Justice Department probably will be putting out for bid in the coming years.
It's unlikely that Bratton would have been willing to leave his top spot at the LAPD while the department still was under the federal consent decree, and it was Cherkasky, in his role as court-appointed monitor, who advised the judge to lift the decree. Cherkasky's contract with the court officially ended June 15, and it's possible that there were no discussions of the new partnership before that date. "Possible" is the operative word there.
In other words, the monitor gave the court advice that helped cement Bratton's reputation as the country's leading police chief, then just weeks later the two enter into a lucrative business arrangement built on that very reputation. (The worst thing about that sequence is that it casts an unwarranted shadow on the fact that the LAPD deserved to have the decree lifted because it had complied with its terms.)
Both Bratton and Cherkasky have records of unimpeachable integrity, but a decent sense of responsibility toward the crucial public institutions with which they're involved ought to preclude such conduct. People in their position have an obligation to avoid not just the reality but also the appearance of impropriety -- something both have failed to do in this case.