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Even the ACLU is sorry to see Bratton go

THE WEEK

The LAPD chief, who has announced that he is leaving his post, has won high marks from community groups.

August 09, 2009|Cathleen Decker

William J. Bratton's announcement that he will soon leave his job as Los Angeles' police chief drew the expected murmurs of dismay from city officials last week. But another lament was enough to make Joe Friday sit up and take notice: It came from a historic LAPD nemesis, the American Civil Liberties Union.

"This is a terrible loss for the city of Los Angeles," said Ramona Ripston, the local ACLU executive director who lauded Bratton, even if she did not always agree with him.

Bratton's departure, Ripston said in an interview, will come in the midst of a "sea change" in the contentious history of policing in Los Angeles. Indeed, the chief's departure can be seen as a marker in the transformation of both the Los Angeles Police Department and the city.

For decades, Los Angeles and its cops have engaged in frequent shoving matches over power, with the LAPD often exhibiting bigger muscles. Now, both have changed.

The city where police relations -- bad ones at least -- were once largely black vs. white is now more Latino than anything else. The Police Department that once felt threatening to many residents is now riding a wave of popularity as it embraces the city that its most famous chief, William H. Parker, once tried to keep at arm's distance.

In some ways, recent chiefs have been a fun-house-mirror reflection of their times, the images somewhat distorted but still recognizable.

Parker served as chief from 1950 to 1966 -- it would have been longer had he not died in office -- and wrenched the LAPD into a modern, if pseudo-military, operation. He demanded discipline and wielded power as no other chief has since.

With Parker's assistance, the department was memorialized in the TV show "Dragnet," and in return the fictional cops' "Just the facts, Ma'am" demeanor enhanced the LAPD's image. But it was a sanitized view, with real-life complaints of police bias airbrushed out, just as the city ignored its festering racial splits.

Daryl F. Gates served almost as long as Parker -- 14 years, ending in 1992. His tenure was a roller coaster of euphoric good times -- like the peaceable 1984 Olympics, during which his troops made good on his demand that they offer a sunny face to visitors -- and horrific bad ones, like the beating of Rodney King and the 1992 riots. Gates' emphatic defense of his department led to open warfare with Mayor Tom Bradley, the City Council and the Police Commission.

Their feuds were in part a reflection of the city's roiling demographic change. In the 1970 census, taken four years after Parker died, Los Angeles was 60% white, 18% Latino and 17% black. By 1990, two years before Gates left, it was 37% white, 40% Latino and 13% black. As the city grew more diversified and more liberal, the image of the LAPD was stuck in the "Dragnet days" -- white and conservative.

"As the city divided into liberals and conservatives, whites and non-whites, the police began to be seen as taking a side," said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor and author who has written extensively about Los Angeles.

Bratton's Los Angeles is even more Latino. Not incidentally, one of the major contretemps in his tenure was the 2007 May Day melee, in which officers beat and fired foam bullets at immigration protesters in MacArthur Park.

But his response was praised last week as one of the highlights of his seven years in Los Angeles. He disciplined top commanders and commissioned a report critical of the department's handling of the protest.

"He turned the tables 180 degrees" from the reactions of prior chiefs, said Fernando Guerra, director of the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "That to me is the ultimate in community policing, where the community is given the benefit of the doubt first, and the police had to justify their actions."

Bratton's tenure demonstrated both the gift for community consultation that Parker abhorred and the touch of public relations that eluded Gates. But other forces have also been at work.

Voters in 1992 overwhelmingly approved a measure that limited a chief's tenure to two five-year terms and gave City Hall more power over the department's leadership. That had the effect, Sonenshein said, of making the department less apt to consider itself "an autonomous political force."

The department has also become more demographically in tune with the city. But its greatest claim on the hearts of city residents is its ability to deliver on their most basic demand: to cut crime.

With crime at the lowest levels in decades, city residents were glowingly supportive of the department in a Times poll this summer. An overwhelming majority of all ethnic groups--including those historically most resistant to praising the LAPD -- approved of both the department and the chief. The findings confirmed the diminishing number of complaints about the LAPD logged by outside groups.

"We used to get over 10,000 complaints a year," said the ACLU's Ripston. "In the last couple of years, it's decreased to a trickle."

Still, the comity is fresh and fragile, and much may rest on the approach taken by the new chief.

"There is some anxiety about what's next," Ripston said. "We would hate to see any steps backward."

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cathleen.decker@latimes.com.

Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.

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