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Bratton's bad choice

The police chief can support whatever candidate he wants, but his public endorsements are unseemly and politicize the LAPD.

February 23, 2009

In announcing his endorsement of Jack Weiss for city attorney, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton described his support as a "no-brainer." He's right, for the wrong reasons. Bratton has every right to support whomever he chooses for city attorney -- or for mayor, another race in which he's endorsed. Candidates for those offices similarly have the right to solicit and trumpet endorsements, including the support of the city's popular police chief. But just because Bratton can engage in politics doesn't mean he should.

The mingling of politics and policing in this city has a long and sordid history. The LAPD once ran rackets for the mayor and once enforced the city's nastier racial divisions. More recently, then-Chief Daryl F. Gates irritated some civic leaders when he endorsed Dist. Atty. Robert Philibosian in 1984 and City Councilman Hal Bernson a few years later. Even Gates came to regret the Bernson endorsement, which he explained was made in a burst of anger.

When it was charged with examining the Los Angeles Police Department after the trauma of the Rodney King beating, the Christopher Commission concluded, amid its many recommendations, that the chief of police should refrain from engaging in city politics. "Because the chief's office is inherently powerful," the commission wrote, "it is unseemly for the chief to use that position to influence the political process. ... Such activity politicizes the chief, and ultimately the department."

Those observations are as true today as they were in 1991. Bratton, thankfully, is no Gates, but his political activity on behalf of his boss, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, is unbecoming, just as the Christopher Commission warned. His endorsement of Weiss for city attorney is worse -- not because Weiss is an unworthy candidate but because of the office he is seeking. Should Weiss win, he would be responsible for representing the Police Department and its officers and for negotiating with plaintiffs who bring lawsuits against the LAPD. That argues for a respectful but arm's length relationship, not one of political debts. Bratton should study his history, and stay out of city politics.

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