William J. Bratton, who will step down two weeks from today, deserves to go down in history alongside William H. Parker as a reforming Los Angeles police chief whose administration marked a decisive and consequential break with the past.
Parker's reforms, while they swept away decades of corruption that originated outside the department, ultimately created an LAPD dominated by the internal corruption of its own insular, defensive and malignantly autonomous culture. Bratton will leave a department that not only has pushed crime rates to historic lows, but one that is dramatically more open and on better terms with the communities it polices -- and with the civilian officials to whom it's accountable -- than at any time in the city's modern history.
Bratton has every right to be proud of that, but if he is really worried about history's regard, he might pay less attention to how many officers his successor will supervise and more to his own penchant for making churlishly silly comments about the city and its institutions.
At a recent breakfast with a group of journalists and others, for example, the chief said L.A. "is almost a city that doesn't work in so many respects, and it's frustrating. The New York minute -- the reason that phrase is so appropriate for New York, things get done."
Bratton said he much prefers the politics and city governments of his native Boston, where he began his career, and New York, where he was police commissioner. "East Coast, it's much more in your face, bloody your nose and then go out and have a drink. Here it's basically, don't have it out, hold a grudge and try to undermine each other at every turn." Bratton also remarked that Angelenos were far too predisposed to think of themselves as residents of their neighborhoods rather than of the city as a whole, and that a result was a lack of the sort of civic pride from which Boston and New York benefit.
Let's see, where to begin? In Boston, Bratton was demoted from his first command staff job for expressing an interest in one day being chief. In New York, he was forced to resign by Rudy Giuliani essentially because the mayor thought Bratton was hogging too much credit for crime reduction. There's your New York minute for you.
As far as the political process goes, Los Angeles is far from ideal. Still, while he's been here, Bratton has enjoyed the unqualified support of mayors James Hahn and Antonio Villaraigosa, as well as the civilian Police Commission. While the City Council has been inconveniently fractious in the way that democratically elected legislative bodies tend to be, it's also given Bratton virtually everything he said he needed to run his department. (Last March, Councilman Herb Wesson even proposed amending the City Charter to give the chief a third term.) The City Council, by unanimous vote, agreed to tax residents in the form of increased trash collection fees to give Bratton the extra officers he said he needed. When it comes to neighborhood provincialism, has the chief ever been to Southie or Bensonhurst? Gimme a break.
Los Angeles -- not Boston or New York -- was the city that gave Bratton the resources and time to show conclusively what his obviously effective theories on urban policing can accomplish. Some of his recent nonsense is attributable to the fact that the chief never before had lived or worked west of the Hudson and so lacks a sense of America's institutional variety. That provincialism, however, does not excuse his hypocritical dismissal of the Police Commission, a panel to which he paid obsequious deference during his seven years in office.
Bratton told a reporter at the recent gathering that he thinks the commission is "an unnecessary layer of government. ... Back in New York, I reported directly to the mayor. I was the police commissioner, I was the chief of police all in one."
Only someone with a breathtaking ignorance of Los Angeles and its history would make such an assertion. One of Bratton's great shortcomings has been a failure to recognize that he stands at the end -- and is the beneficiary of -- a long and bitterly fought battle for police reform in this city in which he had no part. The Police Commission has been an integral part of that struggle. It's a fight that has included names the chief is unlikely to recite but to whom he owes a profound respect. They include, among others: Tom Bradley, Warren Christopher, Sam Williams, Jesse Brewer, Raymond Fisher, Andrea Ordin, Zev Yaroslavsky, the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. and this newspaper and its editorial pages.
The flaw in Bratton's reform effort always has been his tendency to elevate himself above the institution that he ought to regard as his real legacy. Without the history he dismisses and the individuals he ignores, there would have been no federal consent decree requiring reform, without which Bratton never would have been hired.
The best thing the chief can do to secure his part in that history is to keep quiet and help with the packing.