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The next LAPD chief's policing paradox

Whoever takes over the department inherits an improved force -- but also much higher expectations from the public.

October 19, 2009

Departing Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton bestows on his successor a blessing and a curse. The Bratton-era LAPD has embraced a scientific, quantifiable approach to policing that makes it vastly more nimble and effective, but those same innovations mean that the next chief will lack what so many previous chiefs had: deniability.

Among Bratton's most significant contributions to the department has been the incorporation of statistics and mapping into its work. The department now tracks its efforts rigorously and regularly, reporting arrests, contacts with suspects, uses of force and incidence of crime, among other things. It uses that data to identify trends, plan strategy in problem neighborhoods and monitor officers whose behavior suggests trouble. The result is a department that quickly adjusts to warning signs, internally and externally.

It was not always so. Under the leadership of Chief Willie L. Williams, the LAPD infamously struggled to produce such basic statistics as the annual number of arrests. Pressed, the department produced conflicting sets of numbers, then flailed to explain the discrepancies. When statistics suggested arrests were increasing, officials argued that it was evidence of increased productivity; when the numbers declined, those same officials maintained that it was evidence they were thwarting crime. Under Chief Bernard C. Parks, the department made better use of mapping and statistics to identify "hot spots" of criminal activity, presaging Bratton's data-driven LAPD, but such efforts still were unusual in those days.

Today, the LAPD crunches numbers more effectively than ever, and those numbers suggest how far it has come. In 1995, more than 70,000 violent crimes were committed in Los Angeles; last year, there were 26,553. And the decreases were not just in safe neighborhoods: Every police division in the city has seen significant declines in crime. Meanwhile, the use of serious force by officers -- those incidents that generate the most outcry from residents -- has dropped even as the numbers of arrests and stops have increased. Once marginal or dangerous neighborhoods are now pedestrian corridors, with coffee shops, laundries, florists. Most staggering, in a city that once lost more than 1,100 people a year to homicides, police last year protected all but 384. That is still too many, but there is no denying that the city is safer or that the LAPD deserves much of the credit for making it so.

It was not long ago that police chiefs, joined by academic criminologists, argued that crime was largely a phenomenon beyond the ability of police to control. It was, they argued, linked to sentencing policies, social programs or the vagaries of the economy -- bad times, the thinking went, encouraged crime, while higher employment would cause crime to decline. Today, no serious student of public safety accepts that police have little effect on crime. That's partly because Bratton proved otherwise, first in New York and then in Los Angeles, and it's partly because of a seminal work on policing that guided Bratton's approach.

That work -- James Q. Wilson and George Kelling's 1982 article in the Atlantic magazine titled "Broken Windows" -- argued that police departments' emphasis on crime fighting misunderstood their larger function in society. Police, they said, also played a crucial role in maintaining public order. And an orderly community -- one without public drunkenness or prostitution or decay, exemplified by broken windows -- is a safer one. Based on that observation, Wilson and Kelling proposed what was then a novel idea: Police should "protect communities as well as individuals."

"Just as physicians now recognize the importance of fostering health rather than simply treating illness," they concluded, "so the police -- and the rest of us -- ought to recognize the importance of maintaining, intact, communities without broken windows." As obvious as that sounds today, "Broken Windows" revolutionized modern policing.

Under Chief William Parker, the LAPD had pioneered "professional policing" -- in effect, the style Wilson and Kelling repudiated. For Parker, who was largely concerned with police corruption, contacts between police and residents represented opportunities for graft and misconduct. So he developed an approach that relied heavily on patrol cars and limited the interaction between police and civilians. Officers responded to calls for help, made arrests and returned to patrolling in their cars. "Community policing," as the Wilson and Kelling approach came to be known, relied on foot patrols and close contact by officers with deep and intimate knowledge of the neighborhoods to which they were assigned.

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