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The three finalists

THE NEXT CHIEF

All three men named by the Police Commission -- First Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, Deputy Chief Michel Moore, Deputy Chief Charlie Beck -- are good choices to succeed William J. Bratton.

October 28, 2009

The Los Angeles Police Commission has completed its work and forwarded to the mayor three capable candidates to succeed William J. Bratton as chief of police. The matter now rests with Antonio Villaraigosa, who must decide what he wants in a chief. This is a moment of great consequence: The mayor will not likely make another appointment with more serious ramifications for the city or his legacy.

Bratton's tenure offers many indicators of what qualities are important for a chief's success -- as well as a few where improvement is in order.

* Any good chief must be, foremost, smart. Policing is no longer, if it ever was, simply a matter of projecting authority. The Los Angeles Police Department once held the peace by rationing its contact with the public and responding aggressively to disturbances. That was useful in its day; it helped to break a culture of corruption that pervaded the department and the city. But its limits were vividly demonstrated first in 1965, when Watts erupted, and again in 1992, when the entire city cracked. In both instances, the LAPD's remove from the communities it serves made it an alien and hostile presence. Scores died, and the city's self-confidence was badly wounded. Bratton's successor must be an intelligent student of policing theories and open to change.

* To succeed, a chief must be political. This is anathema to some old-school LAPD veterans, but that's because they misunderstand the principle. Former Chief Daryl F. Gates, their icon, equates politics with corruption and compromise. But the LAPD exists in a political system. It needs civilian support for resources and public approval to achieve order and even safety for its officers. Consider this: Gates refused to cooperate with Los Angeles' power structure, and his department was starved of resources and viewed suspiciously by the public. Bratton, by contrast, has been politically engaged, deferring to the mayor and Police Commission, tangling occasionally with the City Council. Though he hasn't always enjoyed it, Bratton's political activity has helped bolster the department's ranks, build a new headquarters and persuade a federal judge to remove the consent decree that governed many LAPD practices. Politics may be messy, but it's essential. A good chief will refrain from gratuitous or self-aggrandizing politics, but he cannot afford to hold himself aloof.

* A chief must be committed to diversity and openness. Here, Bratton batted .500. The LAPD today is thoroughly diverse in its lower ranks and becoming more so up the chain of command. Police chiefs from Gates through Bratton have encouraged this, and today, fewer than half the department's officers are white men. Where Bratton has been less impressive is in the area of transparency and accountability. The LAPD has been scrutinized by the federal court, under the consent decree, and the Police Commission, the civilian panel that sets policy for the department. To him, that's enough oversight. But he's wrong. The public deserves the widest possible access to department records -- including investigations of police shootings and allegations of misconduct. That's all the more important now, without the consent decree. Today's LAPD is vastly better than it was in past decades; we believe it will withstand assertive scrutiny.

* A chief must be tough. Here again, it is easy to misunderstand the word. Los Angeles does not need a chief to bluster, and it cannot tolerate a chief who resists civilian oversight. But understanding politics and committing to community policing do not mean easing up on legitimate law enforcement. What scholars have theorized about, and Bratton has proved, is that fighting serious crime includes strict enforcement of quality-of-life offenses. That, combined with deep commitment to civil liberties, can make a city safer and more hospitable. And that translates into investment, growth and jobs. It does not serve any interest to have a chief who is afraid to enforce the law.

* Finally, a chief need not be modest, but it would be welcome. Bratton has overstepped his bounds by endorsing political candidates -- not that it did Jack Weiss much good in this year's race for city attorney -- and he has a fondness for proclaiming himself the best chief in America (and arguably the world, he sometimes adds). He could be right, but the next chief might dial back the ego and avoid electioneering.

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