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L.A. police chief choice still exerts pressure on mayor

Though the political perils of such a choice have lessened, Villaraigosa still must replace Chief William Bratton with someone who can continue Bratton's legacy of lowered crime and racial harmony.

October 30, 2009|Phil Willon

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa will select a new police chief at a time when crime is declining and the city is enjoying a prolonged respite from racial strife, sparing him from the political perils that bloodied the three previous mayors facing similar appointments.

Even the potential gift of a controversy-free selection process, however, does little to diminish the pressure on Villaraigosa to name a successor capable of measuring up to William J. Bratton. The outgoing police chief is largely credited with transforming the LAPD into a more effective and accountable agency that has salved decades of animosity with minorities in Los Angeles.

"I think a city as diverse as Los Angeles will always have tensions among different groups of people. If there is harmony today, it's a fragile harmony, which is why the next chief of police will have to really work hard to make sure the rank and file operate in a way that is colorblind," said City Councilwoman Janice Hahn, whose district includes San Pedro and portions of South Los Angeles. "The only thing a mayor is judged on is crime stats. I think overall the public wants crime to continue to go down, to stay down, and they'll hold the mayor responsible."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday, October 31, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Police chief selection: A story in Friday's Section A about the risks for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in selecting a new police chief described Willie Williams as the city's "first American American police chief." It should have said African American.

The consequences are not lost on Villaraigosa, who considers the drop in crime among his greatest achievements as mayor and touted it during last spring's reelection campaign.

Every morning, an e-mail pops up on his BlackBerry with the city's up-to-the-minute homicide rate, down to the decimal point. Since he took office, homicides are down 37%, and violent crime is down 20%, he notes.

"None of us do this alone," Villaraigosa said during a recent interview in his City Hall office. "First and foremost, the mayor and the police chief need to have a partnership."

The mayor's search for a new partner began Wednesday when he started interviewing the three finalists selected by the Los Angeles Police Commission. He could announce his decision as early as Monday.

Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell, Deputy Chief Charlie Beck and Deputy Chief Michel Moore are all respected, veteran LAPD commanders. All have trained under Bratton and almost assuredly would continue his reforms and policies. All are white men.

The similarities among the finalists make the selection process even less perilous for Villaraigosa, by removing the incessant politics, racial and otherwise, that clouded past decisions.

Bratton's recent predecessors, Bernard C. Parks, Willie L. Williams and Daryl F. Gates, were ousted in part after they lost support from City Hall, city residents and the Police Department's rank and file. Confidence in Parks disintegrated after disclosures of corruption in the Rampart Division. For Gates, it was the beating of Rodney G. King and the 1992 riots.

Former Mayor Tom Bradley appointed Williams, an outsider from Philadelphia and the LAPD's first American American police chief, but Williams lost the confidence of the next mayor, Richard Riordan, who tapped Parks to replace him.

Mayor Jim Hahn's decision to oust Parks in 2002 cost him support among many of L.A. African American voters and, he believes, ultimately contributed to his unsuccessful bid for reelection even though he won praise for appointing Bratton to the post.

"I think the significant difference at this moment is that the transition is not marked by controversy," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "This is the only instance of which I'm aware of the last almost 20 years. . . . I think it's significantly attributable to the skill set of Bill Bratton and the temperament of Antonio Villaraigosa."

Villaraigosa calls the selection of the three finalists an affirmation that the city "has come a long way," emphasizing that they were selected by a Police Commission that is the "most progressive in the history of Los Angeles."

The panel includes a prominent African American civil rights leader -- John Mack -- and a membership that includes a Latina and an Asian American lawyer, both of whom served as U.S. attorneys, and a gay constitutional lawyer, the mayor said.

No matter who is selected as the next police chief, however, he will have a difficult time matching the political influence enjoyed by Bratton, who strode into Los Angeles seven years ago with national acclaim for taming crime in New York and Boston.

Villaraigosa enjoyed a tight political alliance with the outgoing chief, and benefited greatly from it, even though he inherited Bratton from his predecessor, Jim Hahn.

Villaraigosa reappointed Bratton to a second term and spearheaded efforts to add 1,000 officers; Bratton aggressively campaigned for Villaraigosa's reelection and ballot initiatives.

Bratton said the biggest challenge ahead for both the mayor and the next police chief will be to preserve and protect the gains made under his leadership.

"The toughest issue will be the budget," Bratton said. "We can survive for a couple years on lean budgets without really stalling the momentum, but if it goes on for more than two or three years, the challenge for the chief will be how to deal with morale, how to deal with aging equipment, how you deal with facilities that aren't as maintained as well as they have been."

Bratton expressed confidence that all three finalists would be up to the task, praising them as intelligent, innovative and tenacious.

Richard Close, president of the Sherman Oaks Homeowners Assn., said that is one reason he is confident Villaraigosa cannot help but make a good choice.

"I believe the mayor is smart enough to focus on one goal -- continue the progress of the last seven years," he said. "All else is secondary."


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