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Plato on the Beat 

Can Bratton reform the LAPD without revisiting Rampart?

Wednesday, Oct 16 2002
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Every police-chief confirmation I’ve seen in this city has been a ceremony of anticipation. Last Friday‘s was something more: It also evoked the failed hopes in three past police chiefs -- Daryl Gates, Willie Williams and Bernie Parks -- and threw them onto the willing shoulders of 54-year-old William Bratton. That’s over a quarter of a century of fizzled expectations and ugly realities, plenty of tonnage for even the well-tailored guy who rebuilt the NYPD.

We have heard it all before from our brand-new chiefs, that they were going to right LAPD wrongs, repress corruption, and make our streets safe without unduly oppressing the unfortunate. The results were otherwise. I wasn‘t reporting here when Gates took office, but his record stands alone: 14 years of an increasingly out-of-control department and the West Coast’s largest-ever riot. His successor, Willie Williams, faced the Christopher Commission report, made some changes and then turned his back on the department‘s future. Then Bernie Parks came in and pretended that police reform was really about flogging the ranks, while otherwise doing his best to wind the clock back to Gates’ day. His (and Williams‘) legacy is the Rampart scandal, to which we shall have to return later, and by that I do mean all of us -- particularly our new chief.

Now, here is Bratton, the first of Los Angeles’ 54 chiefs of police to have an RFK (“pahtnehship”) accent. He also has far and away the best resume of anyone who‘s applied for the job. And yet, along with a great deal of enthusiasm, there was, on the day of his appointment, more skepticism in the council than I can recall for any of his recent predecessors. “I still have my reservations,” said Councilwoman Jan Perry, “but I will vote for him.” Council Members Ed Reyes, Nick Pacheco and Mark Ridley-Thomas all said the same thing -- even though most of them had, by then, been personally and thoroughly schmoozed by the chief apparent. “I’m impressed but still skeptical,” as Reyes put it, a few minutes before he voted for Bratton. (The senescent Nate Holden, who built his case against Bratton on a factitious accusation of racial profiling, cast the sole “no‘’ vote.) Well, they have reasons to be skeptical.

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They‘ve been hearing chiefs’ excuses about why crime is going up in their districts. They‘ve heard promises that things would get better soon, were in fact already getting better. And they saw things getting worse. They are waiting for the new chief to clean up their districts before they clap their hands for him. There were tame questions from his backers and some tough ones from the skeptics, but I think Bratton answered everyone best with this statement: ”The first obligation of government is to provide public safety for all citizens.“ The idea was brand-new around 480 B.C., but every now and then it bears restating. In the past, the LAPD methodology for providing public safety was to make us feel like we lived under a police state. Our new chief’s idea seems to be to root out crime, which he says is not the same thing.

Bratton‘s idea is that all crime ought first to be measured and tracked by a computer-driven system called CompStat and then dealt with systematically in the field. In the early ’50s, the LAPD pioneered computer crime records. But this kind of tracking is a new philosophy for Los Angeles, where the previous practice has been to confront the forces of darkness with the sometimes-lawless force of the LAPD. The outcomes ranged from the Rodney King beating to two major riots to the Dalton Street raid, in which a number of decent human habitations were systematically wrecked by LAPD officers imitating a B-52 sortie, this before anyone realized there were no criminals on hand. (And what purpose, you might ask, would all that ”break a window“--policy vandalism of some pathetic landlord‘s private property have served had there been a hundred arrests and convictions?) The problem always seemed to me that the traditional LAPD command structure treated crime as though it were boundless, elusive, threatening and chaotic, and to resist it accordingly.

Bratton’s methodology, on the other hand, is straight out of Plato via modern technology. Crime is measurable and graspable: You put your statistics up on big video screens each day and see exactly what is happening, everywhere. Then you go to work. Hard. You start with the small malfeasance and thus create an environment in which larger crime finds it harder to survive. Since, as the old idea goes, chaos can‘t survive empowered order. Plato suggests something like this in his Protagoras dialogue. That the solution to disorder is order, not (in the LAPD’s case, government-subsidized) responsive disorder. Particularly when it‘s directed at minority members of the community.

Bratton says he’ll make the 18 division commanders accountable for crime in their districts -- as in, for bringing its numbers down. No one gets to claim that failure isn‘t his or her fault. That’s another kind of order: responsibility. Bratton made a lot of promises Friday. All we have to go on for now is that in the past, he‘s managed to keep his promises. LAPD people who see things Bratton’s way are moving up. Others are going to move out. You foresee a sudden surplus of vacancies in the command structure. You foresee some able young officers jumping a couple of ranks to fill them. This has happened under Bratton before. It could mean nothing less than the dissolution of that old LAPD culture. And its replacement by something better.

Meanwhile, what could be Bratton‘s toughest challenge in his first term as chief isn’t in the streets or Parker Center. It‘s the disposition of around 50 or more outstanding Rampart civil rights cases dating back as far as four or more years before Rafael Perez’s arrest in 1999. A few of these cases have been settled; most are slowly wending their way through federal court. They involve as many as 71 officers and possibly hundreds of unjustly arrested or abused plaintiffs. These cases are probably going to cost the city at least another $100 million to settle. And right now, officialdom on every level seems to be obstructing their resolution. Attorneys for the victimized plaintiffs say the big slowdown encourages out-of-court settlements that protect bad cops from disclosure. But attorneys such as Sam Paz, Steve Yagman and Greg Yates say that they see a compelling need, beyond making their clients whole, to get the entire story out in open court. Before the public forgets and all the bad cops retire. The attorneys‘ consensus is that if Bratton really wants to reform the LAPD, he’s going to have to encourage the courts and prosecutors to plow the Rampart field until the worms wriggle to the surface. And the responsibility of the old LAPD management can be held out to dry. Paz, for instance, wants to see named lead plaintiff Bernie Parks on the witness stand.

Paz recalls, ”Bratton‘s said he wants a high-profile settlement.’‘ Yates also hopes “Bratton will do the right thing.’‘ Meanwhile, despite some significant recent victories, big important cases remain, as Paz put it, ”dead in the water.’‘

Another dubious LAPD tradition is at work here: the firewall between civil actions against officers and official suspicion of criminal behavior. A ranking LAPD officer, asked why cops involved in a particularly hard-to-justify million-dollar shooting settlement were still on the force, responded: “Juries will do anything.” Well, yes. But John DeLorean to the contrary, American democracy assumes that juries are right most of the time. The LAPD might as well assume the same and seriously review the disclosures of egregious officer-wrongdoing settlements.

That’s what the L.A. County Sheriff‘s Department’s been doing. When the Times reported this week that the sheriff had neglected to review 800 claims -- not judgments, but claims -- against the department, it was an official scandal. The complaint came from the county‘s year-old Office of Independent Review, which monitors not just settlements and suits, but such claims as may lead to suits and settlements. And the behavior of officers that might lead to such complaints. What do you think of that idea, Bill Bratton?

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