Bill, We Hardly Know You 

Cut Chief Bratton some slack for a good start

Wednesday, Nov 13 2002

CALM DOWN, EVERYONE. CALM DOWN. THE LAPD'S new chief, Bill Bratton, has barely been in office two weeks and already a chorus of Cassandras out there prophesy that instead of promised police reform, Bratton's about to unleash a wave of blind repression. These early critics suggest we are only days, maybe only minutes, away from the dark ages of Daryl Gates: Operation Hammer crackdowns on the hood, thousands of black and Latino kinds being jacked up and proned out by out-of-control cops from rogue special units.

Bratton has to take some responsibility for these hellish predictions. Since winning his post from Mayor Hahn, most of the new chief's public pronouncements have been repeated vows to lower the crime rate by relentlessly stamping out "quality of life" transgressions, including a promised war against graffiti. Hence the fears that police reform will languish while legions of kids with paint on their fingers are dumped into our already overcrowded jails. I have a one-word response to these nightmarish predictions. Please.

Do you really think the mayor and the new chief are that stupid? That they have learned nothing from the last two decades of the LAPD's sordid history? That neither man realizes the urgent need for reform and that neither knows this is the most propitious moment in recent history to carry it out? Have we become so demoralized that we can longer even imagine reform taking place? Can we no longer distinguish between expedient political rhetoric and actual policy?

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"What did some of my friends expect the new police chief to say?" asks a frustrated civil rights attorney, a longtime fighter for police reform. "That he was going to come in and hold Kumbaya sessions? Any new police chief has to come in like gangbusters, talking tough. But I'm much more interested in what Bratton does, rather than what he says. And so far I like what I see." So do I.

Bratton has swiftly moved on the first prerequisite of real reform, radically reshaping the department's command structure. Within his first two weeks he has staged a literal coup d'état at Parker Center, appointing a trio of the most reform-friendly commanders as his top staff, simultaneously pushing aside a boatload of crustaceans who have inhabited the high floors of the Glass House for way too long.

Bratton has appointed the respected Jim McDonnell, head of the department's community policing unit, as his second-in-command. He's also promoted commanders Sharon Papa and George Gascon to the ranking positions of deputy chiefs. All three are 40-something members of a new generation of LAPD, untainted by the reign of Daryl Gates and all distinguished as independent, innovative thinkers during the just-concluded administration of Bernie "Captain Queeg" Parks. Attentive readers will remember the Weekly's recent profile of Gascon, a man who has actually introduced ethics-based training into the LAPD academy and who promotes in-depth classes on why the Rampart scandal was not an isolated case. "Any one of these three appointees is who we would have preferred as the actual chief," says the reform-minded attorney. "But look at it this way: With Bratton in, we got all three now up at the top. Not bad."

Even more importantly, Bratton seems to be taking the counsel of his new advisers seriously. On their recommendation he moved this week to dismantle the department's notoriously inefficient and incomplete FASTRAC computerized crime-fighting system. It was an open secret that the system, which started three years ago with good intentions, just didn't work. LAPD software specialists are now rushing to install Bratton's preferred CompStat system. And in this case, we should listen very carefully to Bratton's rhetoric. He claims the old system didn't provide enough scrutiny over department managers and that the new program will allow him to hold division captains responsible for their performance and effectiveness.

Not only is this necessary. It's also very smart. Blame the handiwork of former Chief Parks for the vastly demoralized rank-and-file Bratton inherits. Early reviews suggest that the new chief is on the verge of a minor miracle: pulling the department toward reform while actually raising the morale of a very grumpy and recalcitrant rank and file. He's doing so precisely by reversing the dynamic of the Parks era. Instead of an unswerving defense of the brass and a scapegoating of the field troops, Bratton is shaking up and replacing the brass, promising to hold managers and commanders accountable before blaming regular officers.

Sometime soon we will see just how Bratton carries out his promised crime crackdowns. And it will be immediately obvious if we are witnessing something new and inspiring or just the same old same old. In the meantime, the only hammering Bratton has unleashed so far has been right on target: starting to smash up the old LAPD.

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