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A one-on-one with Police Chief Bill Bratton

Thursday, Jan 9 2003
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Photo by Sobodan Dimitrov

Meeting with the LAPD’s new chief, Bill Bratton, for the first time, one hardly knows what to expect. Is he the enlightened police reformer the city has desperately been searching for over the last decade? Or just one more stop-’em-and-frisk-’em cowboy, clueless in confronting the city’s myriad problems?

There was good reason to be uncertain. On the one hand, Bratton has already demonstrated a way of shooting from the lip, particularly when it comes to the city’s street gangs. From his first day in office forward, he began spouting battle metaphors, calling for an "all-out assault" on gang crime, which he described as "homeland terrorism." He vowed to use RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) to go after L.A.’s gangs, a questionable strategy, since, with few exceptions, the Southland’s gangs fall firmly into the category of disorganized crime. And, when eight officer-involved shootings occurred in a single week, it prompted a protest in front of Parker Center, where demonstrators carried placards that read, "Control your cops." The chief, told of the signs, was quick to snap back, "Control your kids!"

On the other hand, intermittent war rhetoric notwithstanding, most of the time Bratton sounded distinctly liberal on social issues. And while Bernard Parks was notorious for surrounding himself with deputy chiefs who wouldn’t dream of crossing him, Bratton demonstrated that he wanted talent, not mirrors, by immediately promoting the department’s strongest progressive voices to fill the top three positions on his command staff.

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Moreover, Bratton’s arrival has brought a kind of instant glasnost to the usually icy confines of Parker Center — a new openness in the department’s relations with the civilian world outside. Under previous chiefs, the LAPD barricaded itself inside a fortress mentality that viewed even the most benign approaches from the press with suspicion and, often, outright hostility. Officers were forbidden to talk to the media without a stamp of approval from Press Relations, and that stamp was rarely given. As a consequence, the department inevitably looked like it was hiding something — whether it was or not.

Yet within days of Bratton’s swearing-in ceremony, the moat was drained, the castle doors unbolted. Commanders and deputy chiefs suddenly returned calls promptly. Even lower-echelon blue- suiters gave opinions without frantically stipulating that they were not to be quoted. Of course, some of this had to do with the fact that Bratton, unlike his predecessors, understood the value of courting the media. That’s what his previous boss, former N.Y. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, couldn’t stand about him.

Some high-profile critics of the police, like former state Senator Tom Hayden and Nation of Islam Western regional director Minister Tony Muhammed, remained underwhelmed. "He’s an Irishman with a gift for B.S.," is the way Hayden put it. "In New York, Bratton reduced petty crime but created a whole other set of problems that will continue to be felt for years to come," said Hayden. "We don’t appreciate a chief of police who equates our children with al Qaeda," echoed Muhammed.

However, other unsparing police critics, like Father Greg Boyle, who runs the Eastside Homeboy Industries, were won over. In December, Boyle took Bratton to task on the cover of the L.A. Times Sunday Opinion section for basing his gang strategy on myths rather than reality. The following week, Bratton invited the priest to Parker Center for a private talk, and Boyle — normally pessimistic on the subject of law enforcement — came away unusually impressed. "He’s a very quick study," said Boyle. "And very astute in terms of the political lay of the land. And I think he wants to do the right thing. I’m so alert to every possible negative nuance. But I think he gets it. Bratton really seems to genuinely want a revolution in the department."

The necessity for a revolution within and without the LAPD seems to be the one point on which everyone agrees. Chief Daryl Gates’ jackbooted tactics brought the city to that understanding in the early ’90s. Perhaps former Chief Bernard Parks’ most lasting contribution will be the fact that his unerring penchant for alienating the rank and file pushed them to a similar understanding, albeit via a very different route.

But is Bill Bratton the right person to escort the department and the city through this rare window of opportunity? Can he confront the real plague of deadly violence in L.A.’s most desperate neighborhoods while simultaneously reforming a department notorious for its misdeeds? When he is faced with complex and troubling issues, like the newly released police traffic stop data indicating that blacks and Latinos are required to exit their cars after routine traffic stops three times as often as whites, will he approach such issues with defensiveness or real insight? These were among the key questions that came up when I met with Bratton in his Parker Center office on Monday.

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