By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
L.A. Police Chief William Bratton has a fast mouth and an ego the size of Wyoming. He has also racked up some genuine accomplishments since taking the helm of one of the most troubled police departments in America on October 28, 2002. Now he’s overdue for his annual report card. Overall, the chief earns higher than average marks, but it will take years, maybe a decade, before we know if the initiatives started in the past 13 months will have lasting power.
FIXING LAPD’S CULTURE
Bratton’s most difficult and most important task is that of reforming the department’s internal culture. Ever since former Chief Bill Parker coined the phrase “Thin Blue Line” in the 1950s, the LAPD’s any-means-to-an-end, nobody-gets-it-but-us attitude has produced a steady stream of use-of-force lawsuits, an extremely messy corruption scandal, a federal consent decree, and an ever-widening chasm between the department and the city it serves.
Unlike previous chiefs, who mostly denied that there was a problem, Bratton seems to have a grip on the magnitude of change that is needed. “He’s dug much deeper than the obvious,” says civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. “He’s looking at the extremely dysfunctional policing culture, which in the past the department has refused to examine.”
Indeed, Bratton readily admits that a heavy-handed enforcement style has damaged the LAPD’s relationship with the L.A. populace. “There are so few police and they have such enormous distances to cover, over the years they got into a command-and-control model,” he says. “As a result, do you ever meet anybody in this city who hasn’t had a negative experience with a police officer? No one. Even in the well-to-do-areas — Brentwood and the Westside — people tell me their experience with cops at traffic stops was this sense of arrogance.”
Bratton has pounded away at the problem, beefing up a series of ethics-based training classes that even normally grumpy federal consent-decree monitor Michael Cherkasky praises as excellent. Yet most observers say the department’s psyche is still a long way from being rewired. “The change hasn’t really reached ground,” says Connie Rice. “Still, the fact that there’s real change at all, that’s remarkable. You have to understand. Bratton’s trying to rewrite the software here.”
Grade: C +
A big part of retooling the LAPD mindset involves holding misbehaving officers responsible for their wrongdoing.Although Bernard Parks made the street cops crazy by pursuing frivolous complaints made against them (an investigation into the accusation that an officer was a Cyclops, being one of the more colorful examples), he and his predecessors were infamous for refusing to grant whistleblower cops immunity, and virtually ignoring the most egregious cases of officer misconduct.
Unfortunately, things have not yet done a 180 under Bratton. As recently as this past June, the LAPD Board of Rights panel disregarded the recommendation of the Police Commission and ruled that the 1999 shooting death of a 55-year old homeless woman, Margaret Mitchell, was “within policy.” In August, a Bratton-initiated sting operation, in which undercover officers posing as citizens tried to report police misconduct, produced the discouraging news that the faux citizens were routinely blown off or stonewalled. Then this month, federal consent-decree monitor Cherkasky issued a report blasting the department for officer-involved-shooting probes that he said were not properly investigated.
Unhappy with the Mitchell ruling and the sting outcome, Bratton was already showing up at roll calls to lecture the troops on civil liberties and the importance of citizen complaints. More importantly, he has assumed an active role in reviewing use-of-force investigations and has aggressively taken investigators to task. “Sometimes you need to give the officer the benefit of the doubt. But I just signed paperwork this morning, getting four officers off the department. And you’re going to be seeing many more findings that will be ‘out of policy’ — particularly when it comes to officer-involved shootings.”
One unexpected note of optimism came when a survey of 2,300 LAPD officers was released two weeks ago in which a surprising 98 percent said they’d report fellow officers for serious misconduct — a result that some think signals a shift away from the conventional code of silence. “Let me put it this way,” says the survey’s administrator, John Linder, “when we asked the NYPD that question, we got only 54 percent.”
AREAS TO IMPROVE:The chief has refused to create an outside review board, as Lee Baca has successfully done for the Sheriff’s Department. Many believe the LAPD must take this step, but Bratton disagrees. “One of the issues I have with outsiders is they can become too objective.” Thus far, however, it seems that objectivity is precisely the element most lacking.
Bratton came on the scene during a serious spike in the city’s homicide rate. As of last week, homicides were down 24 percent over last year, and all violent crime was down 5.4 percent. Some cop watchers insist the drop is due to normal crime cycles. Since other large U.S. cities have seen no commensurate drop, more likely the credit in L.A. belongs mostly to Bratton and company. Hampered with what he felt was an impossibly undersized force, last January he pulled apart the LAPD’s essential organization and began experimenting with various new enforcement strategies. (Some strategies were less successful than others, such as when a slew of homeless and parole sweeps quickly garnered an ACLU lawsuit.) In addition, he formed partnerships with other law-enforcement entities, most particularly the sheriffs.