By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
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Last week started out so promising for Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton. One day before scores of police officers marched into MacArthur Park and created the LAPD’s biggest public relations fuck-up in years, the city’s top law enforcement officer was the toast of the town.
Bratton sat quietly a week ago Monday as Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s Board of Police Commissioners went through the motions of weighing whether or not to rehire him for another five years. Behaving as though their decision had not already been made, the commissioners listened as a series of civil rights leaders and African-American power brokers sang the police chief’s praises.
There was Urban League president Blair Taylor, who thanked Bratton for behaving like a chief executive officer. There was Watts activist Sweet Alice Harris, purring sweet words about the police chief’s wife. And of course there was Connie Rice, the civil rights attorney who sued two of Bratton’s predecessors, declaring that the police chief is slowly bringing about a “sea change” at the LAPD.
Then the bottom dropped out. Twenty-four hours later, officers in the LAPD’s elite Metropolitan Division were captured on video herding unruly, bottle-throwing youths into a group of largely peaceful immigration reform marchers in MacArthur Park.
All those words of support for Bratton — uttered by everyone from Sheriff Leroy Baca to Lawrence Tolliver, owner of the oft-visited South Los Angeles barber shop — seemed to evaporate as the city turned its gaze toward those YouTube-able images: police firing rubber bullets in the direction of terrified families, marchers pulling up their shirts to show baseball-sized wounds, officers plowing through one journalist after another.
So now the surveillance system installed by Bratton in MacArthur Park — cameras designed to nail drug dealers, gang members and sellers of fake I.D.s — will be used to assess the behavior of police officers on May Day. And politicians at City Hall have begun to wonder out loud whether L.A. is simply a city of entropy, a place where things fall apart over and over again, despite the best efforts to improve things. Councilman Jose Huizar pointed out that the LAPD had built up some serious goodwill, and then this: Families running from the police. Journalists rolling around in the dirt. “When I saw the news,” the councilman said, “I did cringe.”
Because really, who shoves a guy holding a television camera? It’s like punching someone with glasses. Yet down the camera operators went, toppling as police mowed through the park. By then a casual viewer had to wonder: Is the LAPD under Bratton any more “fluent in community needs,” as Rice put it, than it was seven years ago?
Bratton responded with a series of contrite appearances, each more apologetic than the one before. On Wednesday, he voiced dismay that an LAPD helicopter tried to disperse the crowd with messages that were only in English. On Thursday he sounded sanguine about the FBI carrying out a review of the incident. On Friday, operating in full mea culpa mode, Bratton voiced words that almost sounded like shame: “As chief of police of the Los Angeles Police Department, I am embarrassed for this department,” he declared. “I am embarrassed for the city that we serve.”
By the time he apologized to a roomful of journalists on Sunday, the city’s political heavy hitters — Assembly Speaker Fabian NÃºÃ±ez and Supervisor Gloria Molina — had demanded their own City Hall sit-down with Bratton. A chastened Villaraigosa cut short his nine-day trade mission to Mexico to attend that session. Sounding a bit like an exasperated parent, Molina suggested that perhaps the mayor and the police chief step it up a bit, by providing answers well before the May 30 deadline demanded by the Los Angeles City Council.
“I know it’s standard to say 30 days,” Molina told the reporters. “But I think the mayor, as well as the chief, should work 24 hours a day if need be to take all of the witness testimony.”
As a new week began, the police chief finally started sounding like his old self again, the one who refuses to suffer fools. Appearing at the Police Academy, he quietly eviscerated a reporter from KTTV Fox Channel 11 — a station that has already seen one of its own camera operators file a legal claim against the LAPD for roughing her up. The reporter stepped into Bratton’s verbal line of fire by asking whether he planned to apologize.
“You’ve obviously not been watching your own news channel,” he said acidly. “I’ve already apologized. I don’t feel the need to answer your specific question, or apologize to you,” Bratton went on. “I’ve made a general apology, and as we find out more details, I’ll be in a position to apologize quite possibly to people who were more specifically involved.”
Bratton then offered a glass-half-full attitude about the whole May Day mayhem, saying it should not represent a setback in his effort to reform the LAPD. “If anything,” he declared, “[the incident] might help to accelerate it,” he declared.
And so the mea culpa tour rolls on, in fits and starts. Dozens of Metro officers have been sent back for more training, including lessons on crowd control and dealing with the media. Two commanders who presided over the MacArthur Park debacle have been reassigned; one of them almost certainly will retire. Bratton would not call those moves disciplinary actions, saying simply that he has the latitude to reassign his commanders as he sees fit. But if those actions were not disciplinary, were those commanders actually held accountable for what happened in MacArthur Park?
That answer may come in three weeks, when the council will receive its first report on what happened on May 1. But even if Bratton is reappointed to another five-year term by then, the warm words of his reappointment process will have been drowned out by the sound of helicopters hovering over Seventh and Alvarado, and the pop of police firing rubber projectiles as they swarm across MacArthur Park.