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
Correction: 700 police have been added to the LAPD, not 400 as originally reported.
Police Chief William Bratton raised eyebrows recently when he broke an unofficial rule against endorsing political candidates — long discouraged because it can politicize the Los Angeles Police Department and make a chief’s views suspect if he takes stands that are of importance to City Hall.
Bratton’s surprise decision to endorse Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is already creating a backlash, with critics assailing his support for Villaraigosa’s strange claim that Los Angeles is now as safe as it was in 1956. Several of the lesser-known candidates for mayor in the March 3 primary are slamming Bratton, but the critics are not just Villaraigosa’s rivals on the ballot, who include attorney Walter Moore, San Fernando Chamber of Commerce executive director and neighborhood activist Dave Hernandez, pastor Craig X. Rubin, City Hall activist Dave “Zuma Dogg” Saltsburg and actor Phil Jennerjahn. Criticism is also coming from criminal experts who note that Bratton’s claim helps to enhance one of Villaraigosa’s few policy achievements over the past four years: the hiring of about 700 more cops.
“I’ve talked to people who grew up here in the 1950s,” says mayoral candidate Moore, who has raised enough money in his long-shot fight against Villaraigosa to qualify for matching funds, “and believe me, nobody in L.A. remembers crime in the 1950s being like it is today.”
Mayoral candidate Hernandez calls the optimistic figures now cited by Bratton and Villaraigosa “nothing more than props,” noting that official LAPD reports of “shots fired” are up 98 percent, so “how can crime be down?” Rubin calls Bratton’s unexpected foray into City Hall political endorsements “unethical” and vows that if he becomes mayor — unlikely since Rubin has no name ID with voters — he’ll quickly fire Bratton. “For a chief of police to endorse a mayor — this is something that’s never done in California,” Rubin says.
An admirer of Bratton’s from the East Coast who closely observed his work as police commissioner in both Boston and New York, and who asked not to be named, says, “Villaraigosa uses crime as an issue when he needs something politically, and now he’s farming that role out to Bratton. But Bratton has complied much, much more willingly than I would ever have expected him to.”
Gang-crime expert Gary Nanson, a veteran gang-crime fighter who two months ago retired as one of LAPD’s four coordinators of antigang efforts, is a leading authority on the use of unreliable gang-crime data. He says that Bratton’s and Villaraigosa’s claim about L.A. enjoying a 1950s crime level “defies common sense and reality — and both of them know this.”
The claims by the mayor and the chief represent a marked change from 2007 and early 2008, when Bratton and Villaraigosa depicted gang crime as a worsening scourge in an embattled city, their assertions bolstered by an alarming-sounding report by attorney Constance Rice that called for spending up to $1 billion on a Marshall Plan to deal with the city’s purported gang explosion.
Local media repeated Bratton’s and Villaraigosa’s claims, largely without question, of a new “gang surge” — and that view spread nationally. L.A. Weekly wrote on March 8, 2007, that outside media outlets like the Chicago Tribune and Kansas City Star had published stories painting L.A. as a badly worsening “national epicenter” and “breeding ground” for gang activity, vividly depicting “an unlivable Los Angeles now under the thumb of gangs.”
Except there was one big problem: Bratton’s and Villaraigosa’s insistence that a gang surge had hit the city was not accepted universally, or even widely, by independent experts, who said the two were using a limited snapshot of a very short time period that showed a spike in gang crime only in certain areas of Los Angeles.
Gang expert Nanson, who has endorsed Hernandez for mayor, tells L.A. Weekly that neither Villaraigosa nor Bratton “had any idea if a gang surge was under way, because the LAPD statistics that are used to track gang crime are so bad. Chief Bratton is an incredible statistics machine, and he leads the LAPD using statistics, but in ’06 and ’07, he and the mayor never knew if there was or was not a surge — and in ’08 they didn’t know it, either. And that is a fact.”
The timing of Villaraigosa’s and Bratton’s intensive media campaign in 2007 and early 2008 was highly political — just as their timing is highly political this week. The City Council had voted to place a controversial phone tax on the February 2008 ballot, and Villaraigosa pledged to use it to hire police to address the gang “surge.” Worried voters, hearing again and again from Bratton and Villaraigosa, approved the phone tax. Yet little of the money was in fact used to hire more cops, an audit by City Controller Laura Chick has since shown.