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Under both Bratton and previous chief Bernard Parks, Los Angeles has seen the same downward crime trends enjoyed in many cities, including New York, Seattle, Austin and much of Southern California. In fact, it’s widely accepted that lower crime levels are not the doing of any one police chief or any one chief’s theory of crime-fighting, no matter how much credit a chief tries to take, as Bratton does. Crime has been dropping for more than a decade throughout the nation, and criminologists and cops can’t agree on the reasons for it.
“Nobody really knows why crime went down in the 1990s and into today,” says Harry Levine, professor of sociology at Queens College in New York City and a distinguished drug-crime expert, “so it’s easy for everyone to take credit.”
But Bratton’s insistence that L.A. is as safe as 53 years ago — a time when young L.A. children trick-or-treated without an adult, hitch-hiking was seen as a fun way to get to Santa Monica Beach, and Nickerson Gardens was a new, clean and friendly place to grow up — stretches the bounds of reality. It’s all the more perplexing coming from a chief who has used crime statistics, and their veracity, to build a 24-carat reputation throughout the world.
Bratton is sometimes portrayed by the press as a crime-busting superhero, but his critics say he is in danger of coming off as just another public official playing with numbers to suit his and his allies’ political agendas — whether it’s to convince Angelenos that LAPD alone should be spared the upcoming big cuts in city departments, to persuade the public to raise phone taxes to hire more cops, to play nice with Villaraigosa for some kind of favor down the road, or to prove his career-long point that “cops matter.”
Bratton, though, remains not just unapologetic about all this spin but defiant.
“It’s common practice with statistics to go back and match it against the lowest point in time,” said Bratton during a 45-minute interview with L.A. Weekly. “The public gets it, the criminologists don’t. Once again, who in hell cares? Nobody’s listening to them anyway. I’m a practitioner. I get the job done. They can write from now to Doomsday; none of them are getting anything done. Most of them don’t even get out of their offices to see what the real world looks like. I live in the real world.”
But for Bratton, that world seems steeped in politics and political spin, a bit more every day.
For 78 years, Aaron Epstein has lived or worked in Hollywood. In 1956, the year that Norma Jeane Mortenson legally changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, Epstein vividly remembers his job as a 26-year-old sales clerk at Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Boulevard. His father owned the store. “We had people who acted eccentric,” recalls Epstein, who now owns the Artisan’s Patio on the Walk of Fame, where he rents space to 15 small-business owners, “but they weren’t criminals. We really felt safer walking the boulevard at night.”
Epstein, in fact, didn’t lock his car door in 1956. You just didn’t need to. And he never saw the homeless strolling the Walk of Fame — a common sight today. “They were nonexistent in the ’50s,” he says.
That’s the shared memory of another longtimer on the city’s Westside. In the early 1950s, Dede Audet lived in Venice Beach and worked at Hughes Aircraft in Culver City. “It was a different world then,” recalls Audet, a community activist who still keeps a close eye on what’s happening on the streets of Venice. “A totally different world.”
In 1956, Audet drove her 1935 DeSoto to work at the aircraft factory, where aviation tycoon Howard Hughes dropped by and watched his employees build planes or, in Audet’s case, write technical manuals.
“That was a time of [Jack] Kerouac,” says the community activist. “It was innocent compared to what we have today.” There were gangs back then, Audet says, but “they preyed on their neighbors,” and, dramatically different from today, had never seen a high-powered weapon. They “were mainly on foot. They didn’t have automobiles, and they didn’t have cell phones. The ways of communication have drastically changed things.”
As everyone is painfully aware in 2009, Audet says, “Kids have weapons and they don’t seem to care who they’re shooting at.”
Johann Schuessler lived in South-Central from 1953 to 1966, so he might be viewed as an expert on how safe Los Angeles was in 1956, and whether crime was at about the same level as it is today. It plainly wasn’t.
“At that time, sometimes you forgot to lock the doors” in quiet South-Central, says Schuessler, who now lives in much more upscale Los Feliz and occasionally visits the old neighborhood. “It was no problem. Nobody went in the house. It’s not like now. Even when you lock the door, people go in there.”