A Classic Diversion

Before May 1, 2007, life was rolling along somewhat smoothly for Los Angeles Police Department Chief Bill Bratton. He owned a solid-gold reputation as arguably America’s Top Cop, and a day earlier, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa had glowingly endorsed his reappointment for five years. Then, officers of Metropolitan Division shot 146 rounds of less-lethal munitions into a mostly peaceful crowd at MacArthur Park.

Bratton’s world had changed. And so the chief went into personal-survival mode. He raised eyebrows by saying police officers “go out of control faster than any human being in the world.” He demoted respected Deputy Chief Cayler “Lee” Carter — commanding officer of the MacArthur Park Fuckup — essentially ending his 30-year career (Carter took an early retirement). Then Bratton started jabbering about “anarchists” and “agitators,” as if Los Angeles had been sucked into a 1950s time warp, with the Red Menace looming off the horizon.

Bratton spouted all sorts of things and, like any media-savvy public figure, was sure to throw around apologies. But throughout the denunciations and remorsefulness, Bratton always held himself at a distance from what went down on May 1.

It was as if some other chief — Daryl Gates or Bernard Parks — was responsible for creating the mindset of the cops who overzealously swung batons and shot rubber bullets. Bratton even thought up a fancy reason for his department’s problematic ways: “the culture of isolation.”

“The culture I think everybody is trying to change is one of isolation,” Bratton said during the May 29 Police Commission hearing, where he presented the MacArthur Park Investigation Preliminary Report. “Isolation from the community, isolation within the department, of Metro from other units, isolation within Metro. They [Metro officers] have five different Christmas parties.”

Bratton added, “So we are actively engaged in moving forward on [the culture of isolation]. As you know, that’s been one of the reasons I have given for my desire to have a second term, to basically continue” that work.

Yet with critics of his abrupt and very public sacrifice of Cayler Carter pointing out major flaws in Bratton’s own behavior and decision making, the Police Commission and City Council may want to re-evaluate the chief’s first term, as well as Bratton’s current handling of the MacArthur Park Fuckup.

By many accounts, Deputy Chief Carter, the commanding officer Bratton holds most responsible for the May Day fiasco, is a decent man. Ted Hayes, downtown’s homeless-rights activist, says of Carter, “He had been fair to me. I wish he had stayed and fought. It’s definitely going to hurt what I do down here — and the whole city.”

City Councilman Dennis Zine, who represents the San Fernando Valley and is a retired LAPD officer, says Carter’s reputation was solid. Indeed, Bratton “must have thought he was qualified,” since it was Bratton — not former chiefs Gates, Parks or Willie Williams — who handpicked him for deputy chief.

Zine, who admits to disliking Bratton’s “brash” personality, declares, “It was unusual to demote him with all of the facts still coming in. You would think that a department that wants to be ‘transparent and accountable’ wouldn’t make that move and embarrass someone without first having a full investigation.”

Bratton has been unusually brutal in describing Carter’s leadership at MacArthur Park. Before the City Council on May 30, Bratton blamed a “command-and-control breakdown.” Without any prompting, and with mounting indignation, he lashed out, saying, “Chief Carter for 19 minutes marched with that [Metropolitan Division] platoon, actually the three Metro platoons, across the field on 11 different occasions. He could’ve stopped it. To the best of our ability, and based on our understanding, he did nothing.”

“He did not what?” City Councilman Bill Rosendahl asked.

“He did nothing,” Bratton answered. “He went along for the ride.

“So that’s a command-and-control breakdown,” the chief continued, “from my perspective, when I have a two-star chief of police, who’s the senior person on the scene in charge of 600 police officers, who marches behind 100 officers using less-lethal weaponry and ammunition, moving a group of agitators into a larger crowd of 4,000 people.”

It was the most devastating attack by a Los Angeles police chief on one of his trusted brass in recent memory.

A few moments later, Bratton added, “When I talk about command-and-control failure, the two senior ranking members, who between them have over 70 years of experience in this department — and they did nothing! Well, basically, the action I took against them within 24 hours I think speaks to my state of mind relative to my lack of confidence in their ability to continue commanding in this department.”

It sounds all good and true, but there are important ramifications of Bratton’s moving so hurriedly to push Carter out. Zine wanted Carter and Commander Louis Gray, who ordered the use of less-lethal munitions against people throwing rocks and bottles, to appear before the City Council so Zine could “get information from firsthand sources, not fourth- and fifth-hand sources” like Bratton.

Surveilled: Bratton’s PowerPoint report to city pols used aerial shots to track Carter’s movements.

Carter doesn’t have to show up, now that he’s retired. “He’s a free man,” says Zine. “He can do whatever he wants to do.”

Why would Bratton move so fast that the City Council was prevented from questioning the top cop on scene? Judging from Bratton’s remarks to the Police Commission and City Council, he still doesn’t even know what Carter was thinking. “We can’t explain it,” the chief conceded to the Police Commission about Carter’s alleged lack of action.

In effect, Bratton hamstrung his investigation, as well as the council’s, by forcing Carter out with an extremely rare public tongue-lashing that diverted attention away from himself.

Some seasoned LAPD observers say it does appear Carter failed on May 1, even though he had worked other demonstrations in Central Bureau. Carol Sobel, president of the Los Angeles Chapter of the National Lawyers Guild, points out, “He was put to the test on this one, and he couldn’t handle it. He failed.”

Sobel knows the LAPD well. She handles most of the demonstration litigation in Los Angeles, so she constantly meets with the police, and helped rewrite the LAPD crowd-control manual in the mid-1990s. She says Deputy Chief Mike Hillman, whom Bratton last week chose to head his newly created Critical Management Bureau, would have been the “best person” to handle MacArthur Park.

There was only one problem: According to Sobel, Bratton doesn’t assign a demonstration to the brass with the best credentials. Instead, assignments are based on turf. It’s a curious policy, particularly since Bratton has Hillman, a highly regarded specialist, in his ranks. The chief has described Hillman as a “resident expert” who is “internationally renowned” for crowd-control management.

But Bratton failed to utilize Hillman’s globally recognized expertise before everything went sideways on May 1, raising the question of whether blame for the MacArthur Park Fuckup should rest on Bratton, not Carter.

The subplot is this: Before Hillman was moved to West Bureau by Bratton, he was commanding officer of Special Operations Bureau, which supervises Metropolitan Division.

Hillman was a big believer in “training” — the issue cited most often by politicians and police watchdogs in the wake of MacArthur Park. The chief, in contrast, is a believer in “crime suppression,” and last year wanted to cut back on training and send more Metro officers into hot spots. When Hillman complained, according to Zine and “Jack Dunphy” (an LAPD officer who writes under a pseudonym for National Review), Bratton shunted Hillman aside.

Once Hillman was reassigned, training became less of a priority at Metro. A year or so later, MacArthur Park blew up. Is that Cayler Carter’s fault?

“Crowd control is one of the most important areas of police training,” says Maria Haberfeld, a leading expert on crowd control and chair of the department of law and police science at John Jay College in New York. “In my mind, the ultimate responsibility of training lies on the chief of police, so some of the blame should be taken by him.”

Somehow, Bratton manages to dodge blame. Maybe it’s his incessant use of that crackerjack phrase “transparent and accountable” that saves him from scrutiny. Whatever it is, Los Angeles is witnessing the work of a political and public-relations genius. Residents just better hope that more old people, women and children at public rallies aren’t terrorized after the razzmatazz is over.


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