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A Clean Slate

A curious thread of nostalgia ran through the ceremony this week at the Los Angeles Police Academy when William J. Bratton, the Boston cop already dubbed “Hollywood Bill,” formally took the reins of the LAPD.

Stepping to a podium flanked by the department band, a color guard and a squad of officers mounted on horseback, the new chief assured the troops in his trademark brogue that “I‘m not going to make this department Number One -- you already are.”

It was Bratton’s nod to the tradition of the LAPD, which for a generation hailed itself as the best police force in the nation -- or the world, for that matter. And yet, for years that mantra has been a bulwark against reform, as a succession of embattled chiefs fought the encroachment of civilian oversight, civil rights lawyers and, in the end, the scrutiny of the federal Department of Justice. The result, as Mayor James Hahn, Police Commission president Rick Caruso and others made explicit Monday, is a department in crisis, operating under the supervision of a federal-court monitor and facing a city that threatens to lead the nation in homicides.

Asked to straddle the clashing roles of civil rights reformer and ham-fisted crime fighter, Bratton had earlier announced plans to revamp the department‘s disciplinary system and has required 125 top commanders to turn in resumes, presaging a management overhaul. But describing his vision Monday, Bratton took a different tack, suggesting that he would lead the LAPD back to its glory days. He exhorted his officers to “take back the streets that unfortunately have been lost” and to “re-establish the bond between the department and the community.”

It may be too early in the honeymoon to spoil the mood by pointing out that the good old days Bratton harked back to may never have been. The streets were just as “lost” a decade ago, when the homicide rate was double what it is today, and nobody has been able to discern a “bond between the department and the community” since before the firebombs of Watts -- and that is close to 40 years ago.

Bratton has shown the same tendency toward selective amnesia in his complaint -- repeated Monday -- that L.A. cops are “driving and waving” rather than leaving their cars to battle street crime. Left unmentioned are the widespread and routine violations of civil rights, especially among the hard-charging gang units that led to scandal, millions of dollars in civil liability, and federal intervention.

The tone of Bratton’s address leaves open the question of just what kind of chief Hahn and his commission have selected. We know Bratton‘s a media-savvy outsider who lasted just two years in each of his last three jobs. And he showed Monday he’s got an instinct for telling people what they want to hear.

What Bratton needs to show is the willingness to wrestle with an institutional culture that for decades has placed the department on a war footing in the communities it patrols. That culture was steeped during the 21-year tenure of Chief Daryl Gates -- and it was Gates who drew the most enthusiastic applause when he was introduced Monday. If Bratton‘s going to shape a new ethos for the LAPD, he can start by leaving the past behind.


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