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Marking the Chief

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

L.A. Police Chief William Bratton has a fast mouth and an ego the size of Wyoming. He has also racked up some genuine accomplishments since taking the helm of one of the most troubled police departments in America on October 28, 2002. Now he’s overdue for his annual report card. Overall, the chief earns higher than average marks, but it will take years, maybe a decade, before we know if the initiatives started in the past 13 months will have lasting power.

FIXING LAPD’S CULTURE

Grade: B

Bratton’s most difficult and most important task is that of reforming the department’s internal culture. Ever since former Chief Bill Parker coined the phrase “Thin Blue Line” in the 1950s, the LAPD’s any-means-to-an-end, nobody-gets-it-but-us attitude has produced a steady stream of use-of-force lawsuits, an extremely messy corruption scandal, a federal consent decree, and an ever-widening chasm between the department and the city it serves.

Unlike previous chiefs, who mostly denied that there was a problem, Bratton seems to have a grip on the magnitude of change that is needed. “He’s dug much deeper than the obvious,” says civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. “He’s looking at the extremely dysfunctional policing culture, which in the past the department has refused to examine.”

Indeed, Bratton readily admits that a heavy-handed enforcement style has damaged the LAPD’s relationship with the L.A. populace. “There are so few police and they have such enormous distances to cover, over the years they got into a command-and-control model,” he says. “As a result, do you ever meet anybody in this city who hasn’t had a negative experience with a police officer? No one. Even in the well-to-do-areas — Brentwood and the Westside — people tell me their experience with cops at traffic stops was this sense of arrogance.”

Bratton has pounded away at the problem, beefing up a series of ethics-based training classes that even normally grumpy federal consent-decree monitor Michael Cherkasky praises as excellent. Yet most observers say the department’s psyche is still a long way from being rewired. “The change hasn’t really reached ground,” says Connie Rice. “Still, the fact that there’s real change at all, that’s remarkable. You have to understand. Bratton’s trying to rewrite the software here.”

POLICING COPS

Grade: C +

A big part of retooling the LAPD mindset involves holding misbehaving officers responsible for their wrongdoing. Although Bernard Parks made the street cops crazy by pursuing frivolous complaints made against them (an investigation into the accusation that an officer was a Cyclops, being one of the more colorful examples), he and his predecessors were infamous for refusing to grant whistleblower cops immunity, and virtually ignoring the most egregious cases of officer misconduct.

Unfortunately, things have not yet done a 180 under Bratton. As recently as this past June, the LAPD Board of Rights panel disregarded the recommendation of the Police Commission and ruled that the 1999 shooting death of a 55-year old homeless woman, Margaret Mitchell, was “within policy.” In August, a Bratton-initiated sting operation, in which undercover officers posing as citizens tried to report police misconduct, produced the discouraging news that the faux citizens were routinely blown off or stonewalled. Then this month, federal consent-decree monitor Cherkasky issued a report blasting the department for officer-involved-shooting probes that he said were not properly investigated.

Unhappy with the Mitchell ruling and the sting outcome, Bratton was already showing up at roll calls to lecture the troops on civil liberties and the importance of citizen complaints. More importantly, he has assumed an active role in reviewing use-of-force investigations and has aggressively taken investigators to task. “Sometimes you need to give the officer the benefit of the doubt. But I just signed paperwork this morning, getting four officers off the department. And you’re going to be seeing many more findings that will be ‘out of policy’ — particularly when it comes to officer-involved shootings.”

One unexpected note of optimism came when a survey of 2,300 LAPD officers was released two weeks ago in which a surprising 98 percent said they’d report fellow officers for serious misconduct — a result that some think signals a shift away from the conventional code of silence. “Let me put it this way,” says the survey’s administrator, John Linder, “when we asked the NYPD that question, we got only 54 percent.”

AREAS TO IMPROVE: The chief has refused to create an outside review board, as Lee Baca has successfully done for the Sheriff’s Department. Many believe the LAPD must take this step, but Bratton disagrees. “One of the issues I have with outsiders is they can become too objective.” Thus far, however, it seems that objectivity is precisely the element most lacking.

 

REDUCING CRIME

 

Grade: A-

Bratton came on the scene during a serious spike in the city’s homicide rate. As of last week, homicides were down 24 percent over last year, and all violent crime was down 5.4 percent. Some cop watchers insist the drop is due to normal crime cycles. Since other large U.S. cities have seen no commensurate drop, more likely the credit in L.A. belongs mostly to Bratton and company. Hampered with what he felt was an impossibly undersized force, last January he pulled apart the LAPD’s essential organization and began experimenting with various new enforcement strategies. (Some strategies were less successful than others, such as when a slew of homeless and parole sweeps quickly garnered an ACLU lawsuit.) In addition, he formed partnerships with other law-enforcement entities, most particularly the sheriffs.

“This is a bigger deal than it appears to be,” says civil rights lawyer Connie Rice. “In the last 20 years, the LAPD and L.A. Sheriff’s Department [rarely] acknowledged each other’s existence.”

It also helped that Bratton energized the department’s morale-challenged rank and file by making sure that he and his command staff spent plenty of time out in the field. “Even the way we treat homicides is different,” he says. “In the past, nobody higher than a D3 [Detective level 3] came to a homicide scene. Now we have at least a captain at every homicide, and usually a deputy chief. I’ve been to 40 homicide scenes myself. That damn sure wasn’t the way it was. I’m a great believer that you have an effect on what you inspect.”

AREAS TO IMPROVE: The LAPD’s emergency-response time is turtle slow and has gotten slower under Bratton — rising from 7.7 minutes in 2000 to 10.7 this past summer. (In South Los Angeles and some Valley areas residents say it takes cops nearly an hour to show up.) Moreover, the department’s clearance rates — meaning actually solving a crime and making an arrest — have gone increasingly into the toilet over the past decade. Bratton hopes a radically revamped system of detective assignments will ameliorate both situations. “It will mean we get detectives to the crime scene much faster — which should help my 911 response time,” he says. “And the quicker gathering of evidence will change our clearance rates. It used to be I’d have 20 cops waiting around forever for detectives to get there and take their information. We can’t afford that.”

 

SOLVING THE GANG PROBLEM

Grade: B

During his first month in L.A., Bratton got a string of demerits for painting all homeboys — hardcore and wannabes — as mafiosi and terrorists. The upside of his overheated rhetoric was that it succeeded in getting the L.A. Times to yank coverage of gang homicides out of the bowels of the B section and onto the paper’s front page. Yet it also risked validating the kind of blunt-instrument enforcement that Bratton was purportedly striving to dismantle.

However, after a series of meetings with community groups, including gang-intervention experts whom previous LAPD leadership had avoided like poison, the chief announced he would be targeting the small percentage of truly dangerous gangsters, not the troubled kids at the fringe.

Bratton and his gang czar, Deputy Chief Michael Hillman, also get high marks for shepherding a smart, fluid enforcement plan that moves resources quickly where the need is the most pressing. Gang homicide stats have dropped as a result. However, the chief admits there’s a long way to go.

“Am I comfortable with where we are? No. I don’t think we’ve found exactly the right formula.” Yet the fact that Bratton has shown himself to prefer strategies that are more scalpel than hammer is a distinctly positive sign.

“And what Bratton really gets an A on,” says Connie Rice, “is his absolute refusal to accept random death as a fact of life in poor communities. It’s unacceptable to him that it’s taken as the sea breeze here. That’s quite extraordinary.”

AREAS TO IMPROVE: The LAPD still insists that it is the world’s primary expert on gangs, a false assumption that greatly hampers its effectiveness. One need look no further than current department training videos — so culturally off the mark that when one was recently shown to gang-savvy students at East L.A. College, it elicited howls of laughter. Yet when gang-intervention money comes to the city — as it likely will next year from a large Justice Department grant and the newly introduced Feinstein-Hatch Gang Prevention and Effective Deterrence Act — the police inevitably decide how it is allocated. “Law enforcement needs to allow more stakeholders at the table,” says Homeboy Industries head Father Greg Boyle. “They have an essential role, but they’re only one point in the triangle. And although the police keep saying gangs are a social issue and that we need all hands on deck, they still proceed without everyone else.”

 

 

WAITING FOR COMMUNITY POLICING

Grade: B+

Every chief from Ed Davis forward has trumpeted the virtue of community policing, but none has actually instituted it. Bratton hasn’t done much better, but unlike his predecessors, he knows what it ought to look like. For instance, although he has reinstituted the popular Senior Lead Officer program, he correctly sees its limits. “These 168 SLOs are our whole community policing effort, which is ridiculous,” he says.

Bratton’s newest approach is a pilot program in which divisions are broken up into districts, each with its own lieutenant — the idea being to invest officers in smaller geographic ‰ areas in order to deepen community relations and, in so doing, further lower crime rates. “The secret of this department,” says Bratton, “is that there are a lot of great, caring cops who are really good with people — if they’re ever given the chance to prove it.”

AREAS TO IMPROVE: Both beat cops and critics say that until department policy rewards officers for staying in patrol and in specific geographic areas, community policing will be an ever receding chimera.

“If Chief Bratton really wants to affect the terrible violence we live with every day,” says veteran gang worker Daude Sherrils, “he has to direct his officers to get to know the communities they work in. So far, that hasn’t happened.”

Father Boyle agrees. “We need more cops,” he says, “but that’s less the issue than keeping the right three or four in rotation in a neighborhood so they can gain knowledge. Right now we have patrol cops so clueless that they harass homeboys who have matured out and are trying to lead decent lives, but are likely to stop public enemy Number One and let him go.”

 

LEADERSHIP AND POLITICAL SKILLS

Grade: B-

Bratton appears to possess the intelligence, charisma and confidence demanded by L.A.’s fractious department. His very first act upon coming to town was to clean house on the sixth floor of Parker Center and install a brand-new command staff that pleased both cops and critics. His three assistant chiefs — Jim McDonnell (second in command), Sharon Papa and George Gascon — are each smart, likable, aggressive reformers, all of whom had wanted Bratton’s job. Since then, Bratton has consistently shown he values talent and innovation above loyalty — which, given this department’s history, is refreshing.

Division heads are confronted at monthly COMPSTAT meetings with their latest crime statistics and asked to justify strategies or come up with new ones. The system has managed to unleash previously untapped creativity from within LAPD ranks to produce such ideas as “walk-in Wednesday,” where captains can send their most pressing case of the week to the head of the line in forensics instead of waiting the usual six months (gasp) for a ballistics report. “We’ve never rewarded risk before in terms of ideas,” says Lieutenant Bill Murphy. “So it’s kind of a shock that now we have a chief that doesn’t want things done ‘by any means necessary.’ He wants them done better and smarter.”

Overall, Bratton’s idea-friendly approach has had a measurably salutary effect on department morale — which hit well below sub-basement levels before he arrived. Now, in the newly released LAPD officer survey, 85 percent reported they felt that the chief was “leading us in the right direction,” as opposed to 18 percent who approved of how Parks handled things in 2000 and an even more dismal 15 percent approval for Willie Williams in 1997. In the same survey, three-quarters of the officers claimed they were more satisfied with their jobs than a year ago.

AREAS TO IMPROVE: Outside the department, Bratton’s political skills sometimes fall short. He gets along swimmingly with the mayor and enjoys an unusually good rapport with the Police Protective League. “In past years, we were pretty much looked on as the antichrist,” says league president Bob Baker. After an initial honeymoon, Bratton’s relationship with the City Council has hit rough waters. The trouble began when he tried to reverse the policy of officers responding to unverified burglar alarms. The council, after first agreeing, caved to outside pressures and shot him down.

The worst of the wrangles occurred in May when the council stunned Bratton by refusing to allocate funds for 320 desperately needed new police officers. (L.A. has half as many officers per capita as New York, and fewer officers per square mile than any major U.S. city.) During a KPCC radio interview, Bratton didn’t help matters by likening himself to General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s being turned back from Normandy just before D-Day. “It was a surprise how quickly things fell apart around the budget,” he says. “But I mitigated my effectiveness by accusing council members of being insensitive to what was going on in their districts.”

 

Bratton apologized, but in October the council still balked over matching funds required for a hefty federal grant also aimed at hiring officers. Then, three weeks ago, the council declined to put a proposed tax hike on the March ballot to raise the necessary bucks.

“Right now we have so few police cars covering some of our neighborhoods, people joke about seeing a black-and-white. They call it ‘a sighting,’” says a frustrated Bratton, who recently announced he was pulling assistant chief Jim McDonnell away from other tasks so that he might bring the case for additional funding straight to the general public. “We’ve tried every legislative avenue,” says McDonnell. “Now we’re going to take it to the voters.”

Despite it all, Bratton’s current relationship with the council seems mostly good. “I think everyone has accepted my apology and moved on,” he says. “If there are those that haven’t, to hell with ’em.”

 

RATING THE CHIEF’S LEGACY:

Too early to tell

It will take some time to know whether the changes decreed by Bratton in the past year will lead to the fundamental reform that the LAPD really needs. Yet they are a promising start. For the most part, even the department’s most vocal critics are optimistic about William Bratton’s effect on Los Angeles law enforcement. “We see a lot of room for improvement,” says ACLU’s Ramona Ripston. “But I’ve been here since 1972, and I think he’s the best chief we’ve ever had.” The chief has signed a five-year contract that he’s sworn he’ll finish out, but is that enough? “No,” says Connie Rice. “Bratton has to stay for the second five years if he’s going to have a chance of changing this place. Otherwise the department will revert to the default position the minute he leaves. He’s got the top people behind him now, because he put them there. But too many captains still see him as a part-timer.” Bratton’s wife, TV legal analyst Rikki Klieman, suggests her husband may very well stay longer than the contracted half-decade. “Let me put it this way,” she says, “they’re going to have to blast me out of here.”

“Let’s hope so,” says Rice, “because if Bratton doesn’t stay a full 10 years, then he’s not serious.”


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