View From Parker Center
Photo by Sobodan Dimitrov
Meeting with the LAPDs new chief, Bill Bratton, for the first time, one hardly knows what to expect. Is he the enlightened police reformer the city has desperately been searching for over the last decade? Or just one more stop-em-and-frisk-em cowboy, clueless in confronting the citys myriad problems?
There was good reason to be uncertain. On the one hand, Bratton has already demonstrated a way of shooting from the lip, particularly when it comes to the citys street gangs. From his first day in office forward, he began spouting battle metaphors, calling for an "all-out assault" on gang crime, which he described as "homeland terrorism." He vowed to use RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) to go after L.A.s gangs, a questionable strategy, since, with few exceptions, the Southlands gangs fall firmly into the category of disorganized crime. And, when eight officer-involved shootings occurred in a single week, it prompted a protest in front of Parker Center, where demonstrators carried placards that read, "Control your cops." The chief, told of the signs, was quick to snap back, "Control your kids!"
On the other hand, intermittent war rhetoric notwithstanding, most of the time Bratton sounded distinctly liberal on social issues. And while Bernard Parks was notorious for surrounding himself with deputy chiefs who wouldnt dream of crossing him, Bratton demonstrated that he wanted talent, not mirrors, by immediately promoting the departments strongest progressive voices to fill the top three positions on his command staff.
Moreover, Brattons arrival has brought a kind of instant glasnost to the usually icy confines of Parker Center a new openness in the departments relations with the civilian world outside. Under previous chiefs, the LAPD barricaded itself inside a fortress mentality that viewed even the most benign approaches from the press with suspicion and, often, outright hostility. Officers were forbidden to talk to the media without a stamp of approval from Press Relations, and that stamp was rarely given. As a consequence, the department inevitably looked like it was hiding something whether it was or not.
Yet within days of Brattons swearing-in ceremony, the moat was drained, the castle doors unbolted. Commanders and deputy chiefs suddenly returned calls promptly. Even lower-echelon blue- suiters gave opinions without frantically stipulating that they were not to be quoted. Of course, some of this had to do with the fact that Bratton, unlike his predecessors, understood the value of courting the media. Thats what his previous boss, former N.Y. Mayor Rudy Giuliani, couldnt stand about him.
Some high-profile critics of the police, like former state Senator Tom Hayden and Nation of Islam Western regional director Minister Tony Muhammed, remained underwhelmed. "Hes an Irishman with a gift for B.S.," is the way Hayden put it. "In New York, Bratton reduced petty crime but created a whole other set of problems that will continue to be felt for years to come," said Hayden. "We dont appreciate a chief of police who equates our children with al Qaeda," echoed Muhammed.
However, other unsparing police critics, like Father Greg Boyle, who runs the Eastside Homeboy Industries, were won over. In December, Boyle took Bratton to task on the cover of the L.A. Times Sunday Opinion section for basing his gang strategy on myths rather than reality. The following week, Bratton invited the priest to Parker Center for a private talk, and Boyle normally pessimistic on the subject of law enforcement came away unusually impressed. "Hes a very quick study," said Boyle. "And very astute in terms of the political lay of the land. And I think he wants to do the right thing. Im so alert to every possible negative nuance. But I think he gets it. Bratton really seems to genuinely want a revolution in the department."
The necessity for a revolution within and without the LAPD seems to be the one point on which everyone agrees. Chief Daryl Gates jackbooted tactics brought the city to that understanding in the early 90s. Perhaps former Chief Bernard Parks most lasting contribution will be the fact that his unerring penchant for alienating the rank and file pushed them to a similar understanding, albeit via a very different route.
But is Bill Bratton the right person to escort the department and the city through this rare window of opportunity? Can he confront the real plague of deadly violence in L.A.s most desperate neighborhoods while simultaneously reforming a department notorious for its misdeeds? When he is faced with complex and troubling issues, like the newly released police traffic stop data indicating that blacks and Latinos are required to exit their cars after routine traffic stops three times as often as whites, will he approach such issues with defensiveness or real insight? These were among the key questions that came up when I met with Bratton in his Parker Center office on Monday.
L.A. WEEKLY: What has surprised you the most since you took the position as chief?
BILL BRATTON: I was most surprised to find that the department was in much worse shape than I realized especially in terms of morale and focus.
In what way do you think the culture of the LAPD most needs to be changed?
It needs to change on several levels. The LAPD became a very reactive police force over the last number of years. And what Im attempting to do is get it more proactive, so that its more focused on the prevention of crime, and reduction of crime, rather than measuring success in terms of the response to crime. Thats a very significant difference.
Could you be a bit more specific?
The L.A. police really created the professional police model that was very much in vogue in the 70s and 80s. It came about after the riots of the 1960s when the Kerner reports said that crime is caused by all those societal influences such as racism, poverty and the economy. And since police arent responsible for those issues, they should focus their efforts on increasing the professionalization of their response to crime. So the LAPD led the way in this regard with a professional model that emphasized rapid response. You had the black-and-whites here covering a very large area. You had random patrol. The idea of random patrol is that you keep the criminal off guard because he never knew when a police car was coming around the corner. And you had reactive investigation. Joe Friday [of Dragnet] was the epitome of the modern LAPD detective, solving the crime in 24 minutes, leaving six minutes for commercials. As a result, the LAPD became the embodiment of measuring success by number of arrests, by response time, by clearance rates. Thats all after-the-fact policing.
How does your policing model differ, then, from LAPDs traditional approach?
It focuses on the prevention of crime. It measures success by fewer victims. Fewer crimes. Not on numbers of arrests.
But, going back to the LAPD culture, it went through another phenomenal change in the 90s as a result of the Rodney King situation and Rampart. At that time, the organization became even more reactive, but much less risk-intensive. In fact, it became a risk-averse organization, wanting only to stay out of trouble.
Theres a new division of the LAPD, called "Risk Management," thats larger in terms of personnel than any of the field divisions like Hollenbeck, or Newton, or 77th that actually fight crime. This sounds like an extraordinary misallocation of staff and resources.
Oh, yeah. One of the difficulties for the LAPD is that its an incredibly small department by anybodys standards. Theyve never had enough officers to do the kind of community policing that the East Coast supports walking the beats in neighborhoods. Thats why the senior-lead-officer ä program became so critical. There were only a few hundred of them, but they were at least someone that the community could touch and feel as a caring police presence. But then, during Chief Parks time, an already over-small department found hundreds of its officers being drained off by various reactions to crises, things like consent-decree compliance, risk management and internal affairs. So it was like you had this lemon that had already been squeezed dry, and then it got squeezed even more by this crisis-driven mentality.
But you have to comply with the consent decree [the recent agreement that allows the U.S. Department of Justice to oversee and monitor long-stalled reforms within the LAPD], and I think its safe to say youre not going to get the extra 3,000 officers you asked for out of the dismal California and/or L.A. budgets that now loom on the horizon. So what are you going to do?
How do we reposition our resources to embrace community policing in a department that doesnt have enough officers to walk a beat? The answer is partnership. We have to work in partnership with the community in which we agree on common priorities. We cant do everything all at the same time. We have the consent decree, we have a rise in crime and a rise in gang violence. How do we assign our resources? Hopefully, by getting everybody in partnership and arriving at some consensus. In terms of the gang situation, were trying to get the federal government, local government, state government and community groups all working with us.
Lets talk about gangs. Many feel youve put out mixed signals from your recent public statements regarding the spike in gang homicides. On one hand, youve said you dont want to duplicate Daryl Gates Big Blue Hammer, and youve promised not to send an occupation force into South L.A. On the other hand, youve said that gangs are worse than the Sicilian Mafia. Isnt that the kind of us-versus-them, gang-member-as-monster way of talking that led to Rampart?
No. In fact, I defy you to point to anything Ive said in the two months that could be seen as giving officers permission to run roughshod through the community.
You characterized all gang members as domestic terrorists.
Whats wrong with that? Arent gang members terrorizing the community?
Some are. Many are just kids who dress a certain way, drink too much on the weekend and hang around with the wrong friends. If you dont differentiate, all gang members become the enemy, and doesnt that open the door for police abuse?
Well, gang members are criminals, by definition. The nature of the gang is to engage in criminal activity. Many of them are mindless murderers. Since Ive been here, weve had clear examples of these characters opening up on police officers and citizens. So lets get real about this. Cops have a very dangerous job. There are a lot of disincentives to being a police officer in this city. Weve got the consent decree. Today were having a press conference about racial profiling. That might be seen as a disincentive if police officers are working in an all-minority neighborhood in which most, if not all, of the people theyre going to stop are minorities. Unfortunately right now we only have raw data about the stops that doesnt allow you to differentiate that particular nuance. So its very tricky. Look: Its a balancing act to have an assertive police force and make no mistake about it, I want an assertive police force while at the same time making sure that the policing is done constitutionally and legally. The press might focus on my more controversial statements like equating gangs with the Mafia. Whereas they might not be as interested when I do a roll call, and talk about the constitutional issues. Thats not as sexy.
While were on the subject: Former Chief Parks said that, for all intents and purposes, the goals of the Christopher Commission were accomplished. Do you think thats true?
Not at all. The 1995 [Christopher Commission] review indicated clearly that they were not. I think that a lot of progress has been made. But theres still a lot more to be done. Theres still a great deal of community mistrust of this organization.
Id say thats an understatement particularly in the citys poorer neighborhoods.
And its not just L.A. The outside perspective of this department is just horrible. Because Im an outsider, Ive seen it.
All right, what do outsiders think?
They think the LAPD is a racist, corrupt police department.
They think of the police officers as uncaring and insensitive. Its an inappropriate understanding of a lot of the men and women in the department. But this is an organization that has been insensitive. I dont think its a brutal department, its not a corrupt department. But does it have that type of activity within it? Yes. Is it condoned? No. Is it systemic? I dont think it is.
Some of your own training officers disagree. I sat in on one of the departments West Point Leadership sessions while trainer Lieutenant Bill Murphy told your troops that the problems that surfaced out of Rampart were, in fact, not limited to Rampart at all. He said that the "any means to an end mentality" extended well beyond the Rampart division.
To some degree, I think it was all about control. It was all about controlling the community, not working with the community. And what starts out as the desire to control the criminal component of the community ends up spreading to all the aspects of the community. Unfortunately we dont know the extent to which the Rampart problems extended to the rest of the department, because Chief Parks quickly disassembled the anti-gang units, so there was no ability to take the lessons learned from Rampart and see if those problems existed in other divisions. As a result, the department will never have the ability to refute the accusation that the problems of Rampart were systemwide. And second, a new set of problems was created. Gang control was totally disassembled. When it was reassembled, it was an ineffective shell of its former self. Thats another part of the problems of this department: With every crisis, you create a new unit.
Getting back to the LAPDs trust problem, how does one go about overhauling such a negative image?
Thats one of the reasons Ive embraced the consent decree. I believe that, a year from now, with the proper training, the data gathering, the oversight, and the supervision it requires, well be able to say to a doubting community, "Look: To the best of our ability, weve done everything possible to reform this department. And based on documented evidence, we can say our officers are not racist, they are not brutal, they are not corrupt."
Frankly, Id like to have more monitoring in-house. But I dont have the resources. So Id be crazy not to take advantage of the outside entities like the consent-decree monitors and the inspector general that can serve me as independent eyes and ears.
Do you feel you learned, in that regard, from your experience in New York? Everyone agrees that you lowered crime to an impressive degree. But, according to Amnesty International, as crime went down, civilian complaints rose, as did officer-involved deaths.
Amnestys statistics were B.S.! They were anecdotal, they werent real numbers. We had the real numbers, and the complaints didnt rise, nor did the number of civilians who died from police shootings. Any rise in complaints had to do with Giuliani, not with us. And I say all that very emphatically, because I mean it very emphatically!
Back to the LAPD. What else is on your agenda?
For one thing, the organization became micromanaged. My predecessor had 14 different reports coming to him. Fourteen! Incredible! In the newly organized department, Ill have seven: the Consent Decree, which, when I came, was a unit deep in the bowels of the organization; Anti-Terrorism, another unit that used to be buried. Then, Internal Affairs, Community Affairs and the three assistant chiefs. Thats it. The rest are delegated.
Speaking of Internal Affairs, what do you think about the departments most recent complaint system? Some critics contend that post-Rampart, even the most frivolous complaints were thoroughly investigated, yet real misconduct was still ignored.
It was atrocious. It was not quick, it was not fair, and it was having a phenomenally negative effect on our crime-fighting capabilities. Prior to my arrival, Chief Pomeroy put a modified system into place. But there are still many changes needed. Thats one of the things about police work, its never done. But thats what makes it exciting.
Youve said that one of your strengths is spotting talent. What kind of talent do you look for in your command staff?
I look for ambitious people, people who think outside the box, creative people. I look for assertive people who are team players, but the kind of team players who always feel comfortable speaking their own mind. I also look for people who dont carry grudges. I dont carry grudges. Ill fight with you tooth and nail over an issue. But if I lose, I leave it there. I dont stop speaking to you.
According to every LAPD officer Ive interviewed over the years, department brass has always been deaf to such dissent.
Well, I dont know about the past. But it isnt going to be how it is now.
What do you want to be remembered for when you leave the LAPD?
Lowering crime in partnership with the community.
Do you have what youd call a personal mission?
Yeah, I guess I do. Personally, Id like to make a difference. Professionally, Id like to make a difference in relation to the nature of the ethnic tensions that are so prevalent in this country. I think the best way to do that is to professionalize the police and their relationship with the communities. If we could be the catalyst for that change it would be wonderful. Weve been the catalyst for so much negative in terms of police relations, and ethnic relations we have in this country. But what if we turned it around and became the catalyst for positive change? I think that could be done. Thats the goal.
Last question. What wakes you up in the middle of the night?
Nothing. I sleep right through the night without any problem.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.