It’s a spectacle Angelenos have rarely seen, officially frowned upon since the ethics reforms of 1991, when former U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, leading an LAPD cleanup commission, made something crystal clear: No police chief, a hired hand beholden to politicians who hire him, should ever back anyone in a political race.

Yet as May 19 approaches, Police Chief William J. Bratton has entangled himself in two races: a pitched war for city attorney between Carmen Trutanich and Jack Weiss, and a power struggle for a San Gabriel Valley/Eastside congressional seat in which seasoned pols Gil Cedillo and Judy Chu are slugging it out.

In the past year, Bratton has endorsed Weiss, Cedillo, City Controller–elect Wendy Greuel, Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, proponents of a massive school-bond measure, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — and even a candidate for district attorney in New York.

“He is highly sought after,” says Weiss’s campaign manager, Ace Smith. “People actively use him in their campaigns as a critical endorsement.”

Yet Bratton’s increasing endorsements are viewed dimly by former chiefs, law-enforcement experts and others who fear that Bratton, currently dismissing his critics with an “I’ve always done this!” attitude, is now risking dragging the LAPD back to the bad old days.

Bratton’s behavior is far from status quo for a police chief — nationally or in California — and marks a disregard for the Christopher Commission recommendations that sharply warned against old-school practices which decades ago blended the LAPD and City Hall into a single, corrupt entity.

Hubert Williams, president of the Washington-based Police Foundation, contributed to the Christopher Commission probe of institutional racism and police misconduct during the reign of Chief Daryl Gates. The resulting recommendations led to a restructuring of the department and its practices.

“To go out and support candidates publicly, that is not very common, because when a police chief does that, he exposes himself as less objective,” Williams says today.

The Christopher Commission concluded that LAPD used excessive force, had little accountability, and was hampered by poor management. And its report expressly warned against letting LAPD chiefs engage in politics: “Because the Chief’s office is inherently powerful, it is unseemly for the Chief to use that position to influence political process,” it said. “It is particularly ironic to create a system to insulate the Chief from improper political pressure, and then have the Chief use that protected position to campaign on behalf of politicians who thereby become indebted to him.”

Equally dangerous is the prospect that, once a chief backs a politician or ballot measure, he could expect questionable favors in return — such as getting political cover from City Hall politicians during shooting controversies, corruption scandals or other imbroglios.

City Councilman Bernard Parks, a former LAPD chief and frequent critic of Bratton’s, warns that Bratton is sliding toward the politics of old: “When you start endorsing people, the idea that you are at arm’s length from City Hall no longer exists.”

Another former chief, Gates, recalls how he endorsed two candidates during his 14 years in the position: Hal Bernson, for City Council, and Robert Philibosian, for district attorney, the latter because Gates was mad at another D.A. hopeful, City Attorney Ira Reiner, for his failure to defend the LAPD in a lawsuit involving the American Civil Liberties Union.

Gates, speaking last week from his home in Dana Point, says he regrets his anti-Reiner endorsement to this day, and adds, “The chief, without exception, should stay out of politics at all levels.”

Gates predicts that if Weiss is elected city attorney, Bratton will engage in excessively cozy relations with the City Attorney’s Office. “If Weiss gets in, he is going to owe Bratton,” warns Gates — a real problem since one of the city attorney’s purported jobs is to rout out corrupt cops, including police brass.

Weiss’s rival for city attorney, Carmen Trutanich, who has taken City Hall insiders by surprise with a strong race and successful fundraising (see last week’s L.A. Weekly story, “One Cooley Customer”), steers clear of attacking the popular LAPD chief. But Trutanich does take note of Villaraigosa’s political machine, which has long included Weiss, and has grown to include — or perhaps engulf — Bratton.

“I don’t need to tell you who appointed the chief, and tell you the relationship between Jack Weiss and the mayor,” Trutanich says.

Yet Police Commission President Anthony Pacheco, a political appointee of Villaraigosa’s, insists there’s no problem with Bratton’s ever-growing politicking. “I don’t think anyone associates Bratton with cronyism or an old boys’ network,” Pacheco says.

But Pacheco himself is an example of how complicated things have gotten now that Bratton repeatedly injects himself into political races: Bratton endorsed Villaraigosa. Now, as if on cue, one of the mayor’s appointees, Pacheco, is calling that a good thing.

And bizarrely, Pacheco insists to L.A. Weekly that because Bratton wears a civilian suit rather than his chief’s uniform when making his endorsements, the chief is clearly separating himself from his position.

The two former LAPD chiefs flatly disagree. Parks says that no matter what clothes a chief wears, a chief is “always associated with the department,” echoing Gates’ assertion that the chief is at all times the embodiment of the police force.

Activist lawyer Noel Weiss, who ran for city attorney in the March primary, losing to finalists Trutanich and Weiss, finds Pacheco’s assertion laughable. “Where is it written that the chief is exempt from the rules [most other chiefs] have to follow?” Weiss asks. “Is it because he wears a suit? How much more insulting to the intelligence of the people of L.A. can that be?”

On the other hand, political consultant Bill Carrick, who oversaw the campaigns of former mayors Richard Riordan and James Hahn, among other races, argues that, “The chief has his First Amendment rights, too.”

Before the videotaped police beating of Rodney King set off the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the LAPD chief had been a civil servant with no term limits and extensive job protections. After L.A. erupted in flames, violence and mass looting, city leaders sought to make an example of then–Chief Gates over how he handled things, but ousting Gates meant a long, ugly process. Ultimately, Gates stepped aside, cutting short a potentially protracted controversy.

After that, voters decided to reform the city’s constitution, called the City Charter, by stripping all future chiefs of civil-servant status and limiting them to 10 years in the job, served in two five-year stints.

But several weeks ago, City Council member Herb Wesson put forward a motion that, if approved by the City Council, would ask voters to significantly water down those very reforms. Wesson wants the chief to have 15 years, not 10. Under Wesson’s scheme, chiefs could serve longer than L.A. mayors, who are limited to eight years, or the entire City Council, which is limited to 12 years, putting the chief in the position of a political kingmaker at City Hall.

Bratton declined to comment for this story after numerous requests by the Weekly, but he recently told the Los Angeles Times that watering down the City Charter so a chief could stay 15 years “may be an option down the road.”

The conflicts created by Bratton’s forays into political endorsing are already emerging. If Bratton hankers for a third five-year stint as chief — which would take him to age 70 — he could manipulate the situation by endorsing any City Council member who votes to put that idea on the ballot.

A disgusted Noel Weiss calls these emerging conflicts, “inside politics that is [poking] its nose and head way outside the door.”

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