Correction: 700 police have been added to the LAPD, not 400 as originally reported.

Police Chief William Bratton raised eyebrows recently when he broke an unofficial rule against endorsing political candidates — long discouraged because it can politicize the Los Angeles Police Department and make a chief’s views suspect if he takes stands that are of importance to City Hall.

Bratton’s surprise decision to endorse Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is already creating a backlash, with critics assailing his support for Villaraigosa’s strange claim that Los Angeles is now as safe as it was in 1956. Several of the lesser-known candidates for mayor in the March 3 primary are slamming Bratton, but the critics are not just Villaraigosa’s rivals on the ballot, who include attorney Walter Moore, San Fernando Chamber of Commerce executive director and neighborhood activist Dave Hernandez, pastor Craig X. Rubin, City Hall activist Dave “Zuma Dogg” Saltsburg and actor Phil Jennerjahn. Criticism is also coming from criminal experts who note that Bratton’s claim helps to enhance one of Villaraigosa’s few policy achievements over the past four years: the hiring of about 700 more cops.

“I’ve talked to people who grew up here in the 1950s,” says mayoral candidate Moore, who has raised enough money in his long-shot fight against Villaraigosa to qualify for matching funds, “and believe me, nobody in L.A. remembers crime in the 1950s being like it is today.”

Mayoral candidate Hernandez calls the optimistic figures now cited by Bratton and Villaraigosa “nothing more than props,” noting that official LAPD reports of “shots fired” are up 98 percent, so “how can crime be down?” Rubin calls Bratton’s unexpected foray into City Hall political endorsements “unethical” and vows that if he becomes mayor — unlikely since Rubin has no name ID with voters — he’ll quickly fire Bratton. “For a chief of police to endorse a mayor — this is something that’s never done in California,” Rubin says.

An admirer of Bratton’s from the East Coast who closely observed his work as police commissioner in both Boston and New York, and who asked not to be named, says, “Villaraigosa uses crime as an issue when he needs something politically, and now he’s farming that role out to Bratton. But Bratton has complied much, much more willingly than I would ever have expected him to.”

Gang-crime expert Gary Nanson, a veteran gang-crime fighter who two months ago retired as one of LAPD’s four coordinators of antigang efforts, is a leading authority on the use of unreliable gang-crime data. He says that Bratton’s and Villaraigosa’s claim about L.A. enjoying a 1950s crime level “defies common sense and reality — and both of them know this.”

The claims by the mayor and the chief represent a marked change from 2007 and early 2008, when Bratton and Villaraigosa depicted gang crime as a worsening scourge in an embattled city, their assertions bolstered by an alarming-sounding report by attorney Constance Rice that called for spending up to $1 billion on a Marshall Plan to deal with the city’s purported gang explosion.

Local media repeated Bratton’s and Villaraigosa’s claims, largely without question, of a new “gang surge” — and that view spread nationally. L.A. Weekly wrote on March 8, 2007, that outside media outlets like the Chicago Tribune and Kansas City Star had published stories painting L.A. as a badly worsening “national epicenter” and “breeding ground” for gang activity, vividly depicting “an unlivable Los Angeles now under the thumb of gangs.”

Except there was one big problem: Bratton’s and Villaraigosa’s insistence that a gang surge had hit the city was not accepted universally, or even widely, by independent experts, who said the two were using a limited snapshot of a very short time period that showed a spike in gang crime only in certain areas of Los Angeles.

Gang expert Nanson, who has endorsed Hernandez for mayor, tells L.A. Weekly that neither Villaraigosa nor Bratton “had any idea if a gang surge was under way, because the LAPD statistics that are used to track gang crime are so bad. Chief Bratton is an incredible statistics machine, and he leads the LAPD using statistics, but in ’06 and ’07, he and the mayor never knew if there was or was not a surge — and in ’08 they didn’t know it, either. And that is a fact.”

The timing of Villaraigosa’s and Bratton’s intensive media campaign in 2007 and early 2008 was highly political — just as their timing is highly political this week. The City Council had voted to place a controversial phone tax on the February 2008 ballot, and Villaraigosa pledged to use it to hire police to address the gang “surge.” Worried voters, hearing again and again from Bratton and Villaraigosa, approved the phone tax. Yet little of the money was in fact used to hire more cops, an audit by City Controller Laura Chick has since shown.

Then, later last year, calling for a renewed fight to keep kids out of gangs, Villaraigosa and the City Council placed a tax on the November 4, 2008, ballot — this time a property-tax increase. The so-called parcel tax would have doubled, to about $50 million, money flowing into City Hall’s experimental civilian “antigang” program — a major pot of cash that is controlled by Villaraigosa.

Voters didn’t buy the antigang-tax argument after being misled about the phone tax, and the property-tax increase failed. Now, L.A. is suddenly being touted by the mayor and the chief as one of the safest cities in America — the difference being that Villaraigosa’s own election, rather than antigang taxes, is on the ballot next week.

“It’s appalling,” says Saltsburg, the City Hall activist known as Zuma Dogg. “Nobody believes that data they give out anymore. Why should they, when it’s just in time for the mayoral election?”

Malcolm Klein, professor emeritus of sociology at USC and a critic of the abuse of crime statistics, has said that LAPD has no idea how many gang members exist or which crimes are committed by gangs — a view with which Nanson strongly agrees. For years, the countywide gang-member estimate stood at 150,000. But one year, Sheriff Lee Baca suddenly changed it to 90,000, then again quickly to 80,000 — moves that revealed how easy it is to alter the largely unreliable data.

Nanson says that this week, when Villaraigosa told the Los Angeles Daily News that L.A. has 40,000 gang members, “I do not like to call people names, but the mayor lied. Villaraigosa is well aware that’s a lie. He and Bratton know that 40,000 is the tip of the iceberg. They know the city’s gang-member figure is far higher.”

George Tita, an assistant professor of criminology, law and society at UC Irvine, sees things differently, saying that Bratton is doing something “really right,” because crime is dropping “and I know LAPD has not changed the way they categorize their crimes, so it’s a true drop in crime.”

But Kent Bausman, director of criminology at Maryville University, calls it “spurious” for Bratton and Villaraigosa to take credit for a drop in crime that began long before they arrived. “It’s interesting how they use those stats when it serves their interests,” Bausman says. His review of Los Angeles media reports last year shows an abrupt change, when Bratton and Villaraigosa switched from promoting the gang surge to calling L.A. safer. Bausman calls the flip-flopping “schizophrenic.”

Candidate Moore likens Villaraigosa and Bratton to “stepping on the escalator and then taking credit for its movement.” Los Angeles does not feel safe to most people, and several of the candidates facing Villaraigosa next week note that middle-class flight is rising and residents no longer know what to believe.

Some analysts suggest that Bratton’s decision could reverberate for years since he gave up the appearance of independence to endorse Villaraigosa. Behind closed doors, Villaraigosa “does not like Bratton,” Nanson notes, and the mayor’s dislike may have made the chief feel vulnerable, since Villaraigosa can oust Bratton during his next four years. But, adds Nanson, “If Villaraigosa’s dislike for Bratton is the reason for all this, I’ll leave that to others to figure out.”

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