Maybe it was because L.A. Police Chief Bill Bratton recently launched his “first annual” and widely anticipated Martin Luther King Jr. Breakfast in the black community, or because he recently spoke eloquently about launching his new “predictive policing” to cope with crime before it hits. Whatever the reason, Bratton’s announcement on August 5 that he will leave his post in late October has sparked an unusually fertile rash of theories about why he’s really going — and most don’t buy into his insistence that he merely got a far higher–paying job.
Bratton says he is leaving solely to take the lucrative CEO spot at Virginia-based Altegrity, Inc., an international security and screening firm. By this week, however, widespread debates had broken out about what was really driving Bratton’s departure, and many of the theories were fanned, unintentionally or otherwise, by the chief himself.
As gleaned from activists, officials, political strategists and analysts, the Top 5 reasons for the chief’s departure were shaping up like this:
. Bratton would have been the leading candidate for mayor if Antonio Villaraigosa became governor in 2010 and abandoned his mayoral job two-and-a-half years years early. Seven weeks after Villaraigosa announced he would not run for governor, Bratton announced he was bailing out as chief.
. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s budget could implode, thanks to a poorly researched, widely pilloried L.A. City Council plan to buy out city workers to help meet a $530 million deficit. If the early-retirement idea backfires, as some experts predict, Bratton would be pressed to absorb severe cuts. The upbeat LAPD growth era would be over.
. Bratton’s new boss will be his friend Michael Cherkasky, who was the monitor for Judge Gary Feess’ oversight of a federal consent decree that for eight years controlled many aspects of the LAPD. On July 17, Feess lifted the consent decree. Despite Bratton’s claim that he cut his CEO deal with Cherkasky only after Feess’ ruling, it’s possible Bratton has been plotting his revolving-door-to-riches getaway for months.
. Bratton drew criticism for meddling in election politics, publicly backing Jack Weiss for city attorney. Weiss lost. Now the victor, City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, is investigating how $1.4 million in city overtime was approved for the Michael Jackson memorial. The probe may mire Bratton in unpleasant accusations by an elected official — the same man the hired-hand chief opposed for office.
. Bratton may be facing rocky personal times. The oft-betrothed Bratton and his fourth wife, lawyer and Court TV commentator Rikki Klieman, have spent much of their lives in Boston or New York. The couple placed their home in Los Feliz up for sale in July for $1.875 million, setting off speculation — all of it denied — that they were leaving. Now they are.
Media coverage has been filled with praise for Bratton, with headlines like “Legacy of Success” and “Police chief’s exit poses a major challenge for L.A.” But some are questioning how he could so readily accept a job right after Cherkasky played a key role in helping to hand Bratton a historic career and political victory — the lifting of the consent decree.
With all the glowing coverage, two sources at the City Ethics division tell L.A. Weekly that “nobody in the media” has yet called them to find out whether Bratton’s deal violates any “revolving door” laws — designed to prevent city officials from doing the bidding of people who then give them private jobs as a reward. Questions about that issue have been publicly raised, however, by both NPR and Los Angeles Times columnist Tim Rutten. Under L.A. ethics laws, officials cannot directly or indirectly negotiate future employment with anyone who has something pending before that official’s agency.
The City Ethics division staff won’t divulge whether they are scrutinizing Bratton’s deal. But as a matter of policy, when high-profile officials take private jobs offered by people those officials have dealt with on behalf of the city, the ethics staff often takes a look.
One view is that Bratton may be leaving for a reason other than the one he stated, and that he would not otherwise have quit just when his popularity was running so high.
Paul Hatfield, a CPA who closely tracks City Hall finances via his well-respected blog, and publicly debated union leaders over the city’s direction at a well-attended gathering of neighborhood councils, says: “I don’t buy it for a minute. Bratton has an ego above all, and that is not a bad thing. If I had achieved what the chief has, I would want to bask in the glory by staying here for some time. But what does he do? He pulls the plug. I find his stated reason very suspicious.”
Michael McCue, a candidate in the September special election to fill an open seat in City Council District 2, stretching from Sunland-Tujunga to Valley Village, says he is a “huge” Bratton fan, yet he is glad to see him going and believes the city’s fiscal condition helped to prompt his exit.
“I would hate to see it becoming a trend — police chiefs endorsing political candidates — or for it to be seen as right, when it is so wrong,” McCue says. “As much as I respect the chief, by all means, please do leave for the private sector. The city budget is a ticking time bomb, so there isn’t a better time to pull a Palin and go.”
Jonathan Wilcox, a political consultant and communications professor at USC, thinks Bratton has been seeking an exit strategy ever since he got rattled by losing out to Arizona governor Janet Napolitano for the job as Secretary of Homeland Security.
“I think the chief thinks LAPD can only go downhill now, economically, in this city, and that being linked to Antonio Villaraigosa is a losing hand. Just ask ‘City Attorney’ Jack Weiss, an Antonio ally. The chief was wounded by his overt politicking, which didn’t go anywhere. He was wounded by openly backing Weiss. He had a short run of cold cards, and he left the table.”
A flurry of events, whether related or not, bolster this debate. First, the Brattons’ home went up for sale in early July — Bratton reportedly said he never used the pool. A few days later, the consent decree was lifted. That day, July 17, an L.A. Weekly employee saw Bratton and his wife, Klieman, having pasta and red wine at Osteria Mozza in Hollywood. Klieman was tearful, holding her hands over her face, wiping her eyes, and slumping forward with her face covered — as Bratton sat ramrod straight. An aide approached Klieman, helped her up, and they exited the restaurant. Bratton remained, quietly finishing his meal.
Less than three weeks later, Bratton’s departure was broken by KFI AM-640’s news reporter Eric Leonard and Los Angeles Times reporterJoel Rubin — just one day after a city pension–fund staffer, Sally Choi, gave a riveting series of answers to City Councilman Richard Alarcon about how fiscally imprudent the council’s budget-balancing plan is, to buy out workers using early retirements.
As Alarcon angrily browbeat Choi — a pension officer who by law cannot let politics influence her data — Choi repeatedly told Alarcon L.A. could be short billions of dollars if the council proceeds with its poorly researched plan. A video of the serene Choi staring down Alarcon became hot blogosphere fodder when former Los Angeles Daily News editor Ron Kaye posted it at ronkayela.com.
With “brownouts” already hitting fire stations to save money, the LAPD is seen as a department that would take serious hits if the worker-buyout idea falters. That was probably not the scenario Bratton had in mind for his next three years.
Mike Murphy, a national political consultant who helped to engineer Arnold Schwarzenegger’s rise to power, says that had Villaraigosa become governor, Bratton “would have been a serious and credible candidate for mayor if he had decided to run. He has political skills and a great story as the best police chief in the U.S. It would have been real.”
Instead, Bratton’s last day is Halloween, and city leaders are tussling over whether to try to choose a permanent replacement by then, or conduct a longer, nationwide search.
Correction: The date of the incident at Osteria Mozza has been changed to July 17, not July 30.