Member-supported news for Southern California
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support for LAist comes from:

A look at LAPD Chief William Bratton's legacy

AP Photo/Reed Saxon

Bill Bratton ends his high-profile and sometimes controversial run as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department Saturday. Bratton transformed the long-troubled department and presided over a dramatic drop in crime.

When he arrived in 2002, many Angelenos and cops alike were skeptical of Bill Bratton, a Boston-born former New York police commissioner with a brash reputation.

Bratton set to work winning them over. “We need to find a way in this city to regain a trust, to heal the wounds that exist between your police and the community,” he told a black church in South L.A.

Monica Harmon of Boyle Heights was immediately impressed. “It was like John F. Kennedy when he would inspire you and you had hope and faith and you thought ‘yes, this is what we need.'"

LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, a candidate to replace Bratton, said the department had long kept the community at arms length, and officers often practiced intimidating and sometime harassing law enforcement.

“When I was a police officer, any high-profile car stop, everybody got laid out on the ground. I mean women, children, dogs, cats, everybody.”

Under Bratton, and under federal mandate, the department began to practice a different kind of policing, says veteran Officer Derek Campbell. “Now the attitude is more have more compassion, listen – as opposed to get in there hook and book, do the report and get out.” People are more willing to help police catch criminals now, he said.

In a key move, Bratton also gave his commanders more freedom. Captain Eric Davis said he encouraged creativity. Davis echoed others who said previous chiefs had only occasionally allowed officers to think for themselves.

“That was always prefaced with ‘don’t make a mistake.' Now you’re given that opportunity to try different strategies and if it doesn’t work, we can say ‘this one didn’t work, but, well, try it this way’ as opposed to ‘it didn’t work, your career is stymied.’”

Bratton instituted Compstat, a computer program that closely tracks crime. It’s helped commanders decide where to deploy resources – and it’s helped the chief to hold them accountable for results.

“This coupling of both intensive statistical analysis with an intense management style appears to be very effective,” said Greg Ridgeway of the Center on Quality Policy at Rand Corporation.

During his tenure, crime dropped dramatically. Violent crime, including murders, plummeted more than 50 percent. As crime fell, the City Council was more willing to fund the hiring of a thousand more police officers. That allowed Bratton to lower crime further, and to expand the LAPD’s anti-terrorism division from a few dozen to more than 300 officers.

In another break from department culture, Bratton reached out to other local and federal agencies for help on various task forces. District Attorney Steve Cooley said the LAPD lost its “imperious” attitude.

Bratton won over officers by giving them flexible work schedules, easing what cops considered a heavy-handed discipline system and providing them up-to-date equipment. “When Chief Bratton came, he really changed things – really pro-police,” said Officer James Stout.

But the chief’s efforts to change the department’s culture extended only so far, said Civil Rights Attorney Connie Rice. She advises Bratton on reform, and sits on KPCC’s board of directors. “The style of policing in the hot zones hasn’t changed. It is still pre-emptive, massive stops, mass arrests.”

Bratton’s critics say that style prevailed on downtown’s Skid Row. “If you were a person of color, you were definitely approached, you were definitely handcuffed, and you were definitely ran for warrants and want checks,” said Pete White of the L.A. Community Action Network.

Bratton argued that the policy targeted criminals only, and cleaned up Skid Row.

Fabian Montes, 36, is an ex-gang member who now helps others leave that life at Homeboy Industries. He appreciates the LAPD leadership’s new willingness to treat people like him with respect. “But when it trickles down to police officers on the street, some of them are resistant because for so many years there’s been this broken trust,” Montes said.

That trust was broken again when LAPD cops beat nonviolent immigrant rights demonstrators and journalists in MacArthur Park in 2007. Bratton recognized that the incident jeopardized his reform efforts.

“I thought, ‘Here’s Bratton’s Watts riots, here’s Bratton’s Rodney King,’ but instead there was a very transparent public investigation, officers were demoted, removed, he came in, came in forcefully,” said Greg Ridgeway. Ridgeway directs RAND Corporation’s Center on Quality Policing.

Use of force incidents by officers under Bratton have remained about the same as before he became chief. But Police Commission Inspector General Andre Birotte says the investigation into those acts is more thorough, and transparent.

“I don’t think my predecessors would ever have imagined a day where the chief was having a meeting with his command staff and is inviting the inspector general to hear frank discussion on significant issues – whether it’s a use of force case, discipline case,” he said.

Bratton began opening the door to a long secretive and aloof LAPD. That door can swing both ways, as the next chief will show.

At one time, officers were fleeing the LAPD. Newly graduated Officer Cassandra Lewis said she couldn’t wait to join, in part because of Bratton.

“Everyone knows Chief Bratton and everyone knows what he’s done for the department and to work even for, you know, 10, 20 days, to work under him is such a great honor, and to shake his hand today and have his signature on my diploma is such a great honor that can’t be topped.”