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A Tough East Coast Cop in Laid-Back Los Angeles

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Since William Bratton took over as the Los Angeles police chief four years ago, major crime has dropped and community relations have improved.

Published: September 3, 2006

LOS ANGELES, Aug. 31 — Since arriving here from New York four years ago with a reputation for speaking his mind, the police chief, William J. Bratton, has called a civil rights advocate a “nitwit.” He has proclaimed that City Council members critical of his hiring practices do not know what they are talking about. He has also suggested that Californians who do not agree with his stance on policing illegal immigrants ought to take up residence in another state.

Monica Almeida/The New York Times

Chief Bratton addressing a class of new officers during a graduation ceremony last month at the Los Angeles police academy.

Yet Chief Bratton, best known for his role in turning around the crime rate in New York City as police commissioner there, is perhaps the most popular Los Angeles police chief in a generation.

With major crime down 25 percent on his watch and relations between police officers and black residents improving, Chief Bratton, who is white, is poised to become the first chief granted a second term since term limits were imposed on high-ranking police officials in the early 1990’s.

“I think that Chief Bratton has done an extraordinary job,” said the president of the City Council, Eric Garcetti, adding, “I expect him to comfortably sail to a second term.”

His accomplishments have come as crime has risen in many cities around the country, with a police force that is minuscule compared with the city it covers, and in a place where many of the richest and most powerful residents, the denizens of Hollywood, have long eschewed involvement in local affairs for more high-profile global ones like the plight of African children.

As such, it has become a sport in some circles in Los Angeles to wonder what the ambitious police chief — whose weekends seem to involve either a vacation in the Hamptons or dinner with a movie producer in Los Angeles — may be plotting next.

Among the jobs he is said to be eyeing: head of Scotland Yard, mayor of New York, or New York police commissioner yet again. He denies none of the possibilities, and close associates only halfheartedly dampen the speculation. Whether those jobs are attainable is another matter.

“It is entirely possible he will end up back in New York,” said John F. Timoney, the police chief of Miami and one of Chief Bratton’s closest friends. “I think he is quite content where he is, and he obviously wants to serve another five years. But at our age you are always looking for another challenge.”

Chief Bratton, 58, said recently in an interview that running for mayor of New York, something he had considered twice before, was “not likely in my future.” He suggested he had gotten used to Los Angeles and actually liked it here.

“It is quite a life,” he said. “We get to work on important things; you get to interact with a lot of extraordinary people.”

This has been a second life of sorts for Chief Bratton, an East Coaster who turned West for a new beginning.

The chief, who has also run the Boston Police Department, was forced to resign his New York post in 1996 after the national attention over crime reduction there stole the spotlight from his boss, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani.

He slid from view into the private sector. Inspired by the terrorist attacks of 2001, he sought a way back into the game. He campaigned heavily for the Los Angeles job, a humbling experience for someone whose ego has never been compared to the Dalai Lama’s.

“I blow my own horn because I am good at it,” Chief Bratton said.

Unlike such officers in New York and elsewhere, the Los Angeles police chief serves at the pleasure of the mayor and the City Council, which counts among its more influential members Bernard Parks, the former police chief who was tossed aside and replaced by Chief Bratton. Mr. Parks, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has campaigned vigorously for Chief Bratton’s ouster.

“He will never get over the fact that he is no longer police chief,” Chief Bratton said of Mr. Parks. “I don’t lose any sleep over it.”

Chief Bratton’s East Coast frankness has not always sat well with people here, who generally prefer that their nasty asides and plotting behavior be conducted behind closed doors. Some of the chief’s detractors have grumbled about his travel schedule; he is rarely in Los Angeles for an entire week, preferring police conferences, lobbying in Washington and other trips. Should a scandal hit the police ranks here, his future could be threatened by those who may already be out to get him.

Yet his confidence about a second term seems grounded in a genuine popularity across a broad swath of the city.

Since he took over, several episodes between officers and black residents — including one in which a suspect was beaten with a flashlight and two others in which small children were shot by police officers — have resulted in protests, not riots.


“I am not going to mislead you and suggest that the relationship is perfect now,” said John W. Mack, president of the Board of Police Commissioners, which oversees the department, and a former leader of the Los Angeles Urban League. “But the fact that we did not have big explosions and eruptions those times were due in part to Chief Bratton. A new tone has been set.”

Chief Bratton inherited a department with a history of scandal and inordinate racial tension: from 1922, when a Ku Klux Klan member was named Los Angeles police chief; to the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the riots a year later when his assailants were acquitted; to 1999, when the Rampart scandal erupted, embroiling an anti-gang unit in accusations of framing people, robbing suspects and other brutal conduct.

The department’s troubles are so pervasive that it has operated under a federal consent degree since 2001, in which a federal judge oversees and monitors reforms.

When Chief Bratton arrived, he found a shrinking department, crime rates that had crept up in the previous three years and a demoralized organization.

Among his first acts was to reach out to the department’s critics. He met with church leaders, community groups and labor unions. And he asked Connie Rice, a civil rights lawyer and a longtime foe of the department, to lead a committee on the Rampart scandal.

Along with pushing for Compstat, a program that measures crime and responds in force, Chief Bratton has advocated for a culture in which community policing is part of the overall strategy.

“I think it is a pretty radical change at the top,” said Ms. Rice, who has nonetheless remained critical of the department’s culture. “I had deputy chiefs who used to walk out of the room when I came in, saying they can’t breathe the same air as me, now making an open display of showing that they are talking to me. They have gotten the message that they are supposed to stop this us-versus-them mentality.”

Still, Chief Bratton’s goals are bedeviled by the geography of Los Angeles. It is a diffuse area with little sense of community, where some places, like Beverly Hills, are separate cities with their own police forces, and even the most brutal events — perpetrated by gang members or the police — fail to unite the city.

“It is not a tale of two cities, it is a tale of too many cities,” said John Miller, a counterterrorism expert who worked with Chief Bratton in New York and in Los Angeles.

“When children are gunned down in the Bronx or a heat wave kills an old lady in Brooklyn, it affects everyone,” Mr. Miller said. “If you live in Hollywood, you don’t think of South L.A. And if a kid is killed in a gang shooting in the Valley, no one in South L.A. thinks about it either.”

The department has only 9,000 police officers to cover a 468-square-mile metropolis with four million residents. By comparison, New York has more than 37,000 officers for its eight million residents. The result has been a department focused largely on assertive police tactics, deemed necessary by officers fighting an intractable gang culture whose approximately 50,000 members are responsible for the majority of the city’s violent crimes.

At a recent police graduation, a mere 28 men stood in wool uniforms before the chief, who strolled out to meet them to the strains of “Chariots of Fire.” The class seemed dwarfed by the rolling green grounds surrounding them at Elysian Park.

The mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, recently committed to hiring 1,000 more officers over the next five years, a small but important psychic victory that contributed to Mr. Bratton’s desire to stay.

“The beauty of a police chief’s job,” he said, “is that you get to go to a breakfast in a church in South Los Angeles, you can be at a Beverly Hills soiree, you can be eating with the secretary of homeland security. Every day is different.”