The Los Angeles Police Department desperately wants to reclaim its sullied reputation; its new chief, former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton, would like to clinch his shining one. Their union could be historic. If Bratton can repeat his crime-busting success in this radically different city, he will destroy the criminologists’ destructive myth that policing can’t cut crime. In addition, he will show how to overcome the corrosive, racially charged anti-cop politics that dominated policing nationwide for the last decade and that brought the once-proud LAPD so low that it forgot its very reason for being.
Today, a dozen years after the 1991 Rodney King beating that—wrongly—made the department a byword for violent, racist policing, the LAPD operates under federal control, subject to rigid management constraints that check a strong chief like Bratton at every turn. Given these restrictions and the department’s deep demoralization, no one should underestimate the magnitude of the new chief’s task. He himself certainly doesn’t. After a particularly murder-soaked week early in his tenure, he asked himself, “ ‘What am I doing here? What the hell is going on here?’ The department was messed up, worse than I thought.”
Ironically, the LAPD was expressly crafted to prevent its getting messed up in just this way. In the 1950s, when corruption in big-city forces was still the norm, legendary chief William Parker labored to mold a department that the politicians couldn’t touch. The result was a corps that for decades commanded respect as the pinnacle of efficient, incorruptible policing. And so it viewed itself. Recalls gang detective Jack Cota: “Our department was based on, ‘We’re the best; we have integrity.’ ”
The core challenge of L.A. policing has not changed since Parker’s reforms: to cover a huge area with a woefully small force. Angelenos have always balked at funding a police department big enough for its responsibilities, perhaps because most of the tax revenue comes from neighborhoods with little crime: gangbangers don’t do drive-by shootings in Bel Air. Today, 9,000 Los Angeles cops police 467 square miles, which works out to 19 cops per square mile. New York’s 37,000 officers, by contrast, oversee 321 square miles—115 cops per square mile. So while New York’s commanders, with one officer for every 216 residents, can throw manpower at problems, their Los Angeles counterparts, with only one officer for every 417 residents, must engage in constant triage.
Chief Parker’s no-nonsense solution was to insist that officer quality would trump quantity. He gave cops up-to-the-minute technology and rewarded rapid response time to radio calls. Once on the scene, L.A. officers took control, got the information they needed, and returned to the road as fast as possible, wasting no time schmoozing with the citizenry. The attitude, recalls Hollywood officer Mike Shea, was: “I’m the police; I’ll tell you what needs to be done to stop crime in your area; we’re the experts; now shut up.”
In an era when police authority was far less contested than today, Parker’s cops asserted their power more aggressively than most. James Ellroy, author of the novel L.A. Confidential, remembers the LAPD of his youth as “buffed and turned out. If you ran, they would beat you up. If you mouthed off, you would get beat up.” Even into the eighties, officers would “hijack” murder witnesses and take them to the station house to ensure their testimony, says a longtime LAPD vet.
This command-and-control manner alienated many black residents. And the LAPD, a creature of its time, was no model of racial sensitivity. George Beck, a retired deputy chief who wrote the nation’s first police manual for Los Angeles, worked in Watts during the fifties and sixties. “Some cops were really racial,” he says; “a lot were not, and some were in the middle.” The LAPD was one of the first departments to try to stop crime before it happened by intervening in suspicious behavior; in practice, this meant that “in certain neighborhoods, if you were a black man with another black man, you would automatically be pulled over,” recalls Ed Turley, a gang-intervention worker. And cops’ behavior during a stop could be egregious: James Ellroy saw two white officers give a black driver a sobriety test in 1971 by making him scratch himself like an ape.
Even so, for years the LAPD rode high in national opinion, promoted tirelessly by its chief as the big blue machine, steely and untouchable. But Parker’s public-relations success came back to haunt his beloved agency. A growing army of anti-cop advocates converted his carefully crafted image of the department into an insult, and used it to bludgeon the LAPD into submission, long after the department had ceased in any way to resemble the Parker corps.
Beginning in the late 1970s, cop-hostile politics began to reshape the LAPD. Typically, a politics-induced change would produce unintended negative consequences, which led to an even greater anti-LAPD backlash, in an ever-downward spiral. For instance, in 1981, in response to the emerging politics of “diversity,” the department settled a lawsuit by agreeing to hiring quotas for women, blacks, and Hispanics. The result: lower standards of competence, character, and physique—even though the less physical strength an officer has, the more he (or she) will have to rely on weapons to subdue resisting suspects, provoking more excessive-force complaints.
In the same spirit, politics determined tactics. An outcry over civilian deaths from the improper application of the choke-hold, used to incapacitate violent offenders, understandably forced its ban. But without the choke-hold (which police professionals endorse, when used properly), officers had little alternative to the baton when suspects resisted. And use of the baton would provoke an even greater crisis in the Rodney King affair.
Politics shaped the LAPD budget, too. Mayor Tom Bradley loathed Chief Daryl Gates and expressed it by slashing police funding—just as violence between black and Hispanic gangs was exploding in East and South Central L.A. With the crime rate soaring 26 percent from 1984 to 1989, law-abiding citizens demanded a decisive police response.
The logic behind Chief Gates’s answer was unimpeachable, though the result was not. Operation Hammer, launched in 1988, would compensate for the chronic manpower shortage by temporarily flooding high-crime areas with officers, and would use all available laws, including quality-of-life statutes, to get gangsters off the streets—much like 1990s New York policing. But inadequate supervision resulted in hundreds of indiscriminate stops of young black males, generating ill will that cop-haters nourish to this day.
For sheer devastating destruction of reputation and morale, however, nothing had ever approached the video of three L.A. cops beating the struggling Rodney King in March 1991. Officers speak of the pre-King and post-King eras. After King, a “culture of cowardice,” as one sergeant puts it, descended on the top brass, and criminals showed open contempt for a psychologically defeated force.
The common understanding of the King beating as racially driven brutality is wholly wrong, as Lou Cannon has demonstrated in his magisterial LAPD history, Official Negligence. When officers finally stopped the drug-addled King after a 115-mile-an-hour car chase, they tried to take him into custody without hurting him, using commands, a gang-tackle and handcuffs, and a Taser. Only after the powerfully built King charged at them did they resort to their batons. That charge was edited out of the videotape that was shown worldwide for months afterward, leaving 68 seconds of seemingly unprovoked baton blows. Officer Laurence Powell’s frenzied counterattack did not grow out of a culture of official racism or violence in the LAPD, but out of his terror, his weakness compared with King (the result of lowered hiring standards), and his ineffectiveness with the baton. Had it been a white driver behaving similarly, his fate would have been the same.
But international public opinion instantaneously deemed the episode pure racial animus. And the influential commission charged with investigating both the event and the LAPD, headed by L.A. establishment lawyer and future U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher, did little to dispel the widespread public misconception. The commission seized on a handful of radio messages to condemn the department for tolerating bigotry, even though many of those messages had nothing to do with race. The solution to this alleged bias problem, according to the commission: more racial and gender quotas. The commission also charged the department with tolerating excessive force and impeding civilian complaints about police conduct.
A year later, it became stunningly clear how thoroughly the anti-cop publicity machine had emasculated the LAPD, when the department failed completely to quell the riots that raged after the acquittal of the Rodney King officers. As the jury debated the assault charges, signs that violence was in the wings abounded, but, because of fears that riot preparation would provoke the “community,” as Mayor Tom Bradley put it, the department did nothing. Once the violence started after the acquittals, management remained paralyzed, and, as rioters pulled drivers from their cars and beat them mercilessly, officers stood by passively. Unwilling to use the necessary force, the commander of the 77th Division, ground zero of the increasingly savage violence, ordered his officers to retreat, knowing full well that unsuspecting white, Asian, and Hispanic motorists, arriving at the intersection of Florence and Normandie, faced certain brutal attack. Trucker Reginald Denny, whose skull Damian Williams gleefully crushed with a brick, was a casualty of this shameful retreat. Even as the death toll mounted, police brass at the ill-equipped riot-command post, fearful of another brutality accusation, told officers not to engage or arrest the rioters.
With the violence spiraling out of control, Chief Daryl Gates went AWOL, attending a tony political fund-raiser miles from the mayhem. When he returned, he still issued no orders. Other commanders, dutifully obeying the political mandate for outreach, went to a unity rally at the First African-American Methodist Episcopal Church, as if nothing were happening. The final toll: 54 lost lives, 2,328 hospitalizations, and nearly $1 billion in property damage.
Nothing—not even the King media circus—so destroyed rank-and-file morale as the department’s abdication during the riots. Having to stand by as public order crumbled represented a galling betrayal of officers’ oath to protect and serve. The message cops took from the episode was that, for their bosses, fear of criticism trumped public safety.
After the smoke cleared and Mayor Bradley forced Chief Gates out of office, the troops yearned for strong leadership to give them their pride back. They didn’t get it. The key political consideration in selecting a new chief was that he be black, and Willie Williams, the corpulent and unkempt chief of the lackluster Philadelphia police, got the job. Added to his endemic inability to pass the mandatory police qualifying exam, the revelation that he had accepted gifts from Las Vegas casinos sealed his doom as a one-term chief.
Alas, his successor, LAPD insider Bernard Parks, was worse still. A tall, dashing African American with a square jaw and arrow glance, his tenure is a textbook example of the power of leadership to make or break an organization. Parks took office in 1997 surrounded by high hopes, since he had worked his way up the command ladder and knew virtually everything about the department. But, says Mike Downing, commander of the Hollywood division, he lacked “wisdom”—wisdom to delegate, to learn from subordinates, to change course.
Though Parks’s initial moves were promising—above all, he implemented a version of Compstat, the NYPD’s computer-assisted crime-analysis program that had driven New York’s unparalleled crime drop in the 1990s—he also disastrously implemented the Christopher Commission’s demand that the department thoroughly investigate every civilian complaint it received. Hitherto, field supervisors could dispose of patently unfounded complaints after preliminary investigation. Now, a charge that a cop had stolen the Apollo lunar lander from the moon would have to be investigated all the way up to the top of the department, with reports from supervisors and commanders at every step. Within a year, complaints processed jumped 400 percent. Every station house had to dedicate three or four supervisors to complaint duty, leaving far fewer to oversee officers. Sergeants were crisscrossing southern California, tracking down witnesses to interview for clearly bogus complaints.
Officers shut down in fury. The no-discretion complaint system penalized good police work, since criminals routinely file complaints as payback for an arrest. Gang detective Jack Cota says: “Gangs knew that the easiest way to keep officers off the streets was to complain.” The result: officers avoided law-enforcement actions with a high likelihood of retaliatory complaints.
Perhaps Parks, despite his martinet inclinations, would have made the complaint process more rational over time, but once the Rampart scandal broke, any chance that supervisors would be given more leeway evaporated. The Rampart area, a 7.4-square-mile district of small, closely clustered bungalows and bodegas just west of downtown skyscrapers, is mecca for about 30 Central American gangs, with some 8,000 members. Frequent contact with the gangs’ violent indifference to human life develops in officers a politically incorrect loathing of gang culture, which most cops learn to live with, however uneasily. But a very few start fudging the law to ensure punishment for such depravity. The Rampart scandal grew in part out of this vigilante impulse, but the participants’ own evil soon overwhelmed any pretensions they may have had as defenders of the good.
Ringleader Rafael Perez and his cronies in the Rampart division of CRASH—the LAPD’s undercover gang unit—planted evidence on gangbangers to get them off the streets. They beat them up to get them to talk or to keep them from filing complaints. They also sold stolen drugs and shot people, usually gangsters.
The crimes of Perez and his colleagues would never have gone so far without a total breakdown in oversight. “Once an officer puts on dirt-bag clothes, you need good supervisors,” says retired commander George Beck, and supervision is precisely what Rampart CRASH lacked. The division’s two feuding top commanders were not talking to each other. At all hours, Perez and his partners had unmonitored access to their remote office, where they could beat up gangsters and uncooperative witnesses. They became a rogue gang within the LAPD.
Rampart CRASH’s corruption didn’t make the whole LAPD corrupt, but the media storm after the scandal broke in 1998 took just that line—one more body blow to the rank and file. “We felt helpless; we wanted to tear that guy’s face apart,” remembers Robert Duke, a downtown officer. “Being called a dirty cop—and you put up with so much on this job! Everyone had their secret desire to leave.”
True to form, the LAPD just rolled over and played dead. It disbanded CRASH citywide, leaving no gang cops on the street. Chief Bratton marvels at this overreaction. “When we had the Dirty 30 in New York,” he says, “we didn’t dismantle all 75 precincts.” When the department reconstituted an anti-gang detail, it made sure it was neutered, according to Bratton: “No plainclothes, no unmarked cars, no informants, no narcotics enforcement—it’s like asking a carpenter to build a house without nails or a hammer.” Cops across L.A. got the message: We don’t trust you.
And now the LAPD’s troubles really began. The U.S. Justice Department moved to put the department under federal control, invoking an ill-conceived 1994 law allowing Justice to sue local police forces for engaging in a “pattern or practice” of denying individuals their constitutional rights. The threat of terrifyingly costly federal litigation almost always leads local governments to give up local control and accept a federally appointed police monitor without a fight.
The Rampart scandal, however egregious, had revealed no pattern or practice in the LAPD of encouraging or tolerating such behavior—especially not after all the post–Rodney King discipline, diversity, and community-outreach measures. But the Clinton Justice Department’s campaign against the LAPD was all about power, not reform—as witness DOJ’s non-negotiable insistence that the department begin racial data collection to show if cops were “racially profiling,” a Clinton Justice buzzword.
The Rampart scandal, however, had nothing to do with alleged racial profiling, and Rodney King, even if the episode were a relevant marker of LAPD practices seven years and two chiefs afterward, was stopped for his speeding, not his race.
Chief Bernard Parks’s greatest moment was fighting the Justice Department, something no other top cop has done as publicly. The LAPD, he said, was correcting the Rampart scandal. A consent decree’s busywork would only drain resources away from his effort to tighten management controls. What do federal civil rights lawyers know about running a police department, anyway? he asked. They couldn’t even keep track of ten boxes of sensitive records they had demanded from the LAPD—and lost. Moreover, not only did his cops base their enforcement actions on suspicious behavior, not race, he said, but DOJ had no valid methodology for analyzing the racial data it wanted him to collect.
The chief’s resistance earned him the contempt of the Los Angeles Times and the city’s political elites. City attorney James Hahn—now the mayor—the City Council, and the Police Commission finally forced Parks to accept a five-year consent decree in 2000—without ever making Justice defend its baseless charge of a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations at the LAPD.
Since the settlement, it gets clearer day by day how right Parks was. After eight years of decline, possibly due to changes in the city’s demography, serious felonies rose for the first time in 2000, by 6.7 percent, and they went up alarmingly for the next two years. But the decree has hamstrung the department’s ability to respond, by draining money and manpower away from crime busting—some $40 million the first year, and upward of $50 million every year thereafter, according to city estimates, in addition to 350 officers pulled from crime fighting to decree-tending so far. Meanwhile, current chief Bratton has been vainly begging the City Council for 320 new officers.
Justice attorneys, the consent decree makes clear, view policing not primarily as crime fighting but as report writing, with reports written upon reports upon reports. Some of those reports, such as audits of the accuracy of arrest data, represent good management practices. But the decree unwisely locks the department into a draconian and wholly inflexible schedule for completing them. Failure to reach full compliance with all 190 provisions by 2004 means that the decree can continue indefinitely beyond its scheduled expiration in 2006.
Full compliance may well be impossible, judging from the August report of the federal monitor, Michael Cherkasky, who heads the Kroll Associates security firm. A control freak with the most unforgiving interpretation of deadlines, Cherkasky seems unaware that the department sometimes has to tear itself away from report-generation to fight crime. For example, though captains managed to complete required reports on instances of non-deadly force, such as twisting someone’s arm to cuff him, within the mandated 14 days 94.3 percent of the time, Cherkasky judged the department out of compliance—a remorseless
standard of bureaucratic fidelity that few modern organizations could meet.
More troublingly, the consent decree rests on a highly dubious managerial philosophy. It presumes that brutality and racism are so ingrained that only oversight systems with zero managerial discretion can stem constant civil rights abuses.
Its rules for investigating deadly force, for instance, presume collusion in lawlessness right up the chain of command. This July, three cops happened to witness a gang shooting in a supermarket parking lot. They jumped out of their car, drew their weapons, and shouted, “Drop your guns.” One gangster wheeled and shot; two cops shot back. Everybody missed.
For the rest of the night, each officer was guarded in a separate area of the parking lot, so the three couldn’t talk to one another, while investigators canvassed the scene. Three sergeants taken off patrol duty for the rest of the night accompanied their every bathroom visit. At dawn, a separate car transported each officer to the station house. Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger, a rising departmental star, judges: “If you can’t trust an unbiased supervisor to put two cops in his car and tell them not to talk to each other, we need to find other supervisors.” Such obsessional regulation, he says, “compromises the fabric of that very elusive thing we call trust.”
The department’s mandated investigations of officer-involved shootings also suggest a perverse set of priorities. That night, twice as many detectives investigated the officers’ self-defense shootings for possible civil rights or criminal violations as investigated the gangsters’ attempted murder of the officers.
Reports will cascade forth, as is de rigueur. Say a cop struggles with a robbery suspect while arresting him, for instance. Even if the suspect admits he wasn’t injured, the officer’s sergeant still has to write a use-of-force report, interviewing the officer, the suspect, and all potential witnesses, and taking photos. “A two-page arrest report generates a 20-page use-of-force report,” a frustrated sergeant grouses. “It may take you four to five hours to document. Then you get an investigation supervisor to study your report; it takes him four hours. Someone else reviews it. By the time everyone’s finished, that’s a $2,000 report.” The racial data-report mandate has a similar effect. “You wouldn’t believe what it does to slow my progress down,” says a downtown officer, working on a tall stack of them after a night patrolling Skid Row.
By the time Bratton arrived on the job last November, the LAPD was a shadow of its former self. “We were going through the motions, as if running in mud,” says Deputy Chief Paysinger. “We weren’t doing police work,” sums up a downtown cop.
What’s more, the ugly battle to oust Chief Parks in 2002 had left a bitter racial aftertaste. While the city’s left wing, including new mayor James Hahn, criticized the chief for not making enough progress on the consent decree and on “racial profiling,” the black establishment stoutly defended him, showing that race politics is even stronger than anti-police and even anti–racial profiling politics. After his ouster, Parks promptly got elected to the council from a black district, where he lies in wait to ambush either the new police chief or mayor. Bratton understands the tension. As he told a group of community representatives in June: “Believe me, I had concerns as a white coming in after two black chiefs, and after the controversy of the last removal.”
But in choosing Bratton, the Police Commission showed how desperately the city wants to reclaim policing from race politics. The commission—and the mayor—wanted someone who would put modern management techniques into the relentless service of cutting crime. Bratton had jumpstarted New York’s historic crime drop—bringing homicides down 44 percent and serious crime down 25 percent in 27 months—by holding managers accountable for measurable results: fewer shootings, homicides, and armed robberies, better quality of life across all neighborhoods.
Bratton is fashioning a powerful blueprint for repeating that success, and from the very start he set out to build support for his vision of policing. “In the first few days I don’t think he slept at all,” recalls police union president Bob Baker. “He was at every community meeting in the city.” His message: the LAPD is getting back into the crime-fighting business, and it’s going to win. “For the past five years, this department has been on the bench; it hasn’t even been on the field,” he tells audiences.
He has broken some prevailing taboos to speak the truth. At one community meeting, when activists started complaining about the big, bad LAPD and demanding that Bratton control his cops, Bratton shot back: “Control your kids!” He has stressed that crime-ridden communities cannot expect the police to solve all their problems—that parents and neighbors must take responsibility for stopping gang violence, too. At other events, he called criminals “mental nitwits” and gangs “domestic terrorists.” He suggested that an appropriate response to a suspect who had fled from the police would be to “hang ‘em high.”
Such rhetoric was a shot of adrenaline to patrol officers, but the black elite, still nursing its wounds from the Parks ouster, blew up. Its members declared themselves deeply troubled by Bratton’s language, and the entire left-wing commentariat piled on. Journalist Mike Davis, the Marxist fabulist of L.A. history, complained about Bratton’s plans to attack graffiti, and anti-cop attorney Connie Rice penned an uproarious Los Angeles Times op-ed that reverentially quoted a member of the murderous Grape Street Crip gang who argued that—in essence—fighting graffiti was no different from drive-by shootings: “How they ‘spect us to respect them when they act like us?” whined this sensitive Crip.
But then something remarkable happened. In a scathing editorial, the ultimate arbiter of fashionable opinion—the Los Angeles Times—broke ranks, mocking the black establishment’s “selective war on words.” It pointed out that Bratton’s critics had failed miserably to quell street violence, and it said Bratton was right to call that violence domestic terrorism. In a hopeful augury for the future, the new chief’s lock on the pinnacle of elite opinion has held firm. Not only has the Times’s editorial page consistently backed his calls for more cops to fight crime, but Hollywood moguls Steven Spielberg and David Geffen have donated cash to help update the department’s technology.
Following his New York playbook, Bratton searched for the talent among the command staff. His promotions of Jim McDonnell and Mike Hillman to assistant and deputy chief thrilled the rank and file, for they are tough crime-fighters whom the Parks regime had shunned—both marks of honor in the eyes of the street cop. Such personnel choices have convinced officers that their new chief will back them up for smart, assertive policing. Equally crucial to restoring morale has been Bratton’s decision to return reasonable discretion to the complaint process. “Bratton is tough on discipline,” union chief Baker observes. “But the only thing cops want to know is: ‘Does he care?’ ”
Next, Bratton set priorities, with quelling gang violence at the top of the list. To do that, he put drug and gang enforcement under one command, since gangs dominate the L.A. drug trade. Gang czar Hillman has reenergized the gang units and ordered them to respond aggressively to shootings. “Do it right, do it legally, but don’t wait three days for approval before acting,” he tells them. Once-moribund multi-agency task forces—drawn from, for example, the city attorney, probation officers, and the LAPD—are finally cooperating effectively.
But these policy changes cannot be fully effective unless the beaten-down detective corps recovers its zeal and its mandate for crime-fighting. “In the old days,” says LAPD chronicler James Ellroy, “when you had a murder, the detectives would roll on it till they dropped. They’d work through the night.” Today, thanks to bureaucratic constraints, detectives spend most of their days filing reports on arrests that patrol officers have already made, not on solving crimes. And thanks to the politics of gender, they spend too much of their remaining time on domestic-violence cases, to meet politically correct state mandates.
Bratton’s inner circle is trying to turn them back into detectives. The morning after a prostitute had been killed this August, Deputy Chief Paysinger asked the detective on the case what the vice officers had said about her. The vice officers don’t get in until 2 PM, the detective replied, so he hadn’t spoken to them yet. “They have phones, don’t they?” Paysinger responded caustically. “For Christ’s sake, someone’s dead.” The department is also requiring detectives to go to every shooting, even if no one was killed, instead of showing up only at homicides or near-homicides, as before. As Paysinger explains, “If we don’t have a greater awareness of the most violent of crimes, as purveyors of the peace we’re done.”
The LAPD reengineers are hammering home to detectives how valuable search warrants are as a tool for preventing crime before it happens. “Even if you find nothing, as you search, you may see a parolee at large, or someone who wants to be a witness, or other weapons in plain sight,” says Paysinger. “You’re telling the crook: ‘I will always be there watching.’ ” But until recently, few detectives even remembered how to write a search-warrant request to a judge.
Bratton is using Compstat, the crime analysis and command accountability sessions he pioneered in New York, to reinforce these lessons in proactive policing. A sign in the large Compstat room reads: WHO ARE THEY? WHERE ARE THEY? HAVE THEY BEEN ARRESTED?—the conceptual framework for the weekly Compstat meetings. During those meetings, top brass grill area commanders on their knowledge of crime patterns in their jurisdictions and their plans for solving them. Jim McDonnell, who heads the sessions, reminds commanders about some basic crime-fighting tools imported from New York, such as questioning all suspects about other unsolved crimes. After a gang shooting, he tells them, don’t let your officers mill around guarding the perimeter of the scene; get them quickly into the shooter’s home turf, in anticipation of a retaliatory drive-by.
Besides Compstat, Bratton’s biggest New York policing innovation was to demonstrate the power of order-maintenance enforcement. When he headed the New York Transit Police, his troops began arresting turnstile jumpers and subway panhandlers—until then, viewed as harmless victims of poverty—and caught serious criminals. As NYPD commissioner, he cracked down on public drinkers and graffiti vandals, and by so doing moved once chaotic neighborhoods toward greater civility and safety.
Bratton is showcasing order-maintenance (or “broken-windows”) policing in three Los Angeles neighborhoods—downtown’s Skid Row, the sadly deteriorated Macarthur Park in Rampart, and Hollywood, with its hookers and hustlers. Skid Row (also known as the “Nickel” for the cheap flophouses that vagrants once used) is the greatest challenge.
The most amazing discovery a first-time visitor to the Nickel will make is that its few legitimate residents think it looks good—compared with before Bratton arrived. Until you’ve stood on Fifth and Wall, you haven’t really seen a vagrancy problem. Nothing in New York’s most chaotic days in the 1980s comes close to the squalor and madness that have taken over block upon block of the warehouse district. Addicted men and women fill entire streetscapes, some sitting in lawn chairs outside their tents, others sprawled out facedown on the sidewalk. Pushers peddle drugs hidden inside cigarette boxes spread out on the sidewalk. Outside the women’s missions, teenagers strut threateningly, while their newest illegitimate siblings are parked in baby carriages on the sidewalk. Transvestites in bikinis gesture defiantly at the occasional passing squad car.
A few hardy toy and fish wholesalers remain. Holly Sea Food has sold fish downtown since 1923, but over the last few years, one-third of its neighbors have left. “You can’t sell your business or hire help,” laments owner Rick Merry, in his air-conditioned wood-laminate office. “We’ve had an ad in the Times for a bookkeeper. Candidates will just drive by without stopping. They later call: ‘I’m sorry, but I won’t work there.’ The female postman put in for a transfer. Ladies were leaning up against her truck, defecating. The bad part is: my wife works here. Guys will walk right up to the gutter and whip it out, and there she is, staring at someone’s privates.”
Four months ago, a vagrant’s tent across the street from Holly’s warehouse exploded in flames as the occupant slept inside, payback for a bad drug deal. The target would have died had the surrounding bums not pulled him from his tent.
Downtown L.A.’s “homeless” problem may be unparalleled in scale and concentration, but its causes are the same as everywhere else: politics and misguided “compassion.” The lawless bum life-style depends on the subsidy of self-proclaimed do-gooders, who provide everything legal that a street person could desire. At 6 am one day this summer, a tangle of garments and half-eaten plates of food, which volunteers had doled out the night before, strewed an entire sidewalk block. The “homeless” left the city’s sanitation service to clean up what they didn’t want.
The brightly colored tents that fill the sidewalks were another gift of the homeless advocates—a gift intended to foil law enforcement, on the theory that, if the vagrants could claim ownership of their street domicile, rather than scrounging it from dumpsters every night, the police would not be able to remove encampments from the streets. The success of this strategy waxes and wanes with the politics of the moment.
Even before Bratton arrived, the former commander of downtown’s Central Division, Charles Beck, had tried to stem the anarchy. “I was abhorred by it,” he says. “It drove me nuts. My dream was to clean up downtown L.A. You need the collective will to say that this conduct is not allowed any longer.”
But Beck made little progress: advocates had the City Council under their thumb. The shrillest activist, Alice Callahan, could call the council and say: “Do you know that an officer just told a homeless person to wake up?” and the police would get an incensed phone call in ten minutes, recalls officer Daniel Gomez. Business owners, by contrast, could tell the council: “We have a serious problem,” and the response would be, “Yeah, whatever.”
Now, though, some newly elected council members recognize the truth: conditions on the Nickel are unacceptable in a civilized society. Their election to the council could not be more timely. Chief Bratton needs all the political backing he can get to battle the advocates.
Every Bratton initiative to civilize Skid Row has sparked a lawsuit. The radical National Lawyers Guild sued to prevent arrests of parole and probation violators, while the ACLU asserts that enforcing a law against blocking sidewalks constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” Undeterred, the LAPD continues to target drug dealing, violence, and other illegal behavior, without exempting people who choose to live on the streets. A team of officers patrols Skid Row every morning, referring people to housing and services, yes—but also making arrests for lawless conduct.
Bratton’s attack on street disorder has dramatically improved public space downtown, according to local businesses. “Eight months ago, there were 50 tents across the street,” says fish merchant Rick Merry. “You couldn’t walk on the sidewalk.” To a newcomer, the sidewalks still look perilous, but the regulars see tremendous progress. Patrol cops agree. “These guys [the homeless task force] have done an incredible job,” says officer Robert Duke. “If they stopped for two days, it would be out of control; patrol can’t handle it.”
Developers are taking note as well. They are converting abandoned Beaux Arts office buildings and factories into hotly sought-after lofts, moving ever closer to the heart of the Nickel. If Bratton can continue to fend off the advocates and their judicial handmaidens, L.A.’s architecturally rich downtown may eventually throb with round-the-clock living for the law-abiding.
What Bratton needs most for all these initiatives to succeed is more manpower. In New York, as he and his deputies rolled out one new strategy after another, the department had ample staffing to implement them, and crime plunged immediately—16 percent after six weeks. In Los Angeles, by contrast, Bratton has had to backtrack. He had to dismantle an anti-graffiti squad, because he needed more patrol officers. He has scaled back his crime-reduction schedule from an originally promised 10 percent reduction in crime and a 25 percent cut in homicides in 2003 to a 5 percent drop in crime and a 20 percent cut in homicides. These goals are still exceedingly impressive, and he is already close to meeting them. As of September 13, homicides were down 23 percent compared with the year before, and all felonies were down 3.9 percent. But in his first year in New York, felonies dropped 12 percent.
When the City Council refused Bratton’s plea for 320 new officers this spring, the chief lashed out, citing the urgency of fighting gangs and defending against terrorism. Putting police hiring on hold, he said, is like “placing a telephone call to Osama and saying, ‘Osama, hold off for nine months till we get our act together here.’ ” The Council declared itself shocked by his tone. The Los Angeles Times told the legislators to get over it. When Bratton tried to free up existing cops by allowing them to ignore residential burglar alarms unless verified by the owner or alarm company, since over 90 percent of alarm calls are false, the council balked again, and the compromise that the mayor engineered—allowing homeowners two false alarms—will just engender more paperwork without unburdening patrol.
It is critical to L.A.’s future that Bratton succeed. Effective policing is our most powerful urban reclamation tool: when cops make inner cities safe, commerce and homeownership revive, as happened in Central Harlem following its 80 percent drop in homicides and burglaries in the 1990s. Crime reduction also improves race relations. Bratton himself argued to a community meeting this June that as long as the black and Hispanic crime rate remains so high, whites and Asians—as well as some police officers—will continue to fear suspicious-looking blacks and Hispanics.
To get at least some of the manpower he needs, Bratton has a source at his fingertips: the 300-plus officers engaged full time in consent-decree duty. In addition, he could profitably redirect the thousands of hours that all other officers and commanders spend on consent-decree mandates, which undoubtedly add up to hundreds of full-time positions.
One of the best urban-policy moves that the Bush administration could make, since energetic policing is not a local issue but a national one, would be to free the LAPD from the consent decree. By doing so, the administration would also be boosting homeland security: alert cops are the country’s second most important defense against another terror attack, after robust intelligence. That defense is useless, however, without enough cops to go around.
The consent decree is based on outdated stereotypes about the LAPD. If Attorney General John Ashcroft thinks that, without federal control, the LAPD would abuse people’s rights, he should send his Justice Department lawyers to talk to people like the Reverend Leonard Jackson of the First African-American Methodist Episcopal Church. Asked if the police treat innocent black men abusively, Jackson responds emphatically: “No, no, no. They don’t still work like that. It’s been drummed into the heads of officers that everybody has rights.”
Urban policing could be raised to a new height of professionalism by taking the shackles off the LAPD and letting Bratton turn the department into a national model of twenty-first-century policing, as it once was for the twentieth century.