For Bill Bratton, taking risks comes naturally.
Just how natural became apparent one day in 1975 when Bratton, a rookie sergeant with the Boston Police Department, got a call that would have made a veteran blanch: bank holdup; shot fired; possible hostage situation. En route to the scene, Bratton encountered the gunman — a 6-foot-2-inch man in a red leisure suit dragging a woman across a bridge, away from agitated bystanders. Bratton parked and advanced through the crowd — and suddenly found himself standing five yards from the gunman, weapon drawn. At that point, Bratton violated the first rule of hostage negotiations (never give up your cover): He lowered his firearm and, looking into the barrel of the other man's gun, asked the robber to put down his gun, too. He did, and Bratton had a new reputation as someone who was either very brave — or very foolhardy.
In 1993, Bratton took an even bigger gamble. Just one year earlier, he had achieved his life-long ambition of heading the Boston Police Department after leading impressive turnaround efforts at Boston and New York's transit agencies and at Massachusetts's Metropolitan Police. But when advisers to New York City Mayor-elect Rudolph Giuliani approached him about applying for the biggest job in policing — commissioner of the New York Police Department — Bratton went after it with a plan he promised would reduce crime in New York City by 40 percent in three years time. Most criminologists considered it a crazy idea — undoable, career suicide. Giuliani gave him the job.
Twenty-seven months later, when Bratton resigned from the NYPD, felony crime in New York City was down 39 percent, homicides were down by 50 percent. Henceforth, American police chiefs were judged by one thing: Is crime up or down? According to Bill Bratton, that's the way it should be. "If you have a police chief that can't get crime down, get yourself a new police chief," he says.
Bratton left New York as the world's most celebrated police chief. Business school professors hailed his "tipping-point leadership" and studied innovations such as Compstat, the computerized statistics system that Bratton developed to measure results and motivate commanders. Protégés applied the Bratton playbook in cities such as Philadelphia, Baltimore, Providence and Miami, often with impressive results.
Yet there were also skeptics. Criminologists pointed to nationwide crime declines in the late '90s and asked if Bratton's achievements in New York were really unique. For Bratton himself, there was also a personal question: How do you follow up on a success like New York? In 2002, after several years in the private sector, Bratton answered that question by returning to policing as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department. In New York, Bratton had policed a city of more than 7 million residents with 38,000 officers. In Los Angeles, a geographically larger city with a population of nearly 4 million people, he had a mere 9,100 officers.
At first, it was rocky going. Efforts to secure more resources for the department failed. Bratton also struggled with an unfamiliar political system. He became closely identified with then-Mayor Jim Hahn, who in 2005 was defeated in his reelection bid. In short, all the ingredients for a serious disappointment seemed to be in place.
Instead, the 60-year-old Bratton triumphed. In his first five years, major felonies have fallen by 30 percent, with homicides down 38 percent and overall violent crime down 46 percent. No wonder that L.A.'s new mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has embraced his police chief, pushing through an increase in the trash-collection fee that will allow the LAPD to add 1,000 new officers. Even embarrassing mishaps haven't derailed the chief. When LAPD officers bludgeoned protestors at a pro-immigration rally last summer, Bratton moved quickly, acknowledging the failure, demoting the senior commander on the scene and revamping the department's training procedures.
"To me, that is leadership — under fire, in difficult circumstances," says Police Commission President Anthony Pacheco. In October, Bratton became the first LAPD chief to be appointed to a second term since the 1980s. L.A. is on track to experience fewer than 400 homicides this year — down from 588 in 2001. Those lives saved are part of Bill Bratton's legacy.
— John Buntin
Photo by Thomas Alleman