Public Safety & Justice

Gangbuster

Bill Bratton is going after crime in L.A. the way he did in New York. But it's a different place. Gangs are huge and the police force is very small.
by | December 2003
 

To the casual motorist driving west on Wilshire from downtown Los Angeles, MacArthur Park comes as a pleasant surprise. With its wide lake and palm trees, the 32-acre park looks like an oasis in the heart of the teeming Pico-Union district, the most densely populated neighborhood west of New York City. But there's nothing very bucolic about life in MacArthur Park--the main activity is selling drugs. Today, the police are selling drugs, too.

Just east of the park, on Alvarado Street, three plainclothes officers are taking orders from eager customers. Cash is exchanged, and then the buyers are sent to pick up their purchases in the parking lot of a nearby McDonald's. But instead of getting their drugs, the customers are arrested and taken to the local police station to be booked. In most places, an undercover buy of this sort would normally "burn out" an area quickly, as word of the sting spread. Not in MacArthur Park. So many customers come here from so many directions that there's no way for all of them to get the word. By the end of the day, the LAPD will have arrested about 80 people.

The purpose of today's operation, however, is not to rack up drug arrests. Rather, it's part of a concerted effort to apply the precepts of "quality of life" policing--"broken windows" policing, as it's commonly known--to an area that has long been one of the West Coast's premier drug markets. Instead of the traditional approach to narcotics--the occasional massive sweep, the elaborate sting operation--the LAPD is putting officers in the park on a daily basis with the goal of establishing new baselines of routine behavior. Today's operation was designed to send a message to users that MacArthur Park is now a dangerous place to score drugs--not just when a major sting is in progress but on seemingly routine days as well.

Meanwhile, in a further effort to improve MacArthur Park's quality of life, police are targeting minors under the influence of drugs or alcohol and discouraging homeless people with shopping carts from taking up long-term residence. The multi-faceted campaign to reestablish order has already led to a sharp reduction in violent crime in the neighborhood, and police say they're determined to keep the pressure on. "Right now, everyone is waiting for us to leave," says Captain Charles Beck, the officer in charge of MacArthur Park. "Well, we're not leaving this time."

TAMING NEW YORK

Cleaning up MacArthur Park is the opening salvo in an ambitious campaign by Mayor James Hahn to make Los Angeles, which last year was America's murder capital, into the safest big city in America. To take on this Herculean task, Hahn has turned to the country's most famous cop, former New York police chief William Bratton.

When he arrived in Los Angeles in October 2002, Bratton brought with him a record of both striking success and continuing controversy. During the mid-1990s, at a time when most criminologists maintained that the police could do little to prevent crime--their job was responding to it--Bratton argued exactly the opposite. He insisted the cause of violent crime was criminals, and that police properly deployed and wisely used could discourage them, get them off the streets and drive crime down.

As a mark of confidence in his ideas, Bratton vowed to cut crime in New York City by 40 percent in three years. Critics scoffed, but two years later, homicides were down 39 percent, and Bratton had become the toast of New York. His picture appeared on the cover of Time magazine. At that point, however, perhaps as a result of his sudden celebrity status, Bratton fell out of favor with his boss, Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani. In March 1996, America's most successful and innovative police chief walked out of Manhattan's One Police Plaza for the last time.

By then, however, Brattonism was turning into a national phenomenon. Former aides took his techniques, particularly the computerized crime- mapping system known as Compstat, to departments in Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans. These transplants achieved quick, sometimes dramatic, success. However, none have matched the sustained crime reductions of New York City. At the same time, the country as a whole began to experience a sharp reduction in crime. Even cities such as Los Angeles that failed to change their policing methods saw significant reduction. Between 1990 and 1999, the number of murders in Los Angeles went from 983 per year to 425.

As crime fell almost everywhere, regardless of policing techniques, questions about Bratton's accomplishment in New York and his philosophy of crime reduction began to reappear. University of Cincinnati criminologist John Eck summed up the resurgent conventional wisdom: "The bottom line is that one can't really give a lot of credence to the strong statement about the police having a huge independent role in reducing crime, particularly homicide." In the view of Eck and other mainstream criminologists, crime rates are a function of demographics, economic conditions and the changing nature of drug markets (such as the end of the "crack" cocaine epidemic).

While academics discounted his achievements, Bratton wrote a book, hit the lecture circuit and tried to find his niche in the private sector. By the late '90s, he was eager to get back into public service. He briefly considered running for mayor of New York, then backed losing Democratic candidate Mark Green in hopes of becoming deputy mayor for public safety.

Ultimately, however, Bratton decided he wanted to be a police chief again, and in Los Angeles, he found perhaps the ideal opportunity--a stage as big as New York's and a mayor who didn't mind a high-profile chief. Soon after selecting Bratton, Hahn said he would be delighted to see him on the cover of Time magazine.

FIXING WINDOWS

To win that sort of national acclaim again, Bratton will have to solve problems unlike any he has dealt with before. In an odd way, the LAPD is more like a state highway police force than a normal big-city department--it's small, car-dependent and forced to cover a huge area it doesn't know very well. Moreover, it patrols some of the most dangerous territory in the industrialized world. Residents view the police with suspicion, gang members occasionally open fire on police officers with automatic weapons, and memories of civil unrest are fresh in everyone's mind.

"This is basically my Rubicon," Bratton says, "my opportunity once and for all to make the case that a philosophy I have helped champion, that I am famous for espousing, works."

The philosophy is "broken windows," first put forward more than a decade ago by the criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson. In the years since then, it has become one of the most familiar ideas in the world of public safety. It is also one of the most misunderstood. As originally articulated, "broken windows" held that seemingly minor signs of disorder--graffiti, vandalism, even broken windows--if unattended give rise to more serious offenses and greater disorder. In many places, the broken windows idea has been equated with a "zero tolerance" approach to minor crimes. But in New York, broken windows was never about zero tolerance. It was primarily a tool for finding gun-toting criminals and taking them out of circulation. It turned out that when the police arrested vandals or turnstile jumpers they found a lot of ex-felons who were also carrying guns or skipping out on warrants. By getting to these people early, the police were in effect disarming them. Nothing in the theory requires that the incidence of minor crime be brought down to zero--it merely requires that minor criminals be apprehended before they graduate to major lawlessness.

In the mid-1990s, as New York began to crack down on "quality of life" criminals, and crime rates fell, these ideas attracted notice all over the country. But there was another equally important if less noticed ingredient to Bratton's success in New York--thousands of new police officers. Bratton arrived at the NYPD at just the moment when hundreds and later thousands of additional officers were entering the force. With so many new recruits on hand, Bratton could flood hot spots highlighted by his elaborate databases and deny criminals a base of operations. In Los Angeles, he doesn't have the resources to do that.

"In New York, you had the luxury of being relatively smart and getting it done," says John Miller, the LAPD chief of counterterrorism. "Here you have to be a goddam genius."

A LITTLE FORCE

The West Coast is generally more lightly policed than the East Coast, where police jobs were once important parts of political patronage machines. Los Angeles, however, takes the West Coast's penchant for small forces to an extreme. To police a city of 3.8 million people, the LAPD relies on approximately 9,200 officers--half the number per capita that New York City has. Moreover, these officers patrol an area nearly twice the size of New York. All in all, Los Angeles neighborhoods have only about one-quarter of the police presence that New York's neighborhoods do.

The small size of the LAPD has had a dramatic effect on the organization's culture. In New York, if an officer gets into trouble and calls for backup, he can expect a dozen cars on the scene in five minutes or less. In L.A., help may take three times as long to arrive. According to John Linder, a consultant who has worked closely with Bratton in both cities, understaffing in L.A. has over time created a police force whose officers worry more about personal survival than about community relations, and who go into every situation hard, fast and expecting the worst.

For years, young black men stopped by the LAPD were routinely "proned out"--forced to lie on the ground with their arms and legs spread while the police patted them down. Neighbors who asked for information at crime scenes were sometimes accused of "loitering" and threatened with arrest. For many inner-city residents, particularly black men, a bad experience with the LAPD was part of growing up.

These techniques succeeded in maintaining a semblance of order, but at a price. The price was massive resentment and distrust toward the police, particularly in the African-American community. In 1992, after an all-white jury acquitted four LAPD officers in the beating of African-American motorist Rodney King, that resentment erupted in six days of rioting. In the aftermath of the riots, it became clear that the price for keeping order in the traditional way was too high for the city to accept. Chief Daryl Gates was forced out. However, the culture of the LAPD has proved extremely difficult to change.

Willie Williams, Gates' immediate replacement, was widely viewed as a hapless and ineffective chief. The next selection, 30-year LAPD veteran Bernard Parks, was unsuccessful in a different way. Soon after his arrival, the department experienced the greatest scandal in its modern history. In 1999, LAPD internal affairs discovered that several members of the Rampart anti-gang unit (responsible for, among other areas, MacArthur Park) had themselves been shaking down dealers, providing protection and peddling dope.

Chief Parks responded angrily and harshly. He abolished the anti-gang units and imposed new complaint procedures. But while such actions staved off a threatened federal takeover of the department, they ultimately cost him the support of his officers. A survey of the force in 2000 found that only 18 percent of officers were confident that Chief Parks was leading them in the right direction. Seventy-nine percent were afraid of "being punished for an honest mistake," and 57 percent expressed the desire "to leave if they could."

In fact, hundreds of officers did leave during this period, reducing the size of the already overstretched force precipitously. Many of those who stayed essentially stopped trying very hard. As one patrol officer explained, "if everyone you arrest says 'it's not mine' and files a complaint against you, what are you going to do? You're going to say, 'Screw it. I'm not going to look that way next time.'"

The result of this spreading cynicism was predictable--crime began skyrocketing again. In 2000, at a time when homicides nationwide were falling slightly, L.A.'s murder rate jumped to 550, an increase of nearly 23 percent over the previous year. The following year, the number of murders rose again, to 588. In 2002, Los Angeles edged out Chicago to become the murder capital of the United States with 654 homicides.

Faced with an escalating crime problem, newly elected Mayor James Hahn made a risky decision. Although much of the support that elected him had come from L.A.'s African-American community, Hahn decided to accept its displeasure and deny Parks a second five-year term as chief. In the fall of 2002, a few months after becoming mayor, Hahn decided to take a chance on America's most famous police chief of the 1990s.

TAKING RISKS

Bratton got off to a strong start. Front-line officers cheered the arrival of a boss with a reputation as a cop's cop--and celebrated the dismissal of Parks, whom they did not trust. Bratton appealed to his officers to take on the city's "gangbangers" and announced his intention to get his officers the powerful and highly accurate Glock 9 pistols. He toured neighborhoods, attended community meetings, unleashed his trusted team of East Coast consultants on LAPD management, introduced Compstat, and redeployed officers to areas of the city most affected by violent crime, notably South Los Angeles. (The name "South-Central" had come to conjure up such images of violence that the city had abandoned it altogether in favor of the more neutral sounding "South Los Angeles.") Arrests increased sharply, and violent crime began to drop. Los Angeles, always a city that likes a star, was fascinated with its new top cop.

In fact, however, it was not nearly that simple. While crime fell sharply in South L.A. during Bratton's first year on the job, crime in other parts of the city did not. In order to add approximately 80 officers to the South Bureau, Bratton had to transfer officers out of the San Fernando Valley--a risky move politically, given the Valley's deep-rooted feelings of neglect. But he felt he had no choice. Unlike in New York, there were no extra resources to bring on line.

Bratton had long believed that L.A. was underpoliced. Now he came to the firm conclusion that he needed another 3,000 officers to accomplish the mission he had been hired to carry out. Mayor Hahn agreed with him. This spring, the two men teamed up to ask the city council for 320 more recruits. In many cities, such a request would not even have been necessary; the mayor would have been able to find a way to bolster the force on his own. In Los Angeles, however, the council has the final word, and the council balked.

Bratton responded by going on the offensive, and not very subtly. He suggested that council members might consider attending the funerals of some crime victims, and said a vote against more officers would be tantamount to inviting Osama bin Laden to come to town. The council was unmoved. In June, it voted to reject the request.

Likening elected officials to Al Qaeda supporters is not normally a way to make friends in high places. Remarkably, however, Bratton's criticisms of the council have not prevented its members from lavishing praise upon him. "I think he has lived up to everything we would have wanted and more," says Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, the head of the public safety committee. She and most of her colleagues view the Al Qaeda comment as a rookie error by a chief who didn't understand that in Los Angeles power rests with the council, not with the mayor.

In his campaign for more resources, part of Bratton's problem may be that he has done too well too soon. Crime hasn't come down all over the city, but it is down substantially in the areas viewed as most dangerous. Since Bratton took over, the homicide rate citywide has fallen by more than 20 percent and total crime by nearly 5 percent. After two years of double-digit homicide increases, those kinds of numbers suggest to some that Bratton is already working his "magic" in L.A. "It comes down to the numbers, and the numbers are good," says Police Commission President David Cunningham.

Indeed, Cunningham says that Bratton's successes have completely changed his views and the views of the Police Commission about how to reduce crime. "I now believe that you can reduce crime without necessarily saying it is directly tied to the economic issues and just the at-risk population," he says. "That's not to diminish the importance of those things, but when you talk about Bratton's style and approach to crime fighting, it was different, it was new, and I have to say it works."

But within the LAPD itself, there is less confidence that the numbers herald a true turnaround. Some point out that the violent crime rate in L.A.'s problem neighborhoods was abnormally high when Bratton came in, a function of less focused and aggressive policing under Chief Parks, and has simply returned to "normal" in the past year. To achieve a more lasting improvement, they believe, and to prevent the numbers from spiking again, the LAPD will have to do what virtually no police department in the United States has done before--solve the problem of gang violence.

GANG CENTRAL

The close connection between violent crime and gang membership is, of course, nothing unique to Los Angeles. But the scope of the problem in L.A. is far beyond almost any city's experience. Police officials estimate the total number of gang members in Los Angeles to be about 60,000. Of the 654 murders that occurred in Los Angeles in 2002, approximately half were gang-related.

From his headquarters at the 77th Street station, Deputy Chief Earl Paysinger has the unenviable task of patrolling 69 square miles that he describes as "the most dangerous real estate in the free world." Its residents include some of the most violent gangs in the world, such as the Rolling 60s, the Five Deuce Hoovers, 18th Street and the 8 Tray Gangsters. L.A.'s South Bureau alone has 24,000 active gang members in its database. To cope with them, Paysinger has about 80 officers out on patrol at any given time. That's barely one cop per square mile.

What works against gangs? Basically, no one knows. Civil injunctions that prohibit gang members from congregating in certain areas seem to have some effect, but by all accounts it is a minor one. Only one city, Boston, has managed to tackle gang violence with any success. But in Boston, a group of two dozen people might constitute a very serious gang. In Los Angeles, says Paysinger, "that's a community meeting, not a gang." The Rolling 60s, based in L.A.'s South Bureau but active throughout the city, has 1,259 members that the police know of.

In the eyes of many experts, gangs constitute the single greatest threat to Bratton's doctrine that policing in itself can reduce the crime rate on a lasting basis. Gangs, to many who work with them, are a problem that even the best policing cannot solve without community help.

"The community has failed miserably in its responsibility to police themselves," says Deputy Chief Paysinger. "They cannot abdicate responsibility to somebody else, to the police. Gang members recognize abject apathy and when it occurs, it's almost like the community ladling chum into the water and gang members feeding on it."

Even so, Paysinger insists that with more officers, the police could make a difference. "If the staffing pixie gave me another 150 or 200 cops, I could stand crime on its veritable ear," he says. That estimate may be optimistic. What does seem clear, however, is that it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reduce gang-related violence significantly without some increase in the size of the force. Bratton's ability to get those officers may ultimately determine whether he is a success or a disappointment.

City council members say that, despite their refusal to agree to Bratton's request this summer, they recognize the need for more officers. But they don't recognize as much need as Bratton does. He wants 3,000 more officers. The majority on the council thinks the most he will get under any circumstances would be another 800, to bring the total size of the force to about 10,000.

"The truth is the police force in L.A. has historically been small," says Councilwoman Miscikowski. "Smallness has been its pride and its toughness. We could do with fewer because we were so good at what we were doing. That has stood us well. Having said that, we want to build it. During the Riordan administration, his big thing was we are going to build it to 10,000." But, she notes ominously, "in the best, most flush times, we never got to 10,000." Even if the council does come through with more money, after hiring and training, new officers wouldn't actually arrive on the force until 2005. That means the chief will have to make do with the force he has for at least the next two years.

Such sentiments are frustrating for Bratton loyalists. "The murder of children that drove so much of the crime story in New York happens here every day and just does not seem to resonate," says counterterrorism chief John Miller. "It raises a question of conscience. Where is the conscience of the larger city?"

Talking with officers, there can be no doubt that the LAPD is changing for the better. Bill Bratton is clearly a talented leader who is making a difference. For the first time in years, there is hope and pride at department headquarters. "A lot of people believe he's the real deal, that we have a real chief," says Bob Baker, the head of the police union. But more than at any time in his career, Bratton's success rests in hands other than his own. The results to which he is accustomed may come only if the city's political establishment can muster the will and scrape up the money to hire more officers.

What does that mean for the city? Somewhat uncharacteristically, Bill Bratton isn't making bold predictions. "I look at next year as more of a struggle," he says. "We've picked the low hanging fruit this year." A chief who is accustomed to triumph may have to settle for modest success. That may be enough for the elected leadership of Los Angeles.

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