Public Safety & Justice

Did Bill Bratton Succeed in Changing LAPD's Culture?

Dragnet. 77 Sunset Strip. As a boy growing up in Boston, Bill Bratton lapped up the exploits of the Los Angeles Police Department through his television....
by | August 31, 2009

Dragnet. 77 Sunset Strip. As a boy growing up in Boston, Bill Bratton lapped up the exploits of the Los Angeles Police Department through his television. Dragnet, says Bratton, "was the only TV show my parents would let me stay up late to watch on weeknights." He wasn't alone in his admiration. O.W. Wilson, the mid-20th century's leading expert in police management, called the LAPD "the country's best big city police department." The LAPD was smaller than other forces but exceptionally tough, aggressive and independent. The LAPD invented the SWAT team. It had the largest squadron of helicopters of any force in the country. It even had an armored vehicle.

But when Bratton first went out to visit the LAPD in person, as a rising officer in the Boston Police Department in the early 1980s, he was surprised by what he saw. "Police cars were falling apart," recalls Bratton. "The buildings were in deplorable shape." The LAPD's leaders "could not get anything for the department." It was a Wizard of Oz moment. Behind Hollywood's favorite badge was a police department stretched dangerously thin. Relationships between the LAPD and the city's elected officials clearly were strained, so much so that the department barely had the funds to maintain (much less modernize) the force. What had gone wrong?

For the young Bratton, the question was a mere curiosity. But in 2002, when he took command of the LAPD, this question became a matter of great urgency. Bratton was coming off successful stints as chief in Boston and New York, where he had invented the data-driven police management tool known as "Compstat." He figured the widely-copied strategy would help him accomplish his two primary goals in Los Angeles--reducing crime and improving race relations. But as he settled into the job, Bratton quickly discovered that the LAPD didn't just have a crime problem. It also had a culture problem, one deeply rooted in the storied history of its Dragnet era.

Every organization has its own personality. Police departments are particularly steeped in their past. But the LAPD had something different--an ideology. That ideology, a mix of intense pride and profound suspicion toward elected leaders, was the creation of the man who ruled the department with an iron hand from 1950 to 1966: Chief William H. Parker.

From the moment Bratton took over the LAPD as chief to last month's announcement that he would leave at the end of October for a private-sector job, Bratton has struggled to supplant the fiercely independent culture Parker manufactured. The story of how one great chief sought to overturn the legacy of another isn't just about dueling philosophies of policing. It's a lesson in leadership for any public manager who's ever struggled to modernize a bureaucracy that remains stuck in another era.

Ironically, Chief Parker faced a similar struggle himself. His story began with a bang.

On the morning of January 14, 1938, private investigator Harry Raymond walked into the garage of his modest house in L.A.'s Boyle Heights, got into his car, pressed the starter pedal, and triggered a thunderous explosion that shook the neighborhood. The car and the garage were destroyed. Investigators would later determine that an iron water pipe packed with dynamite had been attached to his car's undercarriage. Despite suffering 186 shrapnel wounds, Raymond somehow survived. The injured P.I. summoned Los Angeles Examiner city editor Jim Richardson to his hospital bedside and fingered the head of the LAPD's intelligence squad as the man behind the bombing.

Raymond knew of which he spoke. During the 1920s, he himself had been one of the department's most brutal and corrupt figures. In those days, the LAPD didn't like critics. Nor did the notoriously corrupt cabal of politicians, organized crime figures and businessmen who controlled the department. Politicians who threatened this alliance, known as "the Combination," inevitably suffered mishaps, such as waking up in a strange bed with an aching head, an empty bottle of whiskey and a naked constituent--as the head of the vice squad and a photographer from the Los Angeles Times stood by.

But attempting an assassination was a bridge too far. In the aftermath of the car bombing, voters turned out the incumbent mayor and elected a reform-minded judge as his successor. Mayor Fletcher Bowron ran the mobsters out of town--most resettled in a dusty little town called Las Vegas--and brought in a new police chief. The LAPD's practice of blowing up its critics ended. Corruption didn't. In 1949, the department was hit by a spectacular scandal involving Hollywood's leading madam and a well-connected sergeant who was her business associate and lover. Bowron turned to Parker, a 22-year LAPD veteran known for his incorrigibility, to lead the department out of yet another mess.

The parallels between Chief Parker and Chief Bratton are striking. Both came to office in the wake of morale-shattering scandals. For Bratton, the scandal centered on a rogue anti-gang unit in the department's Rampart Division: A habit of planting evidence, beating gang members who filed complaints against officers and lying under oath put the entire LAPD under federal supervision. Both Parker and Bratton were organizational innovators. Parker created a powerful planning and research staff that embraced statistics and deployed officers to high-crime neighborhoods. Bratton introduced Compstat. Both also attended very closely to the broken culture of the department they inherited.

But from there, the two men took very different paths. In his book, Bureaucracy, criminologist James Q. Wilson talks about the importance of understanding an organization's "critical task." Parker felt his critical task was purging the city--and his police department--of corruption. To do so, Parker believed he needed to free the department from politicians, who experience had taught him were all too susceptible to the blandishments of the underworld. But he also needed to cultivate a sense of discipline and esprit de corps. His model was the U.S. Marine Corps.

Parker's response was a reasonable one. For too long, policing in Los Angeles had been a casual affair. The department's Communist-hunting "red squad" operated out of its own offices, and reported directly to the chamber of commerce. During the 1920s and 30s, well-connected citizens carried police badges that allowed them to flout the law. Adopting a military model, with its clear lines of command and its emphasis on appearance and discipline, created a new sense of order. It also was a natural fit for the men Parker commanded, almost all of whom were veterans of World War II and Korea.

But Parker also was an ideologue. A devout Roman Catholic, he was dismayed by what he saw as American society's slide into decadence and depravity. Parker came to see his department as a moral force. The LAPD, he proclaimed in a memorable metaphor, was "the thin blue line" that separated civilization from chaos.

Parker and his supporters found vindication of this apocalyptic world view in 1965, when riots broke out in Watts, an African-American neighborhood. In Parker's eyes, the Watts riots confirmed that anarchy was just around the corner. "It is estimated that by 1970, 45 percent of the metropolitan area of Los Angeles will be Negro," Parker said after the riots. "If you want any protection in your home and family in the future ... you're going to have to get in and support a strong police department. If you don't do that, come 1970, God help you." Hostility toward Chief Parker and his department's aggressive tactics helped to fuel the riots.

A year later, Parker died in office. Rather than rethinking the department's culture, his successors dug in. When Daryl Gates (who had begun his career as Parker's driver) took over as chief in 1976, he embraced and amplified the department's gung-ho image. He focused on innovations such as the SWAT team, without bothering to conceal his disdain for L.A.'s African-American mayor, Tom Bradley. The LAPD practically became its own political organization, beholden to the whiter and more conservative enclaves of the San Fernando Valley.

"It was just about power, ideology, and a right-wing constituency holding onto power," says California State University, Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein. Starving the department of resources was the way Los Angeles' increasingly liberal elected leaders hit back. Not until outrage over the performance of the LAPD during the 1992 Rodney King riots swept Gates out did the city's elected officials regain control over the police department. "That made Bill Bratton possible," says Sonenshein.

Bratton came to Los Angeles with a turnaround playbook. First, as he did in Boston and New York, Bratton brought in a team of outside consultants to perform a "cultural diagnostic." Then his team sought to assess the skills of people in the department and identify its most talented members. He developed a detailed reform plan, one that in L.A.'s case called for adding 1,000 new police officers. He also introduced Compstat.

But the East Coast attitudes of Bratton's coterie played poorly in Los Angeles. The LAPD's brass was accustomed to collegiality, not Compstat's public accountability sessions, which could end in humiliation for poorly prepared commanders. Instead of creating peer pressure to improve, the early Compstat sessions in L.A. created resentment. It took Bratton several attempts to get the right Compstat team in place and to identify leaders such as Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, who were both innovators and also respected by the old guard of the department.

Bratton took a different approach to changing the culture of the department than Parker did. Parker was a propagandist, whose frequent speeches defended his department and belittled its critics. He grasped how Dragnet's popularity could burnish the LAPD's image--he supplied the show's producers with case files that put the department in the best possible light. Nothing captured Parker's technocratic ideal more than the famous Dragnet line, "Just the facts, ma'am."

Bratton, in contrast, focused heavily on changing the mindset of his top managers, particularly the 106 officers in the department who held the rank of captain or higher. According to Paul Weber, president of the police officers union, that's where Bratton's impact has been most evident. "Being a captain used to be a kick-back job," says Weber. Skipping out to play golf at two in the afternoon was not uncommon. "Now they are literally on call 24/7. It's probably one of the hardest jobs in the department."

Weber also credits Bratton with opening the department to outside ideas and influence. In the past, says Weber, the attitude was "if it wasn't conceived by LAPD then it was foreign and had to be looked at with jaundiced eye. Now it's the opposite. We're sending officers and rank-and-file to training all over the country." Weber and other officers have likewise noted that high-ranking officers who fail to perform up to standards are now disciplined or demoted, "which almost never happened in the past."

If Bratton made inroads with his top managers in L.A., he struggled to win the hearts and minds of street cops. In his previous assignments, Bratton had looked hard for ways to rally the troops around him. When he became head of the New York City transit police, that meant getting his officers new high-quality Glock pistols--better weapons than NYPD officers carried. Later, when Bratton became NYPD's chief, he won support by refusing to negotiate with activist Al Sharpton when Sharpton swooped in on a tense racially charged confrontation. Bratton believed these were incidents a savvy police chief could use to gain the loyalty of his people. "You certainly welcome those opportunities where you can stand up for them," Bratton says.

In L.A., however, Bratton's goal of winning the trust of his men and women sometimes came into conflict with his desire to close the racial and ethnic divide that Parker left behind. Two years ago, when officers from the elite Metro division used excessive force in breaking up an immigrants' rights rally, Bratton's quick denunciation of the officers who were involved enraged the police union. Two years later, the chief's quick judgment still rankles some officers.

"This department is still not behind me to the extent that the NYPD was," Bratton acknowledges. "I'm not a beloved figure here, and I don't kid myself--within the ranks of the LAPD, the influences of the past are still very significant in this organization."

In other words, the ghosts of Chief Parker remain. George Kelling, the well-known criminologist and one of the originators of the "broken windows" approach to policing, thinks that's not surprising. "Training helps, absolutely," Kelling says. "Recruitment helps. Supervision helps. But they are all puny when put against police culture."

Chief Parker ruled the LAPD for 16 years. His acolyte, Daryl Gates, served for another 14. That staying power is one of the reasons why there now is a 10-year term limit for police chiefs in L.A.

Chief Bratton has been in L.A. for seven years--his longest stint as a police chief, by far. (The average tenure of a big-city police chief today is two-and-a-half years.) Before Bratton announced his resignation, there was a movement among his supporters to lift the 10-year limit, in hopes that he would stay even longer.

Opponents of this idea felt that it's good to force change at the top every so often, no matter who's in charge. The term-limit debate amplified one of the great paradoxes of public leadership: We want reformers to stay in office long enough to truly fix broken organizations. But we're also wary of having them hang around for too long.

Was seven years enough for Bratton to effect lasting change in L.A.? It's hard to say, because culture change is hard to see. "You can go do ride-alongs with the LAPD, but it's very hard to judge whether the front line conduct is different," says Harvard University's Chris Stone, who heads the Kennedy School of Government's criminal justice and management program. "It would be nice to think so," he adds, but "I don't trust ride-alongs."

Stone does trust data, however, and a recent Harvard assessment of the department offers good numbers. Since Bratton became chief, stops and arrests have nearly doubled while use of force has fallen. According to Stone, the use-of-force statistic is powerful evidence that the LAPD's culture indeed has changed. "It's not about the rules. It is really about what officers think is acceptable."

Citizens seem to agree. According to a recent survey, 83 percent of Angelinos now rate the performance of the LAPD as good or excellent, including solid majorities in every ethnic group. This summer, a federal judge lifted the consent decree that had saddled the LAPD since the Rampart scandal. "I would say that battle has been won," says Cal State Fullerton's Sonenshein. "I think the LAPD is a regular department, rather than a semi-political military organization terrorizing elected officials and accountable to no one."

There's one more test. Next month, around the time Bratton leaves, the LAPD brass will move into a new headquarters to replace the old one, which has been named "Parker Center" since 1969. A faction of the city council, led by Bernard Parks--himself a former LAPD chief--wants to name the new building after Parker, too. Nobody is suggesting naming the building for Bratton instead. But whether the name "Parker" comes off or stays on will say a lot about whether Los Angeles has finally turned its back on the Dragnet era.

Governing staff writer John Buntin is the author of L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City, which tells the story of the rivalry between Chief William Parker and gangster Mickey Cohen. Learn more at www.johnbuntin.com.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Cal State Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein and has been corrected.

John Buntin
John Buntin  |  staff writer
jbuntin@governing.com  | 

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