To Protect and To Serve

It's been a day of encomiums for retiring LAPD police chief Bill Bratton, and no wonder. As my own post of yesterday made clear, the ...
by | August 6, 2009 AT 3:00 AM

It's been a day of encomiums for retiring LAPD police chief Bill Bratton, and no wonder. As my own post of yesterday made clear, the department's achievements in reducing crime and improving minority groups' perceptions of the police during his tenure have been nothing short of amazing. But Bratton's greatest accomplishment has not yet been widely recognized. Arguably, his greatest legacy has been to change the culture of the LAPD. 

Organizational management types have long recognized that every organization has its own distinctive personality or culture. That's particularly true of police departments. But the LAPD had something different -- an ideology. That ideology was the creation of the man who ruled the LAPD from 1950 to 1966, Chief William H. Parker.

I have a personal interest in Chief Parker. My forthcoming book,  L.A. Noir: The Struggle for the Soul of America's Most Seductive City , tells the story of his rivalry with Los Angeles's most notorious gangster, the mobster Mickey Cohen. Parker was determined to wage war on the underworld. He believed (with good reason, given the tenor of the times) that it was necessary to free the department from corrupt elected officials to do so. Soon after becoming chief, Parker hit upon a metaphor that would in time come to define the department: the LAPD was "The Thin Blue Line" that stood between civilization and chaos.

Parker modeled the LAPD on the Marine Corps. Like the Marines, it was to be an elite fighting unit. He scorned community outreach as "social work" and had no interest in playing sociologist. In time, Parker succeeded in instilling élan in the department and in rooting out corruption. But the defiant independence cherished by Parker and his successors (including Chief Daryl Gates, who happened to be Parker's former driver) eventually became destructive.

There was a sense, says Cal State Fullerton professor Raphael Sonenshein "that they were the only moral force in the city. That's pretty frightening when a police department thinks that."

Bratton came to the Los Angeles with two primary goals -- proving once again to skeptical criminologists that he could reduce crime and improving race relations, something previous chiefs had sometimes seemed interested in doing only on the department's terms. But Bratton realized that the department's own culture -- the "thin blue line" metaphor and the aggressive "hook 'em and book 'em" approach to crime prevention was also part of the problem. From the beginning, Bratton took a different approach. He openly deferred to the civilian Police Commission. Instead of withholding judgment, he also reacted quickly and severely to incidents where he believed his officers had used excessive force, most notably disciplining senior brass who oversaw the breaking up a May Day rally two years ago in MacArthur Park. By doing so, Bratton gathered bouquets from the city's elected officials while also drawing some brickbats from critics inside the department who prefered the defiant independence of the past.

"This department is still not behind me to the extent that the NYPD was," Bratton told me in an interview earlier this summer. "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."

But over the course of time,Bratton has succeeded in fostering a new ideology in his top managers.  One district commander, Bratton recalled, put it best when he said, "The future of the LAPD is not in handcuffs."

"The future of the LAPD is not just in arresting people," Bratton went on. "When you look for the cultural change, the transformative change that's occurred, I've got a generation of police leaders, all of whom I've handpicked... And to a person, they get it... It isn't just about arrests, it's about the idea of community relationships. It's about creative policing and the willingness to work on new and creative things."

Chief Parker stayed in office for 16 years. When Bill Bratton leaves at the end of October, he'll have been there for only seven. Is that long enough? It's hard to say with any certainty.

"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's Chris Stone. "It would be nice to think so," but, he adds, "I don't trust ride alongs."

But Stone does trust data, and there are powerful reasons to hope for the best. Since Bratton became chief in 2002, stops and arrests have doubled while use of force has actually fallen. And that, says Stone, is "amazing, really amazing."

Angelenos seem to agree. According to a survey recently conducted by the Kennedy School of Government, 83 percent of Angelenos now rate the performance of the LAPD as good or excellent, including solid majorities in every ethnic group. And residents are optimisitc that things will continue to improve in the future.

"I would say that battle has been won," says Sonenshein, the Cal State Fullerton professor. "I think the LAPD is a regular department that would be recognizable to other cities rather than semi-political military organization terrorizing elected officials and accountable to no one."

And that is quite an achievement.

Hopefullness report