Come October 31, Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Bratton will be like the marshal in the final act of one of those old Westerns.
Having ridden in some time ago to clean up the town, his work is now finished. The grateful townsfolk beg him to stay on and put down some roots, but he’ll have none of it. Instead he’ll hang up his star and his shootin’ iron, pack his carpet bag, and ride off with is girl into the, well, the sunrise, actually, if we’re going to be precise about things.
Bratton is headed back to New York, where he’ll take what we may presume to be a highly remunerative position in a private security company headed by an old crony. (One wonders how on earth he managed to scrape by on the $320,000 he was making as chief of police.) And as he leaves town, he will see his many admirers thronging to strew rose petals in his path, for the town he was hired to tame truly has been transformed. If that transformation hasn’t been entirely due to his efforts, well, why not let the myth survive at least until the credits roll?
When Bratton came to the LAPD in 2002, the department had endured ten years under two ineffectual police chiefs, Willie Williams and Bernard Parks. I recall those days as one recalls a terrible illness: you remember feeling bad, but once health is restored, some trick of the mind prevents you from remembering just how truly bad off you were. The department had suffered through the Rampart corruption scandal and, under the terms of a consent decree, had been placed under the supervision of a federal judge. Crime was rising, morale was plummeting, and officers were fleeing the job far more quickly than their replacements could be hired and trained.
I was an early advocate for appointing Bratton to head the department. It seemed to me at the time that only he had the necessary combination of experience and freedom from the taint that had attached itself to those from within the LAPD who aspired to the position. In the world of law enforcement, he was arguably the only all-star. And indeed, the dismal trends of the Parks years were reversed from virtually the moment Bratton was hired. The LAPD stopped hemorrhaging officers and crime began to trend lower, slowly at first and then dramatically. In 2002, the city saw 647 homicides; by 2008 the number was 381. And if trends continue to hold, the number should be even lower this year. As of last week the LAPD had investigated 184 murders since January 1, down 19 percent from the same period last year.
So he has earned his admirers, but as anyone who has followed his career will tell you, William Bratton has no greater admirer than William Bratton himself. Which brings us to the curious timing of his departure, coming as it does only two years into his second five-year term as chief. When Bratton came to Los Angeles, a friend in the NYPD described him as the P.T. Barnum of law enforcement, a handle that seems just as apt today as it did then. Like Barnum, Bratton knows how to put on a show, and also like Barnum, he knows to leave the audience wanting more as he exits the stage.
As things now stand, Bratton departs the LAPD as an almost unqualified success. Crime is down, morale is up, and the federal consent decree has been lifted. What is left for the man to do but to move on to the next challenge? But there are indeed challenging times ahead right here in Los Angeles. Budgetary constraints will prevent the LAPD from expanding over the 10,000-officer mark, and the department will likely even struggle to maintain its current strength as the local economy continues to sputter. And, thanks to an order from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, 43,000 inmates will soon be disgorged from California’s prisons to alleviate overcrowding, the greater share of whom will end up right back in Los Angeles where they came from. With a police force that may be shrinking and a criminal population that will surely be growing, how long will the crime numbers continue to fall?
Added to this are the strained relations Bratton enjoys with some in city government. When he arrived, Bratton’s was the biggest political name in town, far eclipsing that of then-Mayor James Hahn and anyone else you could think of. He might have remained the biggest star in town had he only refrained from ensnaring himself in petty municipal politics. (And I can think of few places where the politics are more petty than in Los Angeles.) Rather than remain nobly above the fray, he picked needless fights with city council members and even endorsed a candidate for city attorney who, unfortunately for Bratton, went on to lose the election. He is seen as attached at the hip to current Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who himself was once a rising star and potential candidate for governor, but is now, owing to some personal peccadilloes and a lagging local economy, greatly diminished in the public eye. Bratton may be leaving the stage with his public wanting more, but his star, notwithstanding the accolades that have attended his resignation, doesn’t shine with quite the luster it once did.
Los Angeles may owe William Bratton a debt of gratitude, but few who have followed his trajectory were as stunned as they proclaimed to be when he announced his resignation last week. Bratton has done much good in turning around troubled police departments, including the LAPD, but in every position he’s held there’s been no mistaking that it’s always been about William Bratton rather than the organization. As the LAPD heads into potentially rough waters, the captain has decided to go ashore rather than remain at the helm to bear the blame if the ship founders.
But that hasn’t stopped him from entertaining the idea of having the new LAPD headquarters building, set to open just before his departure, named after him. “At this stage, no,” he told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times. “But further down the line? Sure, why not?”
The current headquarters is named after the legendary William H. Parker, who served as chief of police from 1950 until his death in 1966. Maybe the new building will indeed be named after Bratton someday, but like Chief Parker before him, all he has to do is die first.