Real Talk From L.A.’s Top Cop on His Decision to Leave, His Successor, and Black Los Angeles

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Jasmyne Cannick and Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton

I have to admit that I am sad to see L.A.’s top cop leave. While my opinion may not be in the majority as it relates to Blacks here in Los Angeles, Police Chief William Bratton has definitely been my favorite police chief. His “tell it like it is” attitude won me over a long time ago. While some of his comments, as controversial as they were, made headline news time and time, under his leadership I witnessed firsthand as a resident of Los Angeles, the face of a new L.A.P.D. A department that reached out to the community in ways that hadn’t been done before, without the baton or flashlight.

And to keep it real, while I admire Chief Bratton, I didn’t always agree with him. There were times that I felt that the Mayor was really the police chief and I certainly didn’t appreciate Bratton’s admission that Los Angeles will never rid itself of gangs, but nevertheless, his style of leadership must be acknowledged. The department he’s leaving behind is not the same department it was seven years ago. Whoever the chosen one is to replace him will have some big shoes to fill because Bratton is going to be a tough act to follow in my book.

I sat down with the outgoing Chief to get final comments from him on the future of the police department and more importantly its relationship with African-Americans as well as who he’d like to see succeed him, Devin Brown, Stanley Miller, his alleged beef with Councilmember Bernard Parks, NBC’s Southland show, and the renaming of LAPD headquarters after former police chief Parker.

The relationship between Black Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Police Department is one that has been documented and immortalized in films, home videos, rap music, television news, and through the memories of those who have lived to tell about it—the good, the bad, and the ugly. African Americans have seen their fair share of police chiefs come and go. Some exits were cause for celebration and a sigh of relief like that of former police chiefs William H. Parker, Daryl F. Gates, and Willie L. Williams.

Other exits were not as celebrated or approved of including the former Mayor James Hahn’s decision not to retain then police chief, now 8th District Councilmember, Bernard C. Parks. But with each exit African Americans held their breath in anticipation of who would be next to fill L.A.’s top cop position—more importantly what would be the impact on a relationship between a notorious police department and its Black residents that at times was one video captured beating or killing away from all hell breaking loose.

So when then Mayor James Hahn, who had lost the support of the Black community after his decision not to retain favored African American police chief Bernard Parks, announced that outsider William Joseph “Bill” Bratton, a white man, was to be appointed to the position of L.A.P.D.’s Commander and Chief in 2002, African Americans by and large felt like it was going to be business as usual with the L.A.P.D. again. But with Chief Bratton, it was anything but.

Seven years later, L.A.’s top cop is leaving Los Angeles behind. This after being reappointed to a second five-year term, the first reappointment of an L.A.P.D. chief in almost 20 years and Councilman Herb Wesson’s proposed amendment to the City Charter that would have allowed for Bratton to serve a third consecutive term as Police Chief. Bratton made the big announcement back in August that he’ll be moving back to New York City to take a position with a private international security firm called Altegrity, serving as a CEO of a new division where he will consult on security for police departments worldwide. I went one-on-one with Police Chief Bratton on his thoughts regarding race relations, today’s L.A.P.D., and the future of the Department after he is gone.

“I choose Los Angeles because of the problems they were having with race relations,” Bratton says. “And quite clearly, the African American community was having major problems and had been having them for many generations with the L.A.P.D. So the idea was to reach out, even before I got here, to also be very responsive to what the concerns of that community were.”

“It was ironic that they had a great anger and dislike of the Department yet they still wanted that Department to be in their community trying to make the community it safer. What they resented was how it was being done. The idea of being very aggressive, for many years it was very brutal, it was seen to be very demeaning the way it was done and it was as if it was being done to the community instead of being done for the community.”

LAPD’s Outgoing Top Cop Reflects on Past and Future of Department from Jasmyne Cannick on Vimeo.

Chief Bratton’s comments echo the feelings of many Los Angeles Blacks who felt that they had been the extracurricular activities of the Los Angeles Police Department for decades. From the 1962 controversial L.A.P.D. shooting of seven unarmed members of the Nation of Islam including the death of Ronald Stokes, to 10 years later in 1972 when Elmer “Geronimo” Pratt was framed by members of both the L.A.P.D. and FBI, Rodney King, the O.J. Simpson trial, and the recent cover-up of the beating and asphyxiation of an 18th Street gang member, that later became known as the Rampart Division C.R.A.S.H. scandal and consequently caused the United States Department of Justice to enter into a consent decree with the L.A.P.D. regarding numerous civil rights violations—you could say that L.A. and its police department had it’s fair share of problems.

But yet and still with all of L.A.’s race relations issues, Bratton insists that the majority of the crime wasn’t the police on Blacks, but rather Black on Black crime.

“You cannot argue with the fact that most crime occurs in minority and poor communities, that’s the reality,” Chief Bratton explains. “It’s done by minority and poor members of those communities to minority and poor members of those communities. Sometimes it will spill over to an adjacent community—white or Latino or vice-versa which in that case oftentimes will get much more publicity than just what’s happening inside the community.”

“And so my style of policing is to go where the problems are and that means going into the inner city neighborhoods, Brown and Black, where most of the crime is committed and where most of the victims live but to do it in a way that was different from the way that it was done in the past. Do it constitutionally, we can’t break the law to do it. Do it compassionately. We’re dealing with human beings and while some of those human beings are contemptible in terms of their lack of respect for human life and the ability to kill and hurt, maim and rape, you’re still dealing with human beings and so you still have to deal with them with a degree of respect.”

“And lastly, you have to do it consistently. Consistently meaning you don’t police differently in this community than you police in another community. That you try to police fairly.”

Chief Bratton says that the crime statistics speak for themselves.

The L.A.P.D. reports that since Chief Bratton took the helm in 2002, homicides are down 53.1% citywide. In the Department’s South Bureau, homicide, rape, robbery, and aggravated assaults are down 32.5%.

“And something that I’ve fought for from the beginning that I think was appreciated, that this was a city because there were so few police everybody wants their police and they don’t want to share them. And I insisted right from the beginning I was going to put a lot more police in those neighborhoods with more crime. And in the case of Los Angeles, that’s South Los Angeles, that’s Hollenbeck, it’s certain areas of Wilshire, certain neighborhoods in the valley, and that didn’t go well with a lot of political leaders, a lot of community groups, everybody wanted their share. But, we had to put them where most of the crime occurs. Skid Row, I put 50 additional officers on Skid Row. It’s worked quite well.”

And while gang related crimes are down 34.1%, many in the community don’t see it.

Earlier this year at a press conference, Chief Bratton remarked that L.A. was never going to get rid of gangs, a statement that didn’t resonate too well throughout the community.

“I’m a realist, I also tell it like it is. I don’t sugar coat anything, that’s one of the things that people like about me. I am plain speaking. I remember about a week after I was sworn in as Chief of Police there was a demonstration, and back in those days there were a lot of demonstrations outside of police headquarters demonstrating against police brutality. There was a group of people out there with a bunch of signs that read “Bratton control your cops.” And as I was going to a meeting I was walking through the crowd and they’re all lobbying and yelling and waving signs at me, and I charged them and said “control your kids.”

“Basically, that’s what it’s all about. Kids 15 to 25 that have parents, that have somebody in their lives that’s supposed to be controlling them. We the police shouldn’t have to be controlling somebody else’s kids but we are because unfortunately a lot of people lost control of their kids. That didn’t set well with a lot of people. A lot of other people said that was something that needed to be said. And the idea was don’t expect the police to be substitutes for mom’s and dad’s that are not there or who are there and are not controlling their kids.”

“There are always going to be gangs. It’s part of the culture unfortunately in the African American and in the Latino community. One of the things we know is that we can control the behavior of those gangs tremendously better than we did in the past. In 1990, there 1100 murders in the city, over half of them were committed by gangs—that’s an average of three murders a day. Right now, this year, this month, we’re averaging a murder about every three days. We’ve had nine murders in 26 days. One every three days in a city with 400 gangs, 40,000 gang members.”

“So what we’re able to do is by policing smarter that we’ve been able to reduce the violence of those gangs. What is it that attracts our attention to those gangs, it’s their violence. It’s their influence on neighborhoods, where businesses don’t want to invest or where they kidnap your kids. There’s almost a million school age kids in this city. How many of them are in gangs? About 15,000 out of one million, 0.015 percent.”

“We tend to always look at the half full instead of the positive. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of the kids in this city will never go into a gang but they’re going to be influenced by the violence of the gangs. So what do we want to influence. We want to influence the violence of the gangs and we’ve don’t a very good job of that.”

A long-time fan of suppression, prevention, and intervention when it comes to getting a grip on gangs, under Bratton’s leadership he’s spearheaded groundbreaking intervention programs and partnerships, including with noted civil rights attorney Connie Rice and her Advancement Project. He leaves behind the groundwork for the L.A.P.D.’s latest efforts at intervention, a re-entry program for felons returning back to Los Angeles that will provide job training and job placement assistance.

In addition to policing smarter, Chief Bratton credits the gang injunctions with helping to lessen gang violence and community policing.

“We have all types of partnership ventures going on. Partnership is a key component of what we practice which is community policing. We are really a police department of the community.”

Responsible for covering 473 square miles and over 3.8 million residents, the L.A.P.D., like the city it has sworn to protect and serve, has grown to just over 10,000 officers. The most visible change is the Department’s composition? 40.7% of its officers being Latino, 38% white, 12% Black, 6.7% Asian and 2.6% qualifying as “other,” as in other than white, L.A.’s police department has started to mirror the constituency it serves.

When Bratton steps down Saturday, October 31, Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger, Director of Office and Operations will be the highest-ranking African American in the Department. Along with Paysinger, there are about 21 others African Americans in the command staff of the L.A.P.D., including three female Captains.

In terms of his replacement, Bratton has strong feelings that it will be an insider.

“There’s a very good group of candidates who have all been a part of helping to bring about the change in the Department that’s reflective today. I want to see someone who is like myself, an optimist. Feels good about creating change. I want somebody who likes challenges. He likes to confront crisis and challenges. I think they have to be a very good people person. This is often reinforced in my conversations with African American leadership, among my own people, and with African American politicians, that they really do believe that they can tell if someone is giving them a song and a dance, if they’re not sincere.”

Jasmyne_Bratton_2“And so the next Chief is going to really have to be able to not only talk the walk, but they are going to have to be able to show that they can walk the talk otherwise they’re going to very quickly be discovered that they’re only going through the motions. The good news is that all of the people on my command staff have been walking the walk with me. I haven’t been doing this by myself. I want to see someone who believes as I do that police can be used to effective to reduce racial tension instead of exacerbating it and making it worse.”

Perhaps the greatest unsung statistic of all under Police Chief Bratton’s tenure is that when he leaves office this week, under his leadership, race relations and mutual good feelings between Blacks and the L.A.P.D. will have improved to levels only seen one time before, when there were no Blacks in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Police Commission has chosen the three finalists in the campaign to become the next chief:

  • Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell
  • Deputy Chief Charlie Beck
  • Deputy Chief Michel Moore

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Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is scheduled to conduct interviews with the three and plans to announce his choice for chief on Monday. The City Council then must ratify Villaraigosa’s choice. A decision is not expected to take place before November 10. Deputy Chief Michael Downing has been appointed as the interim chief until a permanent replacement is selected and ratified.

Jasmyne Cannick

Reprinted with permission from JasmyneCannick.com

Published by the LA Progressive on October 31, 2009
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About Jasmyne Cannick

Jasmyne is a critic and commentator based in Los Angeles who writes about the intersection of pop culture, race, class, and politics as played out in the African-American community. An award-winning journalist who previously worked in the U.S. House of Representatives as a press secretary, Jasmyne was selected as one of ESSENCE Magazine’s 25 Women Shaping the World and is a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s “News and Notes.” She is currently working as a political consultant in California on local and state campaigns.