Dismantling the Myth of Bill Bratton’s LAPD
The return of William Bratton as New York’s top cop raises questions about how far reform of stop-and-frisk laws will go. Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio has extolled the incoming chief for implementing “constitutional” stop-and-frisk policies during his Los Angeles tenure.
Stop right there and frisk Bratton’s Los Angeles record. It’s not what you might think.
The LAPD’s current inspector general, Alex Bustamante, is combing incomplete data from the LA Bratton era, 2002–09, but certain facts are clear. Violent crime declined in LA during those seven years. Bratton achieved his stated goal of “freeing” the LAPD from a federally imposed consent decree. Public opinion toward the LAPD rose to favorable levels in the African-American and Latino communities. But the numbers on “stops” (LA terminology for stop-and-frisk) point towards racial profiling and a possible ticking time bomb.
First, a comparison. Bratton personally commissioned a 2009 Harvard study of the LAPD that showed an escalation of stops—of both pedestrians and motorists—from 587,200 in 2002 to 875,204 in 2008, equally or surpassing the stop-and-frisk numbers in New York, where the policy was ruled unconstitutional and was a central issue in de Blasio’s campaign. Well over 70 percent of 2008 LAPD stops in inner-city precincts were of African-American and Latinos, a ration similar to New York’s.
There was a “steep increase” in arrests for minor crimes, known as Part Two (loitering DUI, disorderly conduct), in keeping with the Bratton philosophy of “broken windows” policing, while arrests for serious (Part One) crimes such as homicide and rapes declined to only 15 percent of total arrests from 2003–07. Broken communities, not broken windows, are the real socio-economic crisis in LA, and Bratton’s approach simply served to perpetuate the divide. The priorities set by Bratton were untouched by police reform because of they were considered “police management decisions to use arrest powers more aggressively for less serious crimes.”
The Harvard report found a 17 percent increase from 2006–08 in the use of non-lethal force (stun guns, bean bags, etc.) in the predominately black Central Bureau. “A troubling pattern in the use of (non-lethal) force,” the report concludes, “is that African Americans, and to a lesser extent Hispanics, are subjects of the use of force out of proportion to their share of involuntary contacts with the LAPD.”
Only 1.6 percent of 2,368 citizen complaints of officer “discourtesy” were upheld. There was a total rejection of 1,200 racial profiling complaints during 2002–08.
Bratton was out of Los Angeles one-third of the time in certain years, when he was often in Washington, London and, of course, New York. The NY City Council will have a significant role to play in monitoring the Bratton policies, a power that was delegated to federal monitors in the case of Los Angeles.
De Blasio might find Bratton’s finesse at avoiding consent decrees useful as the mayor grapples with the issues ahead. What other reason there might be for the choice of Bratton is unknown, but Bratton remains a high-profile, internationally—known, celebrity-befriending figure with great ambitions.
Bratton’s departure from LA left a lingering question about conflicts of interest that deserve renewed scrutiny. He worked in 2001 as a paid consultant under Michael Cherkasky of New York–based Kroll Inc., who had just been appointed as the federal monitor over the department. Bratton became chief in October 2002. That meant that the monitor was monitoring his former consultant. While Bratton labored to have the consent decree lifted, he continued some sort of relationship with Cherkasky, since four months after the federal decree was ordered lifted, Cherkasky hired Bratton for a lucrative job at Altegrity Inc., which Bratton had created only one month before. Leaving the LAPD with the consent decree lifted, Bratton next rose into the sphere of global security counseling, where transparency tends to be non-existent. The Los Angeles Times’s Tim Rutten’s comment on Bratton is worth considering as he arrives to reform New York policing:
In other words, the monitor gave the court advice that helped cement Bratton’s reputation as the country’s leading police chief, then just weeks later the two enter into a lucrative business arrangement built on that very reputation.
Many in the LA civil liberties community, from the ACLU’s Ramona Ripston to civil rights lawyer Connie Rice, supported Bratton during his stay, perhaps in comparison to Los Angeles’s long history of abusive policing. No doubt those endorsements carried weight with de Blasio’s incoming team. But the cooptation of his critics also eroded a once-aggressive civil rights community in Los Angeles, one which forced the city into federal receivership and reform. That too is a legacy for New Yorkers to monitor carefully as Bratton tries to make stop-and-frisk “constitutional.”
Candidate de Blasio promised to end a “stop-and-frisk era.” But Mychal Denzel Smith says the mayor-elect’s pick for police commissioner undermines that goal.