If there’s such a thing as law enforcement celebrity, William Bratton tops the A-list. The former chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, who stepped down Saturday after almost seven years of service, is widely credited with revolutionizing law enforcement strategy in Los Angeles and restoring to reputability the once-battered image of its police department.
And that’s quite an impressive résumé, though Bratton might not see it that way. For this policing titan, averting disaster is all in a day’s work.
“I describe myself as a transformative change agent,” Bratton said. “I’m somebody who looks to come into an organization that’s in crisis or in trouble to change it.
“If it’s not in crisis or trouble,” he continued, “I seek to create one, because I’m a great believer that crisis creates a sense of urgency. A sense of urgency creates change at a much faster pace.”
But in Los Angeles, Bratton never needed to create crisis. When he arrived in 2002 to become LAPD’s chief, the crisis was ready and waiting for him.
The LAPD and the city it protected were on the ropes. Gang violence was becoming increasingly dangerous, public funding was sparse and the police department’s image had been heavily dogged by accusations of racism and brutality.
Bratton set out to change all that, and it didn’t take him long. During his seven-year tenure as LAPD chief, overall crime dropped by 30 percent and violent crime, including murders, fell by a staggering 50 percent.
Bratton was particularly in South Los Angeles, home to some of the city’s most infamously crime-ravaged communities — and USC. From 2003 through 2007, LAPD’s South Bureau reported a 30 percent reduction in Part I crime, the category that includes homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, grand theft and arson.
But the numbers are just the culmination of Bratton’s success story. They are the fruit of what most would agree is his greatest tangible legacy — a brand new perspective on enforcing the law. The story of Bratton’s career really begins 3,000 miles to the east, with an idea called CompStat.
CompStat, or the Comparative Statistics system, was born in 1994 during Bratton’s tenure as chief of the New York Police Department. When he arrived in New York that year, he faced a crisis similar to the one he would face in Los Angeles eight years later.
To combat New York’s high crime rates, Bratton decided to focus on rebuilding the broken sociocultural bridges between the police department and many of its low-income and minority citizens, who often felt antagonized by law enforcement.
The new model was rooted in the assumption that successful crime reduction and
quality-of-life improvement depend on understanding localized demographic and social nuance. Under CompStat, more decision-making authority shifts from top-level officers to local precinct commanders, who are more familiar with the specific policing challenges that their communities present.
In New York, Bratton’s CompStat system was an immediate success. Between 1993, the year before Bratton joined NYPD, and 1997, the year after he left, violent crime in New York dropped by nearly 15 percent. Since 1997, as CompStat lives on, that statistic has plummeted further, shedding another 62 percent.
New York was the birthplace of Bratton’s model. But when he took over as chief of LAPD in 2002, he brought his evolving system with him — and looked to make it better.
He and his colleagues have modified the model to account for Los Angeles’ sprawling geography and relative dearth of public monetary resources, Bratton said, but the steps toward his overall vision are the same.
“I try to surround myself with people who share my vision, who have the capacity to set goals,” he explained. “All the ideas aren’t mine — I’m a delegator. I delegate a lot of responsibilities to people. Those people develop our goals. And then we push it further down into the organization, where we find other like-minded people — middle managers — who will embrace the vision. From our goals, they are able to develop the strategies that are going to work in their particular geographic area.”
Bratton’s system — from the vision down to the middle managers — worked for Los Angeles. And as his tenure gives way to new Chief Charlie Beck’s, the community is recognizing it.
In an editorial published on Oct. 18, the Los Angeles Times declared, “Today’s LAPD has topped 10,000 officers for the first time; crime is down; police are using less serious force; and city residents overwhelmingly approve of the department’s work. Those are heartening indicators.”
For Bratton, LAPD’s success ultimately depends on one simple principle: “cops count, police matter.”
It means that, at the end of the day, the key to successful law enforcement is the police officers themselves, and their ability to relate to the complexities of the people and the communities they protect.
And perhaps, above all other things, it is Bratton’s emphasis on personal interactions that has made him so successful in some of Los Angeles’ most conflicted neighborhoods — specifically the one that surrounds USC’s campus.
“One of the things I have to give him credit for is not ignoring South LA,” said John Thomas, a former LAPD officer who now serves as assistant chief of USC’s Department of Public Safety. “He spent a lot of time in South LA building relationships, going to churches, going to community groups. He never stopped going to South LA and making himself accessible, and listening to concerns.”
Over time, Bratton began to understand the most sensitive issues of race and class around USC’s campus — and he, unlike so many others, isn’t afraid to address them head on.
“The reality is that the majority of the crime around your campus is going to be committed by a minority youth — Latino or African-American,” Bratton said. “So that raises a concern among the student body, no matter what you are — African-American, white, Latino, Asian — about the kids from the neighborhood.
“If you reduce crime,” he concluded, “you also reduce that fear of somebody because they look different, or they’re not from your class or your group.”
Thomas, who during his latter LAPD years worked closely with Bratton as his adjutant, learned a great deal from Bratton’s CompStat methods, and, more importantly, his perceptive eye. When Thomas came to work for DPS three years ago, his time with the chief paid off.
Since then, crime on and around campus has been steadily declining, with a 50-percent drop in off-campus robberies. Thomas says he, and the rest of DPS, owe their success to Bratton.
“I’ve been at DPS for three years, and from the day I got there, Bratton’s strategies are what we have been using,” Thomas said. “It’s all CompStat.”
But for Thomas, the chief’s impact is greater than CompStat. It was Bratton, Thomas said, who taught him the importance of seeking out crime in its most intimidating forms — and confronting it head on.
“Working with Bratton taught me you don’t just have to react to crime,” he said. “You can be proactive, and stop it from happening before it occurs.”
As Bratton returns to the East Coast, prepared to bring his unprecedented law enforcement prowess to the private security realm, Beck — his newly appointed successor — certainly has his work cut out for him.