By Thomas Watkins
LOS ANGELES — Crime was rising, officer morale slumping and fallout from a corruption scandal was still smoldering when William Bratton arrived in 2002 to head a police department with a tattered reputation. Even the police buildings were crumbling.
Seven years later, the Los Angeles Police Department is an agency transformed and few would downplay Bratton's role in the turnaround. Crime has dropped to historic lows, the police force is bigger and more diverse than ever and several gleaming new facilities, including a $437 million headquarters downtown, reflect the department's polished image.
Bratton is stepping down this week for a high-paying private sector job, raising fears that the department will suffer in his absence after such a successful tenure.
"I fear the reforms he brought to the department might dissipate," said Joe Domanick, who has studied the LAPD for decades and is associate director at the Center on Crime, Media and Justice at the John Jay College in New York. "I would feel much more comfortable if he had served out his second five-year term."
Bratton, who has headed the police departments in Boston and New York, hands in his badge to take a job as chief executive officer at Altegrity Security Consulting, a private security firm based in Virginia.
Despite misgivings from those who say he is leaving too soon, Bratton is confident the department can continue its present course without him.
During his seven-year tenure, he replaced most top brass and carefully groomed his new assistant and deputy chiefs. He is openly lobbying for an insider to replace him.
"These are great people," Bratton told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "They are smart as a whip, they know the city and they know the cast of characters they are going to have to interact with. All of them have the respect of the men and women of the department. ... The insider can keep that going without a hitch."
Still, the new chief will face challenges Bratton never encountered. Foremost is the financial crisis devastating the city and California.
In the short term, the new chief must deal with renewed pressures from a City Council desperately looking to cut costs as it confronts a $400 million budget shortfall. Since 2002, the Police Department has increased by more than 800 officers to its highest ever level of 10,000 - something Bratton calls a cornerstone to improved community relations and dropping crime.
Already the City Council has implemented a two-month hiring freeze and said it will only hire enough officers to replace those leaving the department. It remains to be seen how long the commitment will last.
Officers may also face increased pressure from the early release of up to 40,000 state prisoners, as California moves to comply with a federal order aimed at reducing overcrowding.
Any increase in crime would be viewed harshly because Bratton oversaw crime rate drop to historic lows. Homicides last year were down more than 40 percent compared to 2002 and the figure is set to fall lower still this year.
Despite his successes, the chief's tenure has been marked by barbed exchanges with City Council members. Bratton was especially dismissive of efforts by Councilman Dennis Zine, a former Los Angeles police sergeant, to protect celebrities from the paparazzi. He has become increasingly vocal in his contempt for the local political system, which he calls "incredibly dysfunctional."
"The sad part is that he has burned bridges with elected officials, part of it is the New York-type, duke-it-out attitude," Zine said, while acknowledging Bratton's positive impacts on the LAPD. "We are a little more polite on the West Coast."
Bratton's relations on the whole have been conciliatory. After arriving in Los Angeles, he reached out to residents and community activists, making friends of traditional police adversaries.
African-American commentator and community activist Earl Ofari Hutchinson notes Bratton backed his rhetoric with measurable changes in police behavior, including fewer shootings by officers. It was Bratton who is credited with healing the LAPD's long-running rift with the city's black community.
"He turned the department around in terms of race relations," Hutchinson said. "The LAPD was the poster agency for so long for police abuses and misconduct."
Over the course of its 140-year history, the LAPD has repeatedly alienated itself from the community and heavy-handed policing was the source of violent flashpoints, including the 1991 Rodney King beating that led to riots. In 1999, the so-called Rampart scandal, centered on acts of corruption in an anti-gang unit, led to the Justice Department's threatening to sue the city unless the LAPD adopted numerous reforms overseen by an independent monitor and a federal judge.
The oversight ended in July and shortly afterward Bratton attracted scrutiny when he announced he was retiring to work for the independent monitor, Michael Cherkasky, chief executive officer of Altegrity Inc.
When asked about his legacy, Bratton cited the end of the federal monitoring, the decrease in crime rates and improved race and community relations. He was also proud of anti-terror efforts, boosting the force tenfold to about 300 counterterrorism officers.
His own best spokesman, Bratton is not modest about his accomplishments.
"I am probably the most well-known police official in the world," he said, before listing recent achievements, including getting elected as president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association and an honor from the Queen of England recognizing Bratton's work to improve cooperation between U.S. and UK police.
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"You always want to leave them smiling, and right now a lot of people in this city are smiling," Bratton said. "Get out while the getting's good."