William Bratton Is the Most Famous Cop in America

He’s hot-tempered and can be as blunt as a Billy club. But Chief Bratton gets the job done

Bratton may not have been schooled in the finer points of L.A. culture, but he was practiced at pulling a police department out of the mud. Weeks before he was sworn in, he dispatched a pair of consultants—Bob Wasserman and John Linder, the same men he had used in Boston and New York—to size up the LAPD, develop priorities, and devise a plan of action. Next came George Kelling, coauthor of the 1982 “Broken Windows” theory of policing (clean up little things first, arrest the small-timers, the big fish will follow), who would zero in on L.A.’s version of broken windows: abandoned cars, sofas left on sidewalks, graffiti. In time more consultants and colleagues would troop in. This was highly unusual and considered quite suspect in the closed world of the LAPD. To pay for them Bratton tapped the Police Foundation, a nonprofit entity that solicits private donations. He also hired an outside media professional to oversee the LAPD’s dealings with reporters, a job that historically had gone to a sergeant or lieutenant who was brought in from the streets and rarely media-savvy. In addition, the command staff was asked to submit resumes, identify the department’s biggest problems, and offer ideas—preferably outside the box—on how to solve them.

The problems were more severe than Bratton imagined. “During the last two years of Chief Parks’s term the department was extraordinarily dis-incentivized,” Bratton says. “Morale was down. Cops weren’t making arrests. This was compounded by the Fact that organizationally the department wasn’t where the crime was.” Meaning most detectives worked 9-to-5 weekday hours, and most crimes occurred at night or on weekends. Narcotics officers were not part of the teams assigned to gang activity even though gangs and narcotics go hand in hand. And unaccountably, the city’s most crime-ridden neighborhoods did not have enough cops, while more peaceful neighborhoods had too many.

Adding to the department’s sluggishness was its technology, or lack of it. Police cars were equipped with eight-year-old computers. “They look good, but they’re very slow, very antiquated, and very limited in their usefulness,” Bratton says. “I’m always reminded of the movie The Dirty Dozen. Donald Sutherland is inspecting the troops, and they’re all spit and polish. He leans over to the general and says, ‘They look good, but can they right?'”

Bratton barely had time to unpack before that bloody weekend in November 2002—his first weekend on the job—when there were II homicides, followed two weekends later by II more. He began to question what he had gotten himself into. The gang problem was out of control, and one of the tools he had always relied on to help fight crime—the media—was, well, AWOL. “If we hadn’t raised the issue, I’m not sure the media would have understood how many murders we had over those weekends,” he says. “TV doesn’t cover murders on the weekend. The L.A.. Times, the Daily News don’t have their main reporters working on weekends. They rely on us for press releases. New York is so tabloid driven, the papers keep attention focused on crime Here you have the odd thing of attempting to attract attention.”

On top of this, Bratton was struck by the city’s laid-back attitude toward crime. “The problems of South Los Angeles are seen as happening there and nowhere else,” he notes. By contrast, “in New York, where the monied people live was where the crime was occurring—the Upper East Side,” Bratton recalls. “They were face-to-face with it. The monied set in Los Angeles can spend their whole lives and never encounter it up in Brentwood.”

So here he was—an Outsider—with a force that was too small, deployed in the wrong places, demoralized, and under-equipped, in a city that didn’t much care. Not only would Bratton need to rally his troops, he had to shake the town—and the town criers-awake. He was energized, “There were enough new challenges to excite me, because it’s not deja vu all over again,” he says.

The son of a longshoreman who worked the Boston docks, Bratton grew up in the working-class neighborhood of Dorchester. He competed to get into one of the nation’s most prestigious public schools, Boston Latin, and did, only to flunk out in the eighth grade, incapable, he says, of grasping basic Latin. Years later he dropped out of Boston State College after one semester, unable to pay the tuition. He enlisted in the army and served in Vietnam.

But his dream was to be a Boston cop. In 1970, at age 23, he joined the department. By acing his promotional exams, taking bold leadership roles, delegating power, and never missing a chance to bring himself to the attention of his higher-ups—or the media—he rose to second in command in only ten years. Then he blundered. In a Boston magazine profile, Bratton stated that his goal was to become the commissioner. “I was too brash, too arrogant,” he wrote in his autobiography, Turnaround. “No one in the history of the department had ever said that out loud.” He was promoted-or demoted—in a lateral transfer. His rise through the Boston PD was over.

Within a year he was hired to run the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority Police. Three years later he took over the Metro Police. Less than four years after that he was seeking the top job at the New York City Transit Police, all the while plotting to snare the Big One: commissioner of the NYPD. After less than two years at Transit, however, he returned to the Boston PD to take the number two job—the one he’d held 12 years before. Only this time he saw a clear path to the top. But after becoming commissioner in March 1993, he was gone eight months later to the NYPD. By 1996, he was out of there, too.

Bratton’s decision to apply for the L.A. job shocked his wife, Rikki Klieman, the well-known Court TV anchorperson. They had been married a little more than three years, he for the fourth time, she for the third, and she thought their New York life was idyllic. They had an apartment in the city and a weekend house in the Hamptons. A former top criminal defense attorney in Boston, Klieman appeared on TV rive nights a week and taught at Columbia Law School. She was as career-driven as her husband, with an ego to match. (She even used the same coauthor, Peter Knobler, to write her memoir.) They were, she says, “a very public couple.” Since April 1996, when Bratton left as commissioner of the NYPD, he had been working as a consultant, advising countries on public safety and, after September 11, counterterrorism. “But he was not fulfilled,” Klieman says. After toying with the idea of running for mayor in 2001, Bratton worked hard for liberal candidate Mark Green, whom most expected to be New York’s next mayor. Green would then reappoint Bratton as police commissioner. But it was the dark horse, Michael Bloomberg, who won. In the meantime, there had been the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. “Bill felt powerless,” Klieman recalls. “He changes lives, he saves lives—that’s what he does. He’s a change agent. And he was not in any position to help in a meaningful way.”

Bratton began visiting L.A. as a member of the Justice Department’s consent decree monitoring board. The risk consulting company he worked for, Kroll Associates, had won the contract to be the federal monitor, and he was put on the board as “subject matter expert.” After one trip, he arrived home on July 12, 2002, and told Klieman he was considering applying for the chief’s job. “I had a tantrum for 48 hours like I was eight,” she says. “Then I got past it. The time was right for him. He missed the feeling that he made a difference. I think it’s his destiny to be here.”

Six weeks after he took over as chief, Bratton was ready to make a key move. Deputy Chief Mike Hillmann, the commanding officer of the air support division, had been practicing helicopter maneuvers, and inside his flight suit he was drenched. He walked into his office, tossed aside his helmet, and was told that Bratton was on his way over. Hillmann, a veteran of 37 years, including stints in the tough Metro and SWAT units, was skeptical that an outsider could come in and do the job. “I went through that experience once before, and it was rive years of not moving the department forward, of lack of leadership,” he says. “I didn’t want to see that again.”