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
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When Bratton arrived, he told Hillmann he was going to double-promote him to deputy chief and make him the department’s gang czar. It would be his charge to devise a strategy to quell the escalating street violence. Sixty percent of the city’s violent crime, it is believed, is gang-related. There are 400 gangs, with 50,000 members in L.A., 100,000 in the county. The gang-focused CRASH units that operated out of the department’s 18 divisions had been effective in keeping crime down, but some of the rough tactics they used had been controversial, if not illegal. When the Rampart scandal emerged in 1999, Parks shut down all CRASH units, and the Justice Department prohibited the use of plainclothes officers, unmarked cars, and informants. “It was like somebody opened the barn doors and the gang members all got away,” Hillmann says.

Hillmann, 58, was the only white kid in the Hispanic neighborhood near Dodger Stadium where he grew up, and he witnessed his first gang homicide when he was 13. After Bratton’s visit, he spent a month of sleepless nights shaping his strategy. By March 9, he was ready to put his new 520-person Gang Impact Team to work. His 18 units, one for every station, integrate gang and narcotics personnel, and each is under the purview of a lieutenant “whose job is gangs, nonstop, 24 hours a day.” By mid November of last year, violent crime—assaults and homicides—was down 24 percent. “This is what keeps me young, I swear to God,” Hillmann says.

As had been his practice in Boston and New York, Bratton surrounded himself with people he knew. Sharon Papa, whom he’d met when he was at New York Transit and she was working for transit in L.A., was promoted to assistant chief. From New York he brought in John Miller, a former TV crime reporter who had interrupted his career to work as Bratton’s deputy chief of media relations at the NYPD; now Miller, known for his network of antiterrorism contacts, would serve as commanding officer of the newly created counterterrorism unit (since renamed Critical Incident Management Bureau). He promoted Jim McDonnell, whom he had known briefly at the Boston PD before McDonnell joined the LAPD in the early ’80s, to first assistant chief. And he hired Louis Anemone—who had run his computerized crime-tracking program, Compstat, for the NYPD—to do the same here. He also reached out to the contentious police union, the Police Protective League, inviting president Bob Baker to join a senior officers’ annual retreat. Baker is still glowing. “He empowers people to do their jobs,” he says. “He’s a good delegator. He’s … the Ronald Reagan of law enforcement.”

In truth, it was Mayor Hahn who stepped in to hand the union its biggest lollipop: approval to work a three-day, 12-hour-a-day week, a major source of conflict between officers and Bernie Parks. Bratton did agree to two demands—seemingly trivial—that greatly gratified the union. He approved the use of flat badges, which plainclothes officers can fit more easily into their pocket, and he agreed to permit officers and detectives living outside L.A. County to drive their police cars home after work. In the past, if called out in the middle of the night, they would have to drive to their station houses to collect a car. Now they could get to a crime scene faster

Rather than videotaping messages to the troops, played at roll calls and often ignored, Bratton showed up in person (something Parks and Williams did not do) to introduce himself. Next he summoned his command staff. “He said, Here’s the way it is,” Hillman recalls. “These are my expectations. If you don’t perform, you’re out. If you don’t want to work, it’s probably time for you to do something else.”

Finding himself on the elevator with the new chief, Dave Gascon, a deputy chief, said something to the effect of “I don’t know if I should retire. If there were things I could do here, I’d stay.” Hinting. Bratton said nothing. When the doors opened on six, Bratton stepped off and reportedly said, “Good luck with retirement,” and walked away. Gascon retired.

“He brings an East Coast, no-holds-barred style,” says one senior officer. “The West Coast has a little more finesse.”

“I always speak my mind—it’s just a matter of how you phrase it,” says Bratton. “You put your money where your mouth is. I tell it like it is.”

Indeed, Bratton’s tendency to skip certain niceties and cut to the chase doesn’t always play well here. Some, after listening to the chief, have come away alarmed. As he was speaking at a town hall meeting in South Los Angeles, someone stood up and demanded, “Why don’t you control your cops?” To which Bratton retorted, “Why don’t you control your kids?” Many applauded his anti-gang bravado, but one African American politician was incensed, saying, “His tendency to mouth off is problematic. He’s intemperate when he shoots from the hip, saying something like ‘You all have a nasty little habit here in Los Angeles of shooting guns in the air without regard to how the bullets come down.’ Or when constituents were pushing up on him about controlling the police officers who run the risk, and often do violate the rights of some people, and he fires back, ‘No, you should control your kids.’ It’s just not what one expects from a manager, okay?”

A polished speaker, Bratton has learned the art of crafting and delivering his messages to make sure they are clearly understood. But like a politician, he can sound too rehearsed. The Reverend Dr. Richard Byrd, who chairs an organization that provides after-school tutoring through the No Child Left Behind initiative, was pleased that Bratton attended one of its meetings. “I don’t remember another chief making an effort to get out there,” Byrd says. “But I felt he gave us the standard fare. I didn’t leave with a feeling he had truly answered our questions. He had his speech down pat. He pledged to us an increase in law enforcement, and we were looking for an increase in sensitivity.”

There is also the matter of his hair-trigger temper. Last summer the home of City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo was broken into. He called the police at Wilshire Division, the station closest to his home. The officers responded promptly. The next day Delgadillo happened to run into Bratton, and he told the chief what had happened. Bratton hit the roof. He hadn’t been notified, and he was embarrassed. He sent for two of the responsible commanding officers—Code 2, meaning, “Drop everything and get the hell in here. Now!”

When the men arrived, one, George Ibarra, the commanding officer of Wilshire station, extended his hand to Bratton. Bratton said,” I don’t know why you want me to shake your hand when I’m gonna kick your ass.” The second officer just stared at him. “I don’t know what you’re looking at,” Bratton growled. “I ought to kick the shit out of you.”

The two men left Parker Center shaken. “I’d never been called in like that before,” Ibarra said when asked about the incident. “He was dearly upset. That’s his style. He wants to get to the heart of the matter right away I’m the commanding officer of Wilshire, and the problem has to come to me. He’s holding us accountable. We’d always talked about making us accountable at the captain-and-above level. Now it’s actually happening.”

Once the command officers understood that being made more accountable also meant they could be more creative in designing strategies, most jumped on board. “Instead of Control, Contain, Punish,” says Downing, “we now have Create, Liberate, and Develop.” But Bratton’s insistence on accountability—holding officers responsible for the crime rates in their area—paired with his short temper continues to leave some on the force intimidated.

That temper was on public display at, of all places, his monthly press conference in November. Proudly, the chief announced that homicides were down 24 percent for the year, violent crime down 5 percent.

“To what do you attribute the drop in homicides?” a reporter asked.