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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Bratton’s face reddened. “The street cops,” he snapped. “They’re back on the streets, working a lot harder and a lot better. It’s not the economy,” he went on, his voice rising. “The economy’s gotten worse. Anyone wants to debate me, come on up.”

Huh?

In honor of Bratton’s one-year anniversary, Councilman Tom LaBonge has invited him to address the city council at a “Special Session on Crime.” It’s the first time he has appeared in council chambers since May, when he asked for an additional $30 million to hire 320 more cops. By an 11-3 vote, the council turned this down (as well as other items in the mayor’s budget). Some saw this as a slap in the face of the mayor, with Bratton an unwitting victim. Council member Jan Perry, who voted for the increase, later commented, “Oftentimes elected officials become far too vested in their egos. It’s our job to keep the needs of constituents first and stop trying to teach the opposition lessons in power.”

But it was Bratton who needed to bone up on power politics. In New York he had only to please or cajole the mayor. Here, he was dealing with 15 city council members who controlled the city’s purse strings. “Bill’s first mistake was not realizing he had to deal with a city council in addition to a mayor,” says Daryl Gates. “You need to know you have eight votes before you bring a matter before the council. You need ten votes to override a veto and six solid votes to sustain one.”

Bratton took the defeat personally. Speaking on the radio show AirTalk with Larry Mantle, he derided the council, saying, “Let them start attending some of the funerals of the victims of crime. Let them start attending some of the scenes of crime as I do every night in this city.” Which naturally made matters worse. He also held a press conference in front of Parker Center and called the council members “missing in action.” In his 48-hour media blitz, he disparaged the council in print, on TV, and on the radio, and then he told them he wouldn’t be able to reduce crime as he had promised. Council president Alex Padilla called the remarks “offensive and insulting.”

Although Bratton quickly issued an e-mail apology to each council member, LaBonge says, “I think it cost him a step or two.”

By late October, however, either the anger had subsided or tongues had been swathed in velvet. As LaBonge’s meeting on crime wore on, it became clear this was a kiss-and-make-up session—or perhaps a wasted session, given that the media were elsewhere, covering the devastating wildfires. In any event, each council person grabbed the mike to heap praise on the LAPD and the job Bratton was doing. Bratton, sounding uncustomarily humble, said, “We will work with what we have. I will tell you what we can use.” Then he added, “This year when we come back, we’ll knock on the door instead of using a battering ram.”

Bratton was being disingenuous. Only weeks before, he had told his command staff, “I know how we’re going to deal with the city council. We’re going to ignore them.”

Later, when asked if he planned to ignore the city council, Bratton smoothly replied, “No, not to ignore them. But to as great a degree as possible not to have to go to them for anything. The less you have to go across the street the better off we’ll all be.”

Given that state and city deficits now make it unlikely he will get additional funding—no matter what—for the next two years, Bratton would not have much need to “go across the street” anyway But that he would say it at all struck some as another example of his intemperate nature. Or his ability to politic. “I’ll also be working very hard to improve relationships and build some trust,” he added, “so that when the time comes to go and ask for something, we’re operating from a basis of trust.”

Connie Rice is a lawyer who spent most of her career with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund suing the LAPD and has been appointed by Brat-ton to head a nine-lawyer blue-ribbon panel to review the Rampart investigation. She thinks Bratton still doesn’t get it. “He doesn’t understand the politics of L.A.,” she says. “They’re under the radar, but they’re lethal. You have to understand that Ron Deaton [legislative liaison to the city council] runs the city and the subtle behind-the-scenes machinery that runs the government. The chief is not elected, but his is the most powerful political office in the county. Every politician from the turn of the last century has had to depend on LAPD to keep things under control. LAPD will sink a politician if the politician doesn’t do what LAPD wants. They simply withdraw the services, the crime rate goes up, the politician is out. There’s no other police department in the country that’s as lethal. The chief of police has more power than the mayor.”

Well, not quite, since the mayor can fire the chief of police. No matter. Power is what Bratton craves. “My whole career had been about making it to the top,” he wrote in his autobiography

He appears as driven as always. In L.A. his workdays often stretch to 17 hours, and his evenings typically consist of dinner with such law enforcement friends as Gerald Chaleff, a former president of the Police Commission whom Bratton put in charge of compliance with the consent decree, and consultant John Linder. Bratton is also learning the value of connections to Hollywood moguls, who are a source of donations to the Police Foundation. One filmmaker even created a four-minute, in-house spot to be played at roll call, designed to instill pride in the LAPD.

Always, it seems, he is intense and focused. LaBonge, asked if he found the chief charming or humorous off the job, commented, “He remembers things we talked about six months ago. He likes Griffith Park. I judge a man by what he likes in a community. He and his wife loved the merry-go-round in Griffith Park.”

Even at home in Los Feliz Bratton remains focused. Last winter, for his wife’s birthday he took her to Maui for a week, but in the middle of the vacation he returned to L.A. for 24 hours to attend a policeman’s funeral. Does he have an off switch? “For the most part,” Klieman says, “his switch is on. We go to a movie almost every Sunday So there’s two hours when his mind is otherwise occupied. He’s also a prolific reader. But he loves this job. A day with 32 crises for him is a day worth living.”