Bratton: L.A. Is as Safe as 1956
Patrick Range McDonald
Apr 30, 2009
In the weeks leading up to the tepid re-election of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa last month, Bill Bratton, the statistics-driven chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, appeared on TV in a political advertisement paid for by the Villaraigosa campaign. He cited a seemingly amazing figure about this city’s livability.
“Crime is down to levels of the 1950s,” said a confident-looking Bratton, who wore a black jacket and dark tie as he sat in an office conference room with downtown views.
Flashing across the screen as he delivered the line with his heavy Boston accent was a Los Angeles Daily News headline from early 2008 borrowed by the Villaraigosa campaign to further emphasize the chief’s claim. It read in bold, black letters: “Safest streets since ’56.” On March 2, 24 hours before Election Day, Villaraigosa and Bratton teamed up again. This time, they appeared together at a morning press conference at the Police Academy in Elysian Park, where a statement from the Mayor’s Office made the rounds and trumpeted a “citywide crime-rate drop to the lowest level since 1956, the total number of homicides fall[ing] to a 38-year low. Gang homicides were down more than 24 percent in 2008.”
The 1956 number was simply incredible — Los Angeles had time-warped back more than 50 years to the era of the Beat Generation, Elvis Presley and Howdy Doody, when serious crime was still so titillating that murder trials featuring unknown faces were followed like big celebrity events. It wasn’t the first time Bratton made the claim — the chief had also made the bold comparison in 2006 and again in 2008, lugging it out to warn voters that the low crime rate could be jeopardized if they didn’t pass the City Council’s telephone-utility-tax referendum, a phone tax that Villaraigosa and Bratton said was needed for the hiring of more cops.
The press barely challenged the notion that Los Angeles has somehow been transported back five decades, and some instead focused on Bratton’s widely criticized political endorsement of the mayor — an unsettling and, many people believe, unethical move for a hired hand like a chief of police to engage in. One of the first to criticize Bratton’s claim was long-shot mayoral candidate Walter Moore. Moore couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea that Los Angeles is now as safe as the year that the L.A. Angels played baseball at a now-destroyed civic landmark — the beautiful old Wrigley Field in then-quiet, then-tidy South-Central Los Angeles.
“I’ve talked to people who grew up here in the 1950s,” Moore argued to nodding heads during a February debate between several mayoral candidates, held in the hilly, suburbanlike community of Sunland-Tujunga (sans Villaraigosa). “And believe me, nobody in L.A. remembers crime in the 1950s being like it is today.”
Moore isn’t the only one who finds it fishy, and just plain strange, to attempt to paint the city as similar to a time when 2.3 million residents lived in a far more suburban and far less dense metropolis, one in which residents often did not bother to lock their doors.
“It’s a silly comparison,” Malcolm Klein, professor emeritus of sociology at USC and a gang-crime expert, says bluntly. An author of numerous books on gang crime, Klein says that when Bratton starts publicly comparing crime levels of the 1950s to today, “You’re not listening to a chief of police, you’re listening to a politician.”
The vast difference between today and that distant era can be seen in a Los Angeles Times news story published in January 1956, one that now seems quaint. The reporter breathlessly wrote of “Los Angeles’ bloodiest gang-rival fight in recent years,” a fight involving 25 gang members going at each other with “beer openers, knives, clubs, chains and bottles.” The Alpine Gang made a visit to the “clubhouse” of the Lancers, where everyone duked it out. Some people were stitched up, but no one was killed.
Klein says Bratton is clearly trying to spin Los Angeles as harkening back to the 1950s under his watch for “bureaucratic and political reasons. It shouldn’t be necessary for the LAPD to manipulate statistics like this,” says the professor. “Good researchers don’t do this kind of thing.”
Aaron Epstein, who worked on Hollywood Boulevard in 1956 and still owns property on the Walk of Fame, says, “People felt safe back then. We didn’t have prostitutes on the corners, we didn’t have dope dealers in the streets, and we didn’t have gangs.”
Andrew Karmen, a sociology professor at the highly respected John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, who examined L.A.’s crime rates of 1956 and 2007, says, “Looking at murders and robberies — the crime that people really care about — we’re not back yet to 1956 crime levels.”
Under both Bratton and previous chief Bernard Parks, Los Angeles has seen the same downward crime trends enjoyed in many cities, including New York, Seattle, Austin and much of Southern California. In fact, it’s widely accepted that lower crime levels are not the doing of any one police chief or any one chief’s theory of crime-fighting, no matter how much credit a chief tries to take, as Bratton does. Crime has been dropping for more than a decade throughout the nation, and criminologists and cops can’t agree on the reasons for it.
“Nobody really knows why crime went down in the 1990s and into today,” says Harry Levine, professor of sociology at Queens College in New York City and a distinguished drug-crime expert, “so it’s easy for everyone to take credit.”
But Bratton’s insistence that L.A. is as safe as 53 years ago — a time when young L.A. children trick-or-treated without an adult, hitch-hiking was seen as a fun way to get to Santa Monica Beach, and Nickerson Gardens was a new, clean and friendly place to grow up — stretches the bounds of reality. It’s all the more perplexing coming from a chief who has used crime statistics, and their veracity, to build a 24-carat reputation throughout the world.
Bratton is sometimes portrayed by the press as a crime-busting superhero, but his critics say he is in danger of coming off as just another public official playing with numbers to suit his and his allies’ political agendas — whether it’s to convince Angelenos that LAPD alone should be spared the upcoming big cuts in city departments, to persuade the public to raise phone taxes to hire more cops, to play nice with Villaraigosa for some kind of favor down the road, or to prove his career-long point that “cops matter.”
Bratton, though, remains not just unapologetic about all this spin but defiant.
“It’s common practice with statistics to go back and match it against the lowest point in time,” said Bratton during a 45-minute interview with L.A. Weekly. “The public gets it, the criminologists don’t. Once again, who in hell cares? Nobody’s listening to them anyway. I’m a practitioner. I get the job done. They can write from now to Doomsday; none of them are getting anything done. Most of them don’t even get out of their offices to see what the real world looks like. I live in the real world.”
But for Bratton, that world seems steeped in politics and political spin, a bit more every day.
For 78 years, Aaron Epstein has lived or worked in Hollywood. In 1956, the year that Norma Jeane Mortenson legally changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, Epstein vividly remembers his job as a 26-year-old sales clerk at Pickwick Book Shop on Hollywood Boulevard. His father owned the store. “We had people who acted eccentric,” recalls Epstein, who now owns the Artisan’s Patio on the Walk of Fame, where he rents space to 15 small-business owners, “but they weren’t criminals. We really felt safer walking the boulevard at night.”
Epstein, in fact, didn’t lock his car door in 1956. You just didn’t need to. And he never saw the homeless strolling the Walk of Fame — a common sight today. “They were nonexistent in the ’50s,” he says.
That’s the shared memory of another longtimer on the city’s Westside. In the early 1950s, Dede Audet lived in Venice Beach and worked at Hughes Aircraft in Culver City. “It was a different world then,” recalls Audet, a community activist who still keeps a close eye on what’s happening on the streets of Venice. “A totally different world.”
In 1956, Audet drove her 1935 DeSoto to work at the aircraft factory, where aviation tycoon Howard Hughes dropped by and watched his employees build planes or, in Audet’s case, write technical manuals.
“That was a time of [Jack] Kerouac,” says the community activist. “It was innocent compared to what we have today.” There were gangs back then, Audet says, but “they preyed on their neighbors,” and, dramatically different from today, had never seen a high-powered weapon. They “were mainly on foot. They didn’t have automobiles, and they didn’t have cell phones. The ways of communication have drastically changed things.”
As everyone is painfully aware in 2009, Audet says, “Kids have weapons and they don’t seem to care who they’re shooting at.” Johann Schuessler lived in South-Central from 1953 to 1966, so he might be viewed as an expert on how safe Los Angeles was in 1956, and whether crime was at about the same level as it is today. It plainly wasn’t.
“At that time, sometimes you forgot to lock the doors” in quiet South-Central, says Schuessler, who now lives in much more upscale Los Feliz and occasionally visits the old neighborhood. “It was no problem. Nobody went in the house. It’s not like now. Even when you lock the door, people go in there.”
Schuessler even fondly remembers Los Angeles Police Department Chief William Parker, who was leading the force in 1956. Dismissing the recent chiefs in Los Angeles, Schuessler says, “I think the best chief was Parker. He was tough.”
But even then, the city’s top cop played political games with crime statistics. On April 15, 1956, the Los Angeles Times took Chief Parker to task for citing a jump in crime rates to bolster his contention that a new, landmark California State Supreme Court ruling, which found that illegal search-and-seizures by police officers were no longer admissible as evidence in court, was handcuffing the LAPD’s ability to keep the streets safe.
That didn’t sit right with the Times, which in 1956 looked at L.A.’s crime statistics over a period of years — before and after the Supreme Court ruling — and concluded that the state’s highest court was not unleashing an out-of-control crime wave. “Statistics are something like those crazy mirrors that distort images,” the Times article of that era read. “They can be made to prove almost anything, depending on which ones you look at and how you look at them.”
The words the Times published seem to apply to another LAPD chief — and his use of crime statistics today.
“If people don’t feel as safe as 1956,” says Karmen, the sociology professor and crime statistician at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, who is no fan of Bratton’s, “they’re right to feel that way. We’re not back at those levels.”
Yes, there was crime. Gangs existed in 1956, but they relied heavily on knives or chains as weapons. The film industry was entertwined with organized crime and stickup men knocked over local banks, But the phrase “random-shooting victim” was unknown, “home-invasion robbery” had not been coined — and shopping centers and schools didn’t need security guards. In 1957, a radio news broadcast about a hostage situation at the Beacon Café in Inglewood was considered so out-of-this-world that a throng of nattily dressed onlookers showed up across from 930 West Manchester to gawk and point as cops in black suits and thin ties dragged away the would-be robbers. Despite the stretch being made by the mayor and Bratton — Villaraigosa’s best-known employee, and now his political acolyte and campaign backer — crime existed on a fundamentally different level in 1956. And that’s what has so many people scratching their heads over Bratton’s curious slant.
Bratton bases his claim on numbers that compare “Part I” crimes of today — homicide, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny and auto theft — with “Part I” crimes of past years on a per capita basis. Theoretically, holding up the crimes committed today per 10,000 Los Angeles residents against the crimes of yesteryear per 10,000 Los Angeles residents allows these two eras, separated by five decades, to be directly compared.
On January 5, 2006, for example, Bratton sent out a press release noting that the 2005 “preliminary crime rate” was “364 Part I crimes per 10,000 residents.”
“You’d have to look back to 1956 to find a comparable crime rate for Los Angeles,” the chief said in the press release. He did it again in 2008, this time saying that L.A.’s crime rate in 2007 had repeated the amazing achievement of 2005, once again dropping so low that it matched 1956.
But Karmen, a critic of Bratton’s when the latter was commissioner of the New York City Police Department and author of the book New York Murder Mystery: The True Story Behind the Crime Crash of the 1990s, says such a statistical comparison is “meaningless.”
The professor says Bratton fails to compare the seven categories of Part I crime of 1956 to the same seven categories of today’s Part I crime on a one-on-one basis. For example, the old and new homicide rates should be compared directly with one another, and the old and new robbery rates should be compared directly with one another — rather than the lumped-together data Bratton is trying to compare. Although far more accurate, even Karmen’s approach gives you on paper only a comparison that utterly fails to account for the reality that none of the bad guys owned AK-47s in 1956 and teenagers rarely murdered one another.
Karmen, who at the Weekly’s request reviewed a detailed annual record of crime statistics for 1956 and 2007 — which were reported in the official LAPD Statistical Digest — says two of the most violent categories, homicide and robbery, show Bratton’s claims are simply untrue.
In 1956, Karmen points out, when L.A.’s population was 2.3 million, there were 104 homicides. That’s one killing for every 22,115 people. In 2007, with an L.A. population of 4 million, there were 396 homicides. That’s one killing for every 10,101 people — about twice the rate of slayings. For L.A. to be as safe as in 1956, homicides under Bratton would have had to plunge in 2007 to a mere 180 killings — the kind of rarity that would be so noticeable, weeks would pass without a murder, residents might actually start feeling safe and TV news crews would have to find something else to cover.
In 1956, L.A. had 3,548 robberies, or one robbery for every 648 residents. According to the LAPD Statistical Digest, in 2007 there were 13,467 robberies, or one robbery for every 297 people. That’s more than twice as bad as in 1956, a fact that residents intuitively feel. Angelenos know they aren’t living in the days of Leave It to Beaver. In 2007, robberies under Bratton would have to be slashed by more than half, to 6,173, for his braggadocio to be accurate. It’s not.
By far the most serious drop in crime since 1956 has been that of rape — and Bratton and the LAPD have, controversially, had nothing to do with that stunning turnaround.
There were 1,056 rapes in L.A. in 1956, compared to 905 rapes in the much bigger and much tougher Los Angeles of 2007 — a huge reduction per person. According to Jonathan Simon, professor of law and co-chair of the Berkeley Center of Criminal Justice at UC Berkeley, rape levels around the country have plummeted over the past decade, in large part due to DNA technology, which has put the fear of God into would-be rapists. Some experts also believe rapists realize modern women are more likely to fight back. “Because of DNA testing,” says Simon, “rape has now become a crime where the odds of getting caught have become very high. A lot of people know about DNA tests, and it keeps them from doing certain things.”
On this score, however, Bratton has not shined, and he cannot take even modest credit for the drop in rapes — data that has lowered the overall crime numbers during his reign. In fact, Bratton’s DNA-testing policies and efforts have badly lagged behind New York City’s and even Orange County’s. Bratton has consistently failed to win sufficient funds for the LAPD’s rape DNA-testing lab, instead pushing the City Council and Villaraigosa to provide him money for glitzier things, like his antiterrorism program. During Bratton’s years of less-than-groundbreaking interest in rape DNA testing, in fact, the chief allowed a massive backlog of 4,423 untested rape kits to pile up in huge freezers near Parker Center police headquarters. (See L.A. Weekly’s “DNA Deep Freeze,” by Christine Pelisek, March 18, 2009, www.laweekly.com/2009-03-19/news/dna-deep-feeze/.) Last year, Bratton’s controversial foot-dragging on testing the long-frozen rape kits earned him a spate of negative headlines about the scandal.
Yet now, incredibly to some critics, Bratton is lumping the big drop in rapes in L.A. — clearly a national trend and not an LAPD achievement — with the other crime data, masking the fact that murder and robbery are far worse scourges than in 1956. In short, Bratton is badly misrepresenting how safe L.A. really is.
Aside from the drop in rape, there are also fewer burglaries per person in L.A. today: one for every 204 Angelenos in 2007, and one for every 100 people in 1956, And larceny, a form of theft, is dropping: one for every 51 people in 1956, and one for every 69 people in 2007. Simon again explains that these improvements are a national trend, not special to L.A., driven by the worsening economics of fencing today’s incredibly cheap consumer products. Because thieves don’t get much cash for stealing a stereo or a TV, they figure, why bother? “A used TV set in 1956 got a lot more money than a used TV set in 2007,” says Simon. Instead, he adds, criminals today stick with robberies, holding up victims for cash at ATM machines, for example.
Many crime experts say that Bratton and other police chiefs who aggressively take credit for existing megatrends are clearly misleading the public. Levine, the sociology professor and drug-crime expert at Queens College, points to a laundry list of reasons for the drops in crime that began years before Bratton moved to Los Angeles — including the unexpectedly low-crime behavior of many immigrant groups, whose members want to “keep their noses clean” in a new country, the economic boom that began in the late 1990s and subtle changes in the way police report crime.
Bratton, the former top cop in Boston and New York City, seems to be abusing crime statistics partly to prove that his department deserves more money amidst budget cuts, and partly to maneuver into a position where he can take personal credit. “L.A. is Bratton’s second chance to prove he’s the best police chief there ever was,” says Levine.
“As far as big-city police chiefs go,” says Judy Greene, director of Justice Strategies, a New York–based criminal-justice policy-research group, “Bratton has the biggest ego out of any of them.”
During an interview with the chief inside his sixth-floor office at Parker Center in downtown L.A., where framed pictures of Bratton with numerous dignitaries and celebrities — Bill Clinton, Shaquille O’Neal and Pope John Paul II — hang on the wall or stand on a shelf, Bratton was armed, as is often the case, with a number of pamphlets filled with statistics. At one point, he whipped out a pamphlet that compared him more than favorably to all of the LAPD chiefs going back to Parker.
“We’ve never had a period of time where crime has gone down so consistently,” said Bratton, pointing to the document.
With three years still left on his second, and final, five-year term as chief, Bratton seems interested in claiming a one-of-a-kind legacy at one of the world’s best-known police departments. But L.A. City Councilman Herb Wesson doesn’t want to attend Bratton’s retirement party. In late March, Wesson controversially called for public hearings to look into removing term limits for the chief of police through a change to the city’s constitution, which would turn Bratton’s job into an elected position. Wesson, who was known for his failed leadership as California Assembly Speaker before he became an L.A. City Councilman, has gotten a lot of flak for seeking to turn the chief into a politician, complete with fund-raisers and special-interest backers. (The idea would have to be approved through a public referendum of L.A. voters.)
Police commissioners Alan Skobin and Andrea Ordin are reportedly against the idea, with Skobin telling the L.A. Times that 10 years is the “right amount of time” for someone to lead the department.
Whether or not Bratton gets another “term” beyond his 10-year limit in 2012, Karmen suggests that Bratton, instead of continuing to use easily manipulated crime rates to praise the LAPD, should focus on actual job performance, primarily by using “clearance rates” — the number of cases closed by an arrest although not a conviction — “property-recovery rates,” and the department’s success in working with the community it serves. “They often don’t want to discuss those numbers,” Karmen says.
While Bratton is “very proud” of the LAPD’s clearance rates, they don’t hold a candle to the rate at which police solved crimes five decades ago; the fact that the bad guys today usually get away is a major reason why so few people feel safe.
In 1956, 89 percent of homicides were cleared. But by 2007, arrests for homicide under Bratton had badly plunged, to just 57 percent of killings — another indicator of how different Los Angeles once was, when street killings were rare and police very quickly had a solid suspect in mind after most murders.
Today, if you kill another human being in Los Angeles, chances are very good you will get away with it: 43 out of every 100 killers are not caught. It’s a fact that spooks the citizenry and leaves everyone feeling unsafe, says Simon.
In 1956, 42 percent of robberies were cleared by an arrest. Today, that number is 26 percent. Simply put, if you are robbed in Los Angeles today, you’ll be very lucky if police ever catch up to the guy who did it. Even more dramatically, in 1956, 83 percent of aggravated assaults were solved. In 2007, you could be openly assaulted on an L.A. street, but police would have to scramble to solve the crime. In today’s far less safe world, despite the picture Villaraigosa and Bratton have tried to draw, just 39 percent — not 83 percent — of aggravated assaults are cleared by an arrest.
Simon and Karmen both say an “antisnitch,” anticop attitude today, particularly in poor, minority communities, where many of these crimes occur, contributes to the drop in clearance rates of serious crimes in Los Angeles and other big cities.
“There’s been a reduction in the willingness of ordinary citizens to report crime to the police,” says Simon. “The main way police solve crimes is that people tell them who did it. That was the case in the 1950s, and it’s still the same today.”
Angelenos also fear gang reprisals if they call the cops, a fear that likely worsened throughout 2007 and much of 2008, as the chief and Villaraigosa repeatedly claimed that a gang crisis was gripping the city, even releasing in 2007 a “Worst 10 Gangs List” that was ridiculed for being based on political and geographic considerations rather than naming the city’s actual worst gangs. Some crime experts warned that Bratton and Villaraigosa were overdramatizing a possibly temporary spike in gang crime, in a campaignlike atmosphere that dovetailed suspiciously with Bratton and Villaraigosa’s call for a higher phone tax — to pay for hiring cops.
Today, the purported gang “crisis” of 2007-08 is rarely spoken of, and a frightening report by lawyer Connie Rice — some critics dubbed it “hysterical” — calling for a billion-dollar “Marshall Plan” against gangs has all but vanished. Los Angeles voters did approve the phone tax, however. Then, last summer, City Controller Laura Chick issued a blistering audit, which concluded that Villaraigosa’s big trash-fee hike of 2006-07, which he had also justified using the promise of hiring more cops, was not going toward the hiring of more cops. Chick openly complained that Villaraigosa withheld that fact until after voters approved the higher phone tax. Now, it is clear from the fine print in the phone-tax measure that, just as with the trash-fee hikes, neither the mayor nor the chief is required to spend it to hire cops.
Chick’s slam of Villaraigosa for claiming that the trash-fee hike was desperately needed for the hiring of cops, and Bratton’s involvement in whipping up public sentiment for the subsequent phone-tax hike, again with the claim that more cops would be hired, have fed criticism over Bratton’s controversial jump into politics, including sticking his nose into the 32nd Congressional District race on May 19, being fought mostly in San Gabriel Valley communities outside L.A.’s city limits.
The chief has taken to endorsing a dizzying array of candidates and ballot measures, and that has even some Bratton supporters worried. The subtext is becoming, What if we can’t trust the chief?
Bratton argues that the public’s perception is the best gauge of how his department is performing. “I’m very happy to be judged on what the public thinks of us,” Bratton says. “The public thinks quite well of us, actually. I think the last time I saw poll ratings about me they were up in the high 70s. The last time I saw ratings about this department, they were certainly higher than political figures, [or] news media. Basically, police were rated very, very highly.”
On the other hand, he’s not much for taking criticism, like comments from sociologist Klein that Bratton is pushing the bounds of believability these days. Bratton gets personal — and not entirely rational — in slamming the somewhat obscure USC emeritus professor, seeming to say that Klein’s lack of fame is germaine to whether Klein can legitimately question Bratton. “That’s his opinion,” says the chief, “and what the hell do I care about his opinion? Nobody is listening to him anyway. I don’t know who he is, and if you walked down the street and asked the first 100 Angelenos do they know who he is, they’re not going to know.”
At the same time, Bratton insists that the reporting of crime statistics is “not just for public consumption,” describing the data as “the engine that drives the police department in terms of measuring how we’re doing, where we need to put additional resources, what’s working, what’s not working. We’re just like a doctor looking at a patient every day.”
Gary Nanson was one of those LAPD cops who worked for Bratton and welcomed the chief’s heavy use of statistics to “put additional resources” in crime hot spots. But it quickly became apparent to Nanson, a recently retired lieutenant and leading Valley gang expert, that Bratton wasn’t interested in reforming the way the department compiles and uses information for fighting gang crime.
“[The statistics] don’t come close to reality,” Nanson says. He believes the way the LAPD identifies gang members and gang crime is creating “bad information.” That means, says Nanson, “When you’re using the wrong numbers, your crime-fighting plan will be wrong, too.” Nanson believes Bratton “manipulates” gang statistics, and, further, that LAPD captains throughout the city feel the heat to give the chief the data, and thus the results, he wants.
“You have intense pressure to lower crime,” Nanson explains, “so you may find innovative ways to do that.”
Professor Levine of Queens College agrees. “Police departments can juke the statistics in subtle ways,” he says. “You can downgrade, in effect, what you [arrest] people for,” when the desire is to show less crime, and vice versa.
LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, the commanding officer of the Detective Bureau, says Nanson’s charges are way off base. “If you cook the books,” Beck says, “it’s administrative death. You won’t be running anything around here. Bratton is very clear about that.”
Those views are echoed by George Tita, a professor in the Department of Criminology, Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine. Tita says Bratton’s careful tracking of, and response to, crime trends with CompStat, a computer program that breaks down crime information in a timely way citywide, has been an effective crime-fighting approach that “holds everybody accountable.”
“The ability to reduce homicides in L.A. is nothing short of amazing,” Tita says.
But Bratton’s turf isn’t the only place where the homicide rate is declining — and most aren’t using the Bratton approach. In Compton, patrolled by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and once one of the nation’s most dangerous cities, killings are in a freefall — from 65 homicides in 2005 to 28 last year, the fewest since 1985, when fewer people lived in the troubled working-class town. Overall, the Sheriff’s Department, which patrols 40 of the county’s 88 cities, saw in 2006 a 13 percent drop in homicides, and, even after that big drop, a plummet of 17 percent in 2007. San Diego, which has long enjoyed a low homicide rate, still saw a 15 percent decrease in killings in 2007 — from 68 to 58.
Between 2003 and 2007, New York City saw an 18 percent decrease in killings, Seattle had a homicide drop of 30 percent, and Portland saw a 17 percent drop. Hundreds of cities and towns have seen drops in rapes since 2003, three years after the launch of the popular CSI: Crime Scene Investigation series that began promoting the notion that immediate DNA testing is now the norm. During that period, there have been 46 percent fewer rapes in New York, 49 percent fewer in Seattle, 8 percent fewer in Portland, 26 percent fewer in San Diego, and 19 percent fewer in Los Angeles.
Says Greene, director of the nonprofit criminal-research group Justice Strategies, who crunched those FBI numbers for the Weekly, “Nobody really knows what has happened. When crime goes down, police chiefs are very quick to claim credit. When crime goes up, they blame the economy.”
Greene adds cheekily, “Bratton is outstanding — in his willingness to show off his skills.”
But at one point during his recent interview with L.A. Weekly, Bratton appeared to try to distance himself from his and Villaraigosa’s bold claims about L.A.’s new era of safety, whipping out a pamphlet produced by his people, titled “End of the Year Crime Snapshot — 2008.” The chief, who sat at the head of a long conference table, dressed in uniform and flanked by LAPD CompStat detective Jeff Godown and LAPD public-information director Mary Grady, explained that the LAPD is no longer citing the 1956 per capita statistic.
Now, LAPD is instead claiming the city is really only enjoying 1961 crime levels.
Villaraigosa “is referring to [crime rates] a couple of years back,” says Bratton, handing over the pamphlet. “This is the most recent one we’re working with.” Grady then offered, “The mayor may still be stuck on the 1956 date, which we used a couple of years ago. That’s a sound bite he likes to use.”
Bratton nodded and said, “I’ll actually ask him” to instead claim that crime is back to 1961 levels.
But how different is it to imagine that Los Angeles today is as safe as it was in 1961, still an innocent time in which mothers parked their baby carriages on the sidewalks while they shopped, and witnesses to crimes promptly called police?
Bratton acts exasperated, saying, “If you or [my critics] are getting hung up on that, knock yourself out. You think anything you’re going to write, or anything they write, is going to influence me one way or another? Sorry. We’re pretty good at this. We have a department that’s damn good at it, and we report this stuff more intimately than just about any department in America. We report it more publicly. We report to the Police Commission just about every week.”
Karmen basically agrees. “He puts out more information than the NYPD,” he says. “Let’s give him credit for that.”
In late January, with the re-election campaign of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in full swing, the chief appeared with his boss at the Rampart Division Station. The mayor insisted, according to the Daily News, “Although crime is down to its lowest level since I was a 3-year-old in 1956, and gang homicides are down to levels not seen since 1969, we are losing too many youths to senseless violence.”
Then, on March 2, hours before Villaraigosa’s re-election, in which he earned a surprisingly weak 55.5 percent of the vote against candidates with no name recognition or money, Villaraigosa and Bratton attended an electioneering press conference. Villaraigosa’s press release again trotted out the notion that “since initiating the city’s [police officer] buildup, L.A. has seen the citywide crime rate drop to its lowest level since 1956, the total number of homicides fall to a 38-year low. Gang homicides were down more than 24 percent in 2008.” In fact, the key points claimed by the mayor in his statement were meaningless, a result of playing with numbers complicated by further playing with numbers. L.A. is, demonstrably, not as safe as 1956 — or 1961, the chief’s latest claim.
And gang homicides? They dropped in 2008, fulfilling a prediction of some criminologists, who saw Villaraigosa and Bratton’s claims of a gang crisis in 2007 as overwrought and premature. Gang homicides have been on a downward trend since 2002, and in 2008, gang homicides merely returned to the existing pattern of lower gang violence. But it can be made to look like a huge “24 percent” drop in gang killings when Villaraigosa, in a carefully prepared press release, compares the 2008 numbers solely to the short-lived gang-crime spike in 2007, which he and Bratton sold, at the time, as a crisis.
Matt Szabo, Villaraigosa’s spokesman, tries, in an e-mail, to further explain this badly mangled data. “We are only guilty of understating the drop in crime,” he writes. And since “crime had, in fact, been down to its lowest per capita since 1956,” the use of the Daily News headline in a Villaraigosa campaign ad was “accurate.” Szabo also adds, “The chief did not correct the mayor during the news conferences because the mayor was correct.”
There’s little doubt that these two powerful co-admirers believe the media need to be handled in order to get out the right story. This is especially true now that they are openly acting as a political unit, and touting the idea that with all city departments facing cuts or layoffs, the LAPD alone must grow.
Two days after Election Day, at the 32nd Annual California Police Chiefs Training Symposium in Pasadena on March 5, Bratton revealed that one of the main uses of the LAPD Web site is to “counter the media.” “If we disagree with a story,” Bratton told his fellow chiefs, “we can pump it out very quickly to our bloggers.” Bratton said the LAPD may even venture into the world of Twitter.
Union leader Paul Weber, president of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, has seen chiefs from Daryl Gates to Bernard Parks come and go but describes Bratton as pushing the politics of his office “to a whole new level.” When controversies erupt, the labor leader says, “[Bratton] seems to get a pass. He has a lot of collateral with the public.”
During the Weekly interview several weeks ago at his Parker Center office, Bratton announced that he was personally ushering in a “new era” of policing called “predictive policing.”
“We’re fast developing it in Los Angeles,” Bratton said. He then made the claim that he, the same chief who left 4,423 rape-evidence kits untested in freezers for years, and who lags far behind law enforcement in New York City and Orange County in using modern science to solve crimes, will soon begin using crime statistics and “a lot of other factors” in order to “be almost able to predict where a crime will occur — absent our intervening.”
When Karmen was told of Bratton’s new claims, he sighed and said it would probably be used as another way to “lobby for more resources and for more personnel.” Asked why he was a critic of Bratton’s, Karmen said, “I’m not convinced police are the main reason for drops in crime. ... And if you spend more money on criminal justice, you won’t have the money for the root causes of street crime, like bad schools and poverty.”
William F. Bratton — along with a lackluster mayor who dreams of becoming governor, has failed to deliver on a range of promises, and seems singularly intent on fulfilling his old vow to hire 10,000 cops — will no doubt keep the public apprised of the year in which they are living.