'America's Top Cop' Bows Out Gracefully

Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton has called himself "America's Top Cop." Bratton led police departments in Boston and New York before moving to L.A. Now, after seven years leading the LAPD, he's leaving his post. Host Michel Martin speaks to Bratton about policing, protecting the community, and how cops can make a difference.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now to Los Angeles. Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton has called himself America's top cop here at police departments in Boston and New York before moving to L.A. Now after seven years leading the LAPD, he is leaving his post to go back to New York where he'll be working for a global security firm. Bratton says he looks back on his decades of police work with pride.

Mr. WILLIAM BRATTON (Chief, Los Angeles Police Department): Being a cop is the best thing you could ever want to do in life. It's full of fun. It's full of a sense of doing something important. I have an expression I use it's almost a mantra: Cops count, police matter. I'm thinking, my almost 40 years as a policeman, my life has counted for something. I think it's been a life of significance. And I've worked with a lot of great people.

MARTIN: NPR's Mandalit del Barco met with the chief this week to talk about his life and career and she joins us now from NPR West. Mandalit, welcome back.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Mandalit, why is he America's top cop? Is it something about his particular expertise or is it just that L.A. is the kind of place that people look to the head of that department as a sort of a national leader in his field?

DEL BARCO: Well, Michel, the LAPD, as you know, is one of the most famous police departments in the world. It's been featured in movies and TV shows, from "Adam 12" to "Dragnet" to more recent shows and even hip hop videos. And like other big cities, the LAPD has had a troubled history with crooked cops and bad community relations. In short, the people of L.A. did not trust the cops and then came Bill Bratton.

MARTIN: Oh, good. Well, tell us how he made his mark.

DEL BARCO: Well, Chief Bratton followed his own lead in New York City. He put it in a series of reforms, made his officers more accountable, had them working with the community and, just like he did in New York before coming here, crime in the city went down dramatically.

He said to have modernized policing with his advanced technology to track crime. It's a model being emulated around the country and around the world. And Michel, I talked to the chief in his brand-new police headquarters that he opened on Sunday.

Well, you're leaving L.A. a much safer place than when you came here, and do you think that there are fewer broken windows here now?

Chief BRATTON: Well, there are certainly many fewer broken windows. For your listeners, broken windows, the symbols of a lack of attention on the part of the police, government to things that the public sees every day. They're concerned with years of neglect by government, by business, by the community itself. It led to awful conditions. Probably the worst societal conditions in America could be found in Skid Row. MacArthur Park was a park that had been lost to the public, been taken over by gangs.

MARTIN: Oh, I love that you can still hear his Boston accent. All these years later, you can still hear it.

DEL BARCO: Oh yeah, he gets ribbed about that all the time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: But Mandalit, he talked about the importance of - you talked about the importance of his trying to improve the sometimes very rocky relations with the community. How is that going now as we recall that there was a demonstration last year where the police were heavily criticized for their conduct in addressing an immigration rally and stuff like that. How do you assess that now?

DEL BARCO: Well, you know, Bratton was always given credit for taking action, not hiding from controversies like some of his predecessors. And that example you cited was the most recent example, in MacArthur Park, during a huge rally for immigrants' rights on May Day, the officers swept through the peaceful gathering in riot gear and helicopters. They threw tear gas, and they were beating people with their batons, including children and news crews, right in front of the cameras.

Bratton denounced all the violence, and he was very candid about saying his cops were wrong. He punished them publicly, he apologized to the victims, and the department paid $13 million in lawsuits.

His whole push has been to regain trust after years of mistrust. In fact, his reforms were applauded by everybody from his rank-and-file officers to civil rights leaders to some, frankly, unlikely people.

I've told the chief about a conversation I had at Homeboy Industries with a gang member I met up this week. His name is Hector Garcia.

He credits you for changing the culture of your department. He said officers are more respectful nowadays.

Chief BRATTON: There is a phrase that I use repeatedly in my book, I reference it, you get what you give, and in the issue of respect that you give it, you'll get it back in most instances. There's three things that we talk with not only recruits but existing police officers about that they have to police constitutionally, can't break the law to enforce it because then you become like them. You have to police compassionately, and you have to police consistently.

MARTIN: You know, Los Angeles is such an international city now. Latinos make up a majority of the population. There's a Latino mayor. How has Bill Bratton worked to address this city, which is on the cutting edge of so much change that the rest of the country is only beginning to see?

DEL BARCO: Right. Chief Bratton likes to point out that his command staff is one of the most or the most diverse in the department's history. He has Latino and African-American and Asians on his top staff, and women too. He's made diversity a priority. And another theme he's worked with is about immigrants. He likes to give immigrants a break, and that's one of the things I like that I talk to him about.

Chief BRATTON: While we will work very closely with our counterparts in ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, to go after those in that population who are criminals to arrest them, incarcerate them and deport them when they finish these terms. As to the 12 or 13 million who are here illegally, the problem is beyond the ability of and, quite frankly, the interests of local policing to address. It is a national problem and will have to be addressed by elected officials.

I'm not going to spin my wheels as chief of police wasting too much time dealing with the 12 million who are here trying to make a living, trying to live honestly, trying to stay out of trouble. I'm more focused on the tens of thousands who are here trying to make a living by preying on the other 12 million.

MARTIN: So what do you mean by giving immigrants a break?

DEL BARCO: His idea is that there are actual crimes being committed against all different types of people. He's going to go after the criminals, not against people who don't have papers saying that they're here legally.

MARTIN: So what's next for Bill Bratton as an individual, and what's next for the department? Do we have any idea who is likely to replace him?

DEL BARCO: There are three people nominated. They were nominated by a civilian staff to be the next chief, and they're all white men, not at all like the city, but Bill Bratton and the head of the civilian commission, who's an African-American, (unintelligible), they say that they trust that these men, these finalists will carry on Chief Bratton's legacy of diversity.

Even Mayor Villaraigosa, who was L.A.'s first Mexican-American mayor in a century, he says that reform is a permanent part of the culture at the LAPD and expects the next chief to see diversity as important, as well.

And as for Bill Bratton, he's going to be going back to New York to work with a private international security firm, where he says he'll consult on security for police departments around the world.

MARTIN: NPR's Mandalit del Barco is a correspondent. She's been covering the LAPD for more than a decade. She joined us from NPR West.

Mandalit, thank you.

DEL BARCO: Thank you so much.

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