After a year on the job, Los Angeles police chief Bill Bratton says his officers are making progress in controlling the city's crime, despite an understaffed department. Mr. Bratton spoke with VOA at a recent forum on crime and security in the second-largest U.S. city.
He slashed the crime rate in the nation's biggest city. The former head of New York's transit police and the New York City police department, Bill Bratton is widely credited with making New York safe. Under former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, he instituted a community-policing plan based on a concept called "broken windows."
The idea is to put police on the streets in local neighborhoods, creating a visible presence, instead of simply responding to crimes after they are committed. Mr. Bratton adds that crimes sometimes called "victimless," such as prostitution, belligerent panhandling and public drunkenness, create an atmosphere of disorder that makes major crime more likely. The theory, advanced by social scientists 20 years ago, suggests that preventing minor offenses will increase public safety. Communities, in other words, should repair their broken windows.
In Los Angeles, Mr. Bratton is coping with inner-city communities that are terrorized by gangs, which have a total membership of up to 60,000. On the other side of the balance are just 9,300 police officers in a city of nearly four million. New York City has twice as many officers for its population.
In 2002, Los Angeles had the highest number of murders of any U.S. city, with 654 killings. Half were gang-related. On the positive side of the ledger, the per capita murder rate is lower in Los Angeles than in a number of other cities. And the homicide rate today is far lower than it was at its peak of nearly one thousand murders in 1990.
The recent surge in violence is also being reversed. Murders are down this year by 25 percent, and the overall crime rate has dropped by five percent.
Still, notes Mr. Bratton, Los Angeles has a serious crime problem, and one of the reasons is what he calls a "tragically understaffed police force."
"You get what you pay for, and Los Angeles for many years has been unwilling to pay for public safety," he said. "So what do you get? One of the worst crime rates in the country. And that's the simple fact."
Chief Bratton and Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn have been urging the city council to hire 3,000 more officers. But the council has been reluctant to spend the money. The reality, points out Mr. Bratton, is that for the next two years, at least, there will be no additional officers for his department.
He says Los Angeles police cannot tip the balance between crime and public safety in the city as a whole, but can reduce crime significantly in targeted neighborhoods. Mr. Bratton did that in New York and is doing it in Los Angeles by tracking crime in communities on a central computer, and putting resources in places with the worst problems. He is also holding local commanders accountable, demanding that they lower crime rates in their precincts.
"We can 'tip' certain neighborhoods for a period of time, but then we have to leave and move to another neighborhood," he said. "And until we get more police, we can have success, but ultimate success will be extraordinarily difficult absent more police. But that doesn't stop us from trying, and that trying has resulted in some good success this past year."
For Mr. Bratton, controlling crime requires a multiple approach that includes providing after-school programs for students and jobs for those students after they graduate.
"So dealing with the crime problem in Los Angeles is not just police," he said. "You can't arrest your way out of the problem we've gotten ourselves into. So you need a broader-based set of initiatives. To have lasting, meaningful reduction in crime, you need to give those 50,000 or 60,000 gang-bangers alternatives."
Chief Bratton says this comprehensive approach reduced the crime rate in New York, making it the safest big city in America. The man now known as "LA's top cop" says the approach can also work in Los Angeles.
Both the chief and the mayor say the city has an immediate problem. California's fiscal crisis threatens to reduce the funds that the state returns to cities for police and fire protection. The pair are asking state officials, including Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to take quick action.