Can Bratton Survive May Day?

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Damian Dovarganes / AP

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton, trailed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, departs a press conference addressing accountability measures taken in the aftermath of the May Day immigration rights rally at MacArthur Park

On the day Los Angeles police in riot gear swung batons and fired foam-rubber bullets at peaceful demonstrators, working journalists and a small group of agitators in MacArthur Park, Chief William Bratton was basically awaiting a rubber stamp on his application for reappointment.

But with video images of that shocking use of force at the May Day immigration rally broadcast around the globe and transmitted widely over the Internet, Bratton suddenly finds himself working hard to make sure his record of reform and chances for a second term at the helm of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) don't become casualties of the infamous fracas, now known as the May Day melee. "It was a throwback to Rodney King-like times," says Merrick Bobb, a former special counsel to the civilian L.A. Police Commission who nonetheless vigorously backs Bratton. Antonio Villaraigosa, Los Angeles mayor, told TIME, "I support his reappointment. But that's a decision the Police Commission will make based on his track record over the past five years, including how he responds to the events of May 1."

In that regard, Bratton tried to move fast, quickly condemning the cops' behavior, demoting the deputy chief and commander in charge at the scene and reassigning 60 other officers involved. Earlier this week Bratton released the department's internal report on the incident and appointed a deputy chief to oversee the management of all rallies and major events. The report blamed the melee on a "breakdown of command and control," but some city council members and community activists have said it is an incomplete accounting and focuses too much on the protesters' actions that day and not enough on the department's underlying culture and history of excessive force. Still, in an interview with, Bratton sounded confident about his future. "I have no concerns at all about reappointment because all things considered I think we're doing okay," he says. "MacArthur Park no doubt will be a significant setback to the department's image, but we'll come out of it as we always do, learning from it, not hiding from it, willing to talk about it, and not circling the wagons."

When Bratton left a lucrative consulting business to take the LAPD job in October 2002, he brought a record as perhaps the most famous and respected police chief in the country. Following a successful stint as the boss in Boston, in 1994 he stepped into the chief's job in New York City, where he helped Mayor Rudy Giuliani tamp down spiraling crime wave by focusing on community policing and relying more on technology to track and map crime patterns.

Los Angeles presented its own unique challenges. The city was plagued by gang violence, simmering racial tensions and a sordid history of police misconduct. The department was, and still is, under federal supervision to mind its civil rights Ps and Qs as part of a 2001 consent decree following the scandal involving an LAPD anti-gang unit in the Rampart division, whose cops committed acts of corruption and brutality.

But just as in Boston and New York, serious criminal activity in this city of non-angels has declined markedly on Bratton's watch. Since 2002, there are 31% fewer serious crimes and homicides are down almost 44%. Civil rights lawsuits against the department have declined, as have the number of settlements to non-Rampart-scandal plaintiffs. And under Bratton, L.A. has been the birthplace of innovative counterterrorism initiatives, such as Operation Archangel, which identifies critical infrastructure and resources in the L.A. area and develops a multi-agency response to protect them against catastrophic attack . "In terms of the three goals I set when I was hired — reduce crime, build a robust counterterrorism prevention and response capability, and comply with the consent decree — we've had a lot of success," says Bratton.

Merrick Bobb agrees. "He's at the helm of a behemoth that for many years was headed in the wrong direction," Bobb says. "Bratton is the first police chief with both the will and the capacity to turn the ship in the right direction. His reappointment isn't in peril in the least. That said, the MacArthur Park incident underscores how much of a challenge he has ahead of him."

Bratton is usually up to those sorts of challenges because he is a shrewd politician, and, as police chiefs go, a charismatic figure. (Several years ago he was even touted as a New York mayoral candidate, and he ultimately left the NYPD in part because Giuliani thought he was stealing the limelight by taking too much credit for the drop in crime.) He has cultivated good working relationships with many disparate and powerful elements in the city. He tapped longtime LAPD critic and civil rights lawyer Constance Rice to write a report on the Rampart scandal and to oversee compliance with her recommended reforms. He's also developed a friendship with the Police Commission President John Mack, who, as head of the L.A. Urban League, was long a thorn in LAPD's side. "I like to bring lots of people into the tent who have historically been outside, as a way to break down the insularity and isolation this organization has been known for."

Inside the department, however, not all the rank and file are thrilled with him. "During his tenure he's been trying to send the message that he's supportive of the officers, but what they heard after MacArthur Park was that they were all out of control and damned, prior to an investigation even taking place," says Bob Baker, president of the L.A. Police Protective League, who blames the incident on lack of training and an inadequate number of cops on hand. "Our officers feel very wounded, angry and frustrated, and I don't think the chief realizes how deep those feelings are. "

But Bratton, as is his habit, isn't apologizing or retracting. "I'm not going to turn a blind eye to what I saw captured on the huge amount of video of the incident," he says.