Why is Los Angeles Losing Its Police Commissioner?

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David McNew / Getty

Chief of the Los Angeles Police Department Bill Bratton is flanked by Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (L) and Police Commission member John Mack (R) as he announces that he will resign from the department to head of a private security firm on August 5, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.

Los Angeles was stunned at the news. L.A. Police Department chief William Bratton was stepping down, less than halfway through his second term, to take a job in the private sector. Even Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who Bratton has partnered with so successfully to lower the city's crime rate, only learned of Bratton's plans during a midnight phone call the day before the formal announcement. Bratton explained that he had actually made the decision several weeks before and had planned to tell the mayor at a meeting on Wednesday; but, he says the Los Angeles Times forced his hand. An unnamed source had told the newspaper about Bratton's plans to leave and the paper was set to run the story in the morning.

"It was not an easy decision to make," Bratton told TIME, "because in some respects the job I have here I love, and the city and I certainly love the people I get to work with. But at the same time, it was a recognition that everything that I had committed to do when I was hired seven years ago had in fact been achieved." Bratton will be moving back to New York City, where he once served as police commissioner, to run Altegrity Security Consulting, where he will consult on security for law enforcement agencies worldwide.

Bratton is largely credited for turning the beleaguered police department around — a department marred by antagonism with minority groups, charges of racial profiling and excessive force, and beset by scandals including the Rodney King beating and Los Angeles riots in 1992, as well as the Rampart corruption case, which initiated federal oversight of the department. It was only a few weeks ago that U.S. District Court Judge Gary A Feess freed the department from the consent decree that had been in place since 2001. Said Bratton: "There's never a good time to leave something, but often times there is the right time and for me this is the right time."

Bratton stated several reasons for leaving aside from completing the goals he began with: the challenge of the new post as well as monetary gain and the chance to influence policing approaches on a global scale. He and his wife's also want to return to New York; and Bratton says he wants to live closer to his 83-year-old father in Boston.

However, given Bratton's perceived ambitions, some have wondered whether the move might be motivated by other reasons, including a desire to eventually take on a national law enforcement role. When asked by TIME if part of the reason he took the post was to be better prepared should such an opportunity come his way, Bratton denied it, saying "not at all." Though he adds, "I think I'm adequately prepared after 40 years [in law enforcement] for any national role." In answer to whether he could foresee returning to public service, Bratton said there was "real potential for that. I'm very excited about this new prospect and it's potential to engage me. At the same time though I never close any doors before they're open." When pressed as to whether he would be interested in serving as head of the FBI or Homeland Security, he said "I don't comment on jobs that I haven't been offered. We'll see what the future might bring." Los Angeles Mayor Villaraigosa was less reticent: "Let me put it this way, the powers that be would have Bill Bratton at the top of the list for any high-level law enforcement positions that would open up. He’s just the best."

Bratton's departure comes way too soon, however, to many of the city's civil rights advocates. Connie Rice, director of the Advancement Project in Los Angeles and a prominent civil rights activist and lawyer, fears that the LAPD will revert to some of its old brutal ways without his leadership. "We need two more years of this guy. Do I think that LAPD is going to go back to how they behaved in the Gates era?," says Rice, referring to former LAPD chief Daryl Gates, who was in charge during the Rodney King fiasco. "No. Are they beyond what happened in the Rampart scandal? Well, the corruption part was an aberration. What wasn't an aberration in the Rampart scandal was the abuse of force and the abuse of gang members and the war mentality... The aggravated use of force is part of LAPD policing culture."

Los Angeles City Council president, Eric Garcetti, however, thinks that Bratton's legacy will keep things in check. "Over half of the police officers in the department were hired while he was chief," says Garcetti. "So they've come up and come aboard with Bill Bratton as a chief that expects results in terms of crime fighting and also accountability in terms of community. His victories were never about one person."

Even so, the LAPD has hurdles ahead. It must trim $130 million in spending, a consequence of the cuts imposed by the City Council and mayor to close Los Angeles' $530-million budget shortfall. Police administration officials are considering imposing mandatory furloughs starting in October, the Los Angeles Times reported. In addition to a diminished police presence, severe cuts to health and social service programs, and education, will likely add to social woes and, thus, a possible uptick in crime. Because of such challenges, Bratton feels strongly that the next chief should be chosen from from within the department's own ranks. Says Bratton: "With the crises that the city is facing at this time with this budget, an outsider no matter how qualified or skilled, it's going to take that person months to get up to speed. Why take that risk when there's no shortage of people in the department who know the city, who know the issues of the department."

Bratton would not single anyone out, simply saying "there’s a very talented and very strong bench here, the leadership team I’ve surrounded myself with, a number of whom are capable of stepping in as chief of police." The word on the street is that his three assitant chiefs, Jim McDonnell, Sharon Papa and Earl Paysinger may be in the running along with the well-regarded head of detectives, Deputy Chief Charlie Beck.

Bratton, who officially leaves on Oct. 31, is hoping he will be remembered for his positive impact on the LAPD and the city he grew to love. And he makes a pointed comparison with New York City, where, until he was unceremoniously fired as police commissioner by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he started the policing techniques that are credited with starting the Big Apple's dramatic reduction in crime. Villaraigosa told TIME: "When I first got elected, everybody said that we were going to be like him and Giuliani because we were both strong and we were both, as people say, we weren’t shy in front of a camera and the idea was that we would be fighting for the spotlight, but we formed a partnership and it’s been a very successful one that we’re both very proud of."

Speaking to TIME, Bratton specifically said that he proved that by using the New York techniques in Los Angles, he was able to prove their "phenomenal impact on crime and crime rates." Says Bratton: "When I go back to New York, as I do frequently, I see and feel firsthand the very positive changes that were made and I would hope that would be the case when I return to L.A., that the city is a very different place, a much safer place."