12.19.08

LAPD's Bratton on New York vs LA Crime

Los Angeles Police Chief William Bratton spoke to the Daily Beast about his experience fighting crime in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston and how catching criminals is like treating cancer.
  • On the Obama cabinet: “I'm very optimistic that they get it much more thoroughly than the current Administration. One, because there are so many Clintonites. Rahm Emanuel was very involved in the crime acts of the 90s as was Joe Biden and Eric Holder."
  • On police budgets: "We have reduced crime so much over the last few years that the economic benefits, the money that the city has saved, are the equivalent to my budget.”
  • On New York crime versus LA crime: "[New York does not] have the routine drive-by shootings, the random shootings of people, people wearing the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood—the crime problem is a totally different beat."
  • On Plaxico Burress' shooting: “The idea that they convinced a doctor not to file a report and, based on what I'm reading, that the NFL and the Giants may have played a part—it's outrageous...We have to stop coddling these people because they're celebrities."

DB: We're officially in a recession now. Some criminologists say that a rise in property crime is inevitable and possibly violent crime as well if conditions worsen Is the increased budget and head count for your department this year an acknowledgment that crime is expected to increase during the economic downturn?

Bratton: Not at all in terms of the budget I'll be working with. It will be very tight this year because of the city's recession. What I am benefitting from is a commitment to add additional police from a tax revenue measure. LA, like every other city, will be dramatically impacted by budget cuts. Equipment and materials that will be beneficial will not be there. As to the issue of whether crime will go up as the economy worsens—there is the potential for that as the economy certainly influences crime and crime rates. It doesn't cause it, but it does influence it. The irony is this is when you would want to invest more in the police. What I've shown in New York and LA is if you invest in the police department you can effectively prevent rises in crime. Case in point: the causes of crime are not necessarily racism, poverty, the environment. The cause are individual behavior, people who consciously decide to break the law and engage in a criminal act. If we're properly resourced we can control behavior and prevent crime. That's the lesson from New York in the 1990s when we so effectively lowered the crime rate. Here in LA for the last several years, with what the economy has been experiencing—we've had unemployment for awhile already, but the reason crime has been continued to go down is we've had a properly maintained police department. So it's a very fundamental idea to understand that one of the ironies of cities being forced to cut down on their policing is that it's just the wrong time to do that. Just as now the federal government is investing trillions of dollars back into the economy in infrastructure, housing, and insurance—similarly this is a time they should be investing in law enforcement.

Q: You mentioned the issue of federal funding. Homeland security funding has, of course, been mostly concerned with terrorism. Do you worry that the federal government may be too focused on combating terrorism to quickly help police departments if crime were to see a serious increase again?

Bratton: That is the case. Myself and my colleagues in other major cities have long held that it is important to focus resources on terrorism because it is a new form of crime that can cause potentially catastrophic losses as we saw on 911, but the problem is the federal government is like a Cyclops that seems to only be able to focus on one issue at a time. Under Clinton in the 1990s, it focused on crime with great success. Violent crime went down by 40% and overall by 30% when the federal government worked with local police and put a lot of funding into dealing with local problems. But after 9/11 it swung all the resources into terrorism and depleted resources from local crime. The U.S. is a big enough country to deal with both terrorism and the issue of crime. They are linked—as we fight normal crime we may also detect the beginnings of local terrorist attacks. There is this link and the federal government under the outgoing administration, the Republican administration, didn't want to hear that. There was an ideological barrier, a belief that local crime is a local problem. It's not a local problem, its' a national problem and the best way to address it is a comprehensive national-local partnership. I hope what Obama will do is return to the partnership of the 90s and continue the partnership after 9/11 on terror. I'm very optimistic that they get it much more thoroughly than the current administration. One, because there are so many Clintonites—Rahm Emanuel was very involved in the crime acts of the 90s as was Joe Biden and Eric Holder.

Q: Obviously given events in India, people are worried about terrorism in America. How do we protect our cities from a similar attack?

We have just developed a system here, the federal government is part of it and its counterterrorism efforts are adopting as a national model, SAS, the Suspicious Activity Reporting System, in which we train all our officers in the LA area and ultimately by extension the citizenry: “What are some particular indicators of terrorism that you might watch for and how would your report it and move it up the food chain so it becomes intelligence?” So here in LA we are leading the development of a new means—much like neighborhood crime watch, but for terrorism activities. We've put together a list of several dozen indicators of potential terrorism acts that may not be criminal themselves, but when you put them together you may find a homegrown terrorist plot being developed. It's one of the things that police have gotten very good at with new computer systems and the ability to both gather and put together intelligence.

It's kind of like a medical metaphor, like dealing with a cancer. You watch for that skin tumor, melanoma, and that’s a sign that there's something else going on and so you want to do an invasive action and you may want to move onto chemo. But after it's gone you continue to go for checkups to make sure it's not coming back. It's what you do for regular crime like I did in New York with COMPSTAT and we're doing now here. The good thing is we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We ultimately know what to do about this.

Also, we need to start thinking of policing and the criminal justice department economically. We have reduced crime so much over the last few years that the economic benefits, the money that the city has saved, are the equivalent to my budget. I'm cost neutral to the city of Los Angeles in terms of money saved from the lower homicide rate. All of that money then accrues for other purposes.

Q: The 75th anniversary of the end of prohibition occurred recently. Are there any changes to today's drug laws and sentencing that you think might make your job easier?

No, actually, I know there's a lot of discussion about legalizing of drugs and lightening up marijuana laws. My perspective is I'm supportive of the concept of medical marijuana, but as we've seen in California, the haphazard system we've had has been quickly abused and overwhelmed with fraud and other issues.

There are other issues, though, that having learned from the experience from the 1990s—one believes that the application of the law as it relates to cocaine had a disparate effect on minorities in which crack cocaine was significantly more penalized than powder cocaine. But I'm not an advocate of legalization of drugs. I think we can have a much better focus on nonviolent drug crimes where we can get them into treatment and not jail at a cost of $50,000 a year. So I think there is a need for a national discussion as to how we can get more bang for the buck.

Q: You've worked in several of the biggest cities in the country. What have been the biggest differences in crime between Boston, New York, and LA? Are there tactics that work regardless of location or are they geographically specific?

Each of these cities has been an entirely different set of issues. Which is great for me, I don't want to do deja vu all over again. New York is a city that has 8 million people and at one time had 40,000 police. The nature of its crime problem, much of it was associated with drugs and related violence and also total disregard for almost 30 years for the enforcement of quality of life offenses, the “broken windows” theory. The problem with LA is it's a larger city geographically, but we only have 9,000 police here versus 38,000 in New York. As a result you have to police it much differently. Plus my serious crime problems are very significantly influenced by the gang problem. New York and Boston have nothing that approaches it in any serious form. They don't have the routine drive-by shootings, the random shootings of people, people wearing the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood—the crime problem is a totally different beat. To use the medical analogy again, my patient in LA was very different than the patient in New York or Boston, but the good news is I have a wide variety of medicines I can draw on and like any doctor I'm using a different combination for each. I would point out all three patients got much better—I have never had a year as police chief in which crime did not go down.

Q: To move from the big issues of combating crime nationwide to the smaller ones – back in New York, there's a lot of attention now on Plaxico Burress. How do you ensure that celebrities are treated just like everyone else under the law?

Basically we do just that. I have no quarrel with the mayor speaking out or the police commissioner speaking out on the outrageous behavior of this character, celebrity or not. The idea that they convinced a doctor not to file a report and, based on what I'm reading, that the NFL and the Giants may have played a part—it's outrageous. The way I treat it in LA is I arrest them and I prosecute them. At the same time, because of their visibility I'll speak out about it. But at the same time, I'll talk about Joe Blow the bus driver if the crime is particularly egregious. We have to stop coddling these people because they're celebrities. It doesn't give them the right to perform outside the norm.

Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.