Chief Bill Bratton & Jim Wiatt Q&A
Friends help L.A.’s top lawman keep this city safe
photograph by Robert Maxwell
If ever a city needed a larger-than-life police chief, it’s Los Angeles. Of course, like any other major urban area, our police chief needs to be one step ahead of the bad guys—but in our town, he or she also needs to be able to mix and mingle with, and occasionally arrest, some of the world’s most famous people. For a city that has historically had a conflicted relationship with its police department—and the person helming it—Chief William J. Bratton is extremely popular.
Bratton himself is a contradiction. An experienced leader, he’s the town’s top lawman who’s not afraid of stirring the pot, who believes some of the best ideas come from upheavals. In his own words, he admits that if the department hadn’t been in crisis when he joined it, he would have created one. How he manages to remain so well liked by both the men and women who serve under him and the city’s citizens can be found in the way he approaches his job: with determination, intelligence, a confidence that has irked previous bosses and a wicked Irish sense of humor.
Asking the questions is Jim Wiatt, another of the city’s other larger-than-life denizens. Former chairman and CEO of the William Morris Agency, Wiatt has routinely brought boldfaced names together for philanthropy and activism (not a surprise—after all, he comes from politics, having helmed John Tunney’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 1969, and he has piloted business deals that later materialized as blockbuster entertainment seen around the world). In addition to facilitating movie magic, he has done something quite remarkable: For all of the times that the LAPD has been the subject of feature films and episodic TV, the Industry and the city’s cops have had almost nothing to do with each other. Wiatt, acting as a catalyst, changed all that when he became chairman of the Los Angeles Police Foundation, raising millions for, among other things, the LAPD’s numerous youth programs, as well as calling on Industry allies to help. As he says, “It’s all about supporting the police.”
Jim Wiatt: I’ve decided I can’t
be a wiseass, which I usually am, because you’ll have it on me forever. It’ll be transcribed. [Laughs.] But let me think... didn’t I meet you through John Miller, who introduced you to your wife, Rikki?
Chief Bratton: Yes. John Miller worked with me in the NYPD as my deputy commissioner of public information. I had hired him from NBC Channel 4. He was their top investigative reporter, one of the first American journalists to interview Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan in one of the camps. And in that interview, bin Laden declared war on the United States. Miller had become one of the top experts on terrorism, particularly as it related to al-Qaeda. So when I was appointed chief of police here in L.A., I offered him a position as head of my newly formed counterterrorism bureau. John had the best Rolodex of anybody I’ve ever met, and on that Rolodex—you. Then over time, you agreed to be honored by the Police Foundation, which is one of a number of charities that we have in the Los Angeles Police Department.
JW: Well, you called and asked me. How could I say no?
CB: That was significant, because L.A. is a city that revolves around the entertainment industry. Until that [involvement with the Police Foundation], its interaction with the LAPD was primarily limited to doing movies or TV shows about the police department and the department’s assistance in those ventures. Maybe 30 years ago there was a police-memorial celebrity-golf tournament that stars actually attended, but increasingly in recent years, it has been more and more difficult to attract celebrities to these events to raise money. Agreeing to be honored also meant opening your Rolodex of close friends and their spheres of influence. The year you were honored brought in the largest amount of money we’d ever made at the Police Foundation’s True Blue Gala. We did have A-list personalities on our board but nobody from the Hollywood community. I think you were the first. Plus, we got an awareness of what the department’s doing, an awareness of this foundation and the work it does, an awareness of the monetary needs of the department that are not filled by the city. For example, to all of our youth programs—and we have a ton of them—all we contribute are police officers. All the other funds— scholarships, uniforms, equipment—are paid for by private donations. The Police Foundation is one of the biggest supporters of those youth activities. It’s things we’re giving back as a department to the community. So we lucked out when we got you on board.
JW: I heard you say there were 36,000 police officers in New York City. How many are there in L.A., and how do you deal with that number of officers in a place that’s geographically so huge?
CB: You’ve actually hit on a number of issues that are motivators for me. As a leader and a manager, I think of myself as a change agent. Whether in Boston, New York and now here in Los Angeles, the six police departments I’ve been privileged to lead were all in crises at the time I arrived. And if there is not a crisis, I will try to create one, because I am a great believer that with crises you can accelerate the rate of change. New York and Los Angeles are totally different cities from a policing standpoint. So that makes it exciting for me. Coming to Los Angeles was a new, different set of challenges. New York City is 300 square miles with 8 million people. The crime issues in New York City were a very different type of crime problem, much more neighborhood focused— local gangs on the corner. It also had a huge 36,000-member police force. The average police precinct in New York City is three square miles. Los Angeles has half the population of New York—4 million people, spread out over 470 square miles—and 9,900 police officers. We’re a very horizontal city, with the exception of the high-rise complexes in Century City and downtown. We do have two distinctly different issues here than in New York. The big one is gangs—drive-by shootings—and while that problem is significantly less than it was in the early 1990s—gang crime is down about 60 to 70 percent—it is still the precipitating factor of most of our violent crime. There are 4,000 gang members documented in the city. Up against them, I have, as I said, 9,900 police officers, as opposed to the 36,000 in New York. I have fewer cops to put out there. That makes the two cities totally different from a policing standpoint. So, it’s exciting— I have to take the skill set I have and adapt to new situations.
JW: I think a lot of people are concerned with the potential for a terrorist attack here in L.A. In fact, it’s amazing that there haven’t been any incidents.
CB: Prior to 2002, local police didn’t really spend much time dealing with terrorism, but since then, my world has changed. Now I spend a lot of time on it. In Los Angeles, like New York and Washington, we are one of the three most significant targets in this country. We are that for several reasons. First, because of the entertainment industry—so much of what the current terrorist community hates is located in this city. The entertainment industry is the source that spreads so much of the “American way of life” to millions of people worldwide. Second, Los Angeles is a major gateway into the United States. Forty percent of the goods in containers coming by sea that enter the United States come from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. If you were to conduct a terrorist attack on either the airline industry or one of our ports, it would effectively cripple the rest of the U.S., if not the world. A third reason for wanting to attack here is the very large Jewish population. So, for all those reasons, during my time as chief, and supported by both Mayor Hahn and now Mayor Villaraigosa, I’ve developed a counterterrorism capability. There’s nothing we can do about reducing our high profile as a city. Do we want to lower our Jewish population? Do we want to no longer be the entertainment capital of the world? Do we want to reduce our economic viability through the ports and the airports? No. We want to grow all of those. So, if that is a given, what do we do? Well, we basically recognize that we have to have a very strong, proactive counterterrorism capability, as well as a terrorist-response capability.
"I have no interest in politics here in L.A. What with the city-council form of government we have, it’s a very tough job to be mayor."
JW: Do you think there will be any other terrorist attacks in the U.S.?
CB: Despite all of our good intentions, there is no longer a question of will there be another terrorist attack? There will be. It’s just a matter of when. There’s nobody in policing or counterterrorism-intelligence operations in this country who can fully explain why it hasn’t happened here. So we make an effort to learn before the fact. For example, here in L.A. we’ve created a national reporting model, SARS (Suspicious Activity Reporting System). It trains our officers to look at specific types of activity as a potential early warning sign of terrorism. It also allows us to educate the public, and just as important, it gives someplace for that information to be sent, analyzed and matched with other pieces of information. We have the ability to take a lot of seemingly disparate information, put it into one place, have a bunch of people from different organizations start to piece it together like a giant jigsaw puzzle.
JW: Has there been a threat of attack that we are not aware of?
CB: We have thwarted some terrorist attempts in Los Angeles just by good, basic police work. There were a couple of guys holding up gas stations and convenience stores. One of the neighboring police departments, aware of that, set up a stakeout and caught the guys robbing the convenience store. But the detectives then did what good detectives do—they did roll-back warrants, meaning they went back to the residences where these guys lived to see if there was additional evidence that could be used in proving some earlier crimes. During one of those, they found material in Arabic. One of the detectives, who had been trained in counterterrorism, passed the material up to the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and what we uncovered was a plot that had been hatched by an imam in prison to attack U.S. Army recruiting stations and Jewish places of worship here in Los Angeles. So if these characters had not been detected with the basic prevention of the holdup, who knows, six months down the line they might have gone ahead with their plan. SARS is an advocate and champion of the local police and sees them as significant players. It’s not just the FBI and the CIA that are going to counter the next one. That’s why we always try to keep learning.
JW: You know, it’s interesting that reports were that the police in Mumbai weren’t prepared in any way to deal with what happened there. And there were only 10 or so terrorists, so we’re not even talking about the kind of massive attack it could have been. Even so, more than 100 people died.
CB: What was noteworthy about the Mumbai attack was how unsophisticated it was—just a bunch of young men with machine guns and grenades coming through on a little boat. And in some respects, it’s like the two bombing events in London, where a group of young men came together and made not particularly sophisticated bombs, and with the second situation [in London], thankfully they were so unsophisticated they made bombs that didn’t work.
JW: You have a terrific relationship with our mayor, Antonio
Villaraigosa. How do you deal with the politics of the city council and the mayor, and have you ever considered running for office?
CB: I’m not a politician, but I operate within a world of politicians. Actually, politics is a very big part of policing, in the sense of dealing with politicians and their needs. As for myself, for politics, I’ve looked at it twice in the city of New York. Came very close, really—came to within an hour of announcing a candidacy for mayor in New York City. But I got that out of my blood, so since coming to L.A., I have had no interest in running for office.
JW: What made you turn back?
CB: I’d much rather be appointed. It’s a lot less aggravation not to ask people for money. I have no interest in politics here in L.A. What with the city-council form of government we have, it’s a very tough job to be mayor. The state and the city are very appropriately called loony tunes, because it describes the political establishment out here.
JW: What do you see in terms of the relationship between you, as police chief of the second largest city in the country, and government—local, state and federal?
CB: I’ve been a strong advocate of the idea that police are an extraordinarily essential component of our democratic fabric. In the Declaration of Independence, the only thing that’s guaranteed is life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The police are essential to that. If it’s not safe, people will not live free of fear. If you don’t have safety, then all of the other things that come with it—medical care, good schooling, good housing, jobs—they’re not going to happen.
JW: I took a tour of the new police headquarters even though it is still under construction. I was impressed, but you and your team will be working there—how do you feel about the building being part of your legacy?
CB: The headquarters building is gorgeous—the way it’s designed, no two sides are alike. The front of the building is all glass, and that glass reflects City Hall from across the street. It’s scheduled to open in October. It is going to be a proud emblem of the Los Angeles Police Department. Incidentally, it’s coming in under budget and on time. And with your help, we have wrapped our arms around the concept of building a new police memorial on the grounds to officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty—202 of them.
JW: It’s all about supporting our police. Our goal is to raise the money to place the police memorial on the plaza, which is fitting and in keeping with the architectural footprint of the headquarters. The memorial there would then serve as a springboard for a much larger one at the Elysian Park Police Academy across from Dodger Stadium, which will be a multimillion-dollar project.
CB: The Police Foundation is going to help sponsor the gala opening of the building. Jim, you and your Rolodex have had a large part to play in this.
JW: How do you balance the demands of being a police chief and having a great marriage?
CB: Very easily...I always find time to go to the movies, to travel. That’s the way it should be. I make sure I take my time off, and I take my vacations. One of the reasons I have no trouble sleeping at night when I’m out of town, which is frequently, is that I’ve got a great team of people. Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, uses a management technique I repeat frequently: “Get the right people on the bus, get the wrong people off the bus, and get the right people in the right seats.” In L.A., I’m driving a bus where I’ve got all of my people in the right seats. So when I get off the bus, I know who I’ve got coming up to drive the bus. I feel very comfortable they can keep the bus going down the road safely. Fortunately, that’s the way it is.
JW: When are you happiest?
CB: I’m happy all the time. I’m a happy camper.