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The chief of the Los Angeles Police Department, William J. Bratton, visited last night to lecture on Rebuilding America's Cities, part of a series by the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies at the Evergreen Museum and Library on North Charles Street.

Bratton is the architect of one of the many policing strategies employed by the Baltimore Police Department back in 2000 when Martin O'Malley was mayor and he brought in Edward T. Norris from New York, first as a deputy and then as police commissioner.

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Bratton talked for more than an hour and fielded a few questions from an audience that included police officers, including James Teare Sr., the chief of the Anne Arundel County Police Department, and Anthony Barksdale, deputy commissioner of the Baltimore force.

Back in the early 2000s, Bratton was part of a traveling road show of former NYPD officials who went around the country trying to fix policing and restore safety to city streets. Bratton was commisisoner of the police in Boston, New York and now Los Angeles. Norris also was in the group, along with John F. Timoney, who went from New York to lead the force in Philadelphia and now Miami. They all learned under the late Jack Maple, who ran a $2,000-a-day consulting company and met with his star students at Elaine's on Manhattan's Upper East Side. Maple was the consultant who turned around the corrupt New Orleans Police Department and also was hired by O'Malley.

Bratton oversaw double-digit crime descreases in Boston and in New York, where homicides tumbled from 2,300 to around 700. He's showing the same gains in Los Angeles, where he has been for the past six years. Here is what Bratton had to say last night:

Bratton told a story of being in Boston in the early 1990s. His police force had done what police forces did then (and many still do now): compiled numbers of arrests and response times and brought the stats to a community meeting, where an officer spoke to a disinterested crowd.

When it came time for questions, it turned out people didn't care how many arrests the cops made, or even about some of the crime they hadn't even heard about. "They wanted the kids off the corners," Bratton said. They wanted the trash picked up. "It was a wake up call," said Bratton. "We didn't undersand what it was the community wanted. It was what the people saw every day -- the deterioration of their community."

Bratton used this example to talk about the need to bring back community policing. And though he didn't mention it, he also was talking about zero-tolerance, that ugly form of policing that we blame for Baltimore cops arresting tens of thousands of citizens on questionable charges, ruining their trust in authority and now undermining trials and bringing us a stop snitching culture.

It's far more complicated than that. Bratton traces the problem back to 1970, as the country emerged from the Civil Rights protests and riots and headlong into anger over Vietnam. Police departments were just moving officers off the walking posts into cars, which took them away from the people they served. With the start of the rapid response 911 system, police started to answer calls but not always patrol the way they used to. As a result, the beat cop didn't pay close attention anymore as the corners filled with young people, as they sipped beer in public, to all the little things that can make a community feel unsafe.

At the same time, the birth of suburbs took even more and more people out of cities. "Everyone wanted Leave it to Beaver," Bratton said, "to leave their problems behind. The cities were dying, they were passe, in the new world, they weren't going to be of any importance."

As the 70s turned into the 80s, the police departments started to take on a new role: that of decriminalizing and depolicing. Instead of locking up vagrants and drunks, cops took them to detox centers and homeless shelters. In Boston at that time, he said there were only 44 beds for the homeless in the city, so naturally cops didn't take them anywhere. As "cities were dying," Bratton said the cops paid less and less attention to social ills, and police forces got smaller. Boston went from 2,800 officers in the 70s to 1,500 in the 80s.

Then, in the 80s, came cocaine. First as powder, embraced by the upper middle class, and then as crack, quick, easy and cheap and highly addictive. It hit East Coast inner-cities "like a typhoon," Bratton said. "Your city of Baltimore, the reason so many neighborhoods look the way they do, is a direct result of the 80s and you haven't yet recovereed. It was like an atom bomb."

The smaller police forces were ill-equipped to deal with the violence that came with crack and the street corner markets. "In the 80s, the bad guys were carrying Tec-9s and Uzis and we were still carrying around six-shot revolvers," Bratton said. "By 1990, American cities were in a freefall." New York recorded 2,346 murders that year.

That brought in community policing. Cops went back to community meetings and formed partnerships with civic leaders. But Bratton also described a form of zero-tolerance -- not the arrest-everyone mentality but identifying problem areas and targeting law enforcement there. In New York, with 38,000 cops, he boasted he could flood nearly every problem area of the city at the same time. He described arriving in New York in the early 90s and seeing 5th Avenue "looking like a third world bazaar."

Bratton started in New York leading the transit police force. He said the subway system had been taken over by the homeless and by crooks who disabled turnstyles and stood there taking money from riders. There were 700 turnstyles on the subway and only 300 cops working at any given shift. Bratton said he decided to start by arresting turnstyle jumpers. The cops loved it because for the first time they got to wear plainclothes and make arrests. Thousands of people were arrested at first -- classic zero-tolerance on a nuisance crime -- but Bratton said one out of seven had an outstanding arrest warrant and one of 21 was carrying a weapon. It soon became clear that criminals could no longer use the subway to escape or commit crime.

"In two years, we used police to control behavior to the extent we changed it."

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Bratton's point: "Cops count. Police matter."

It's what we heard back in 2000 from Norris and O'Malley. After years of city cops being told the crime and drug problem is so emmense that they are only part of the solution, and until the rest of the system gets on board little can be done, they were told, "Aren't you tired of being told you can't make a difference?" The force was reinvigorated.

But Bratton also stressed something else: Community policing, when it was first introduced, "nearly died on the vine" because "so many officers saw it as social work. ... Community policing doesn't have to be just social work."

Baltimore police are trying to get back to community policing, with some, like the commander of the Eastern District, arguing the department lost its way with the people they serve. But as Bratton points out, community policing isn't all meetings and cookouts, and zero-tolerance doesn't mean bashing heads across the city.

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Baltimore had a police commissioner who called himself "a social worker with a gun." Then we went the other way, locking everybody up for everything, but will no plan or strategy. In between, we had Norris, who was praised for being fair in communities, with bringing down crime and whose favorite saying was to let the police be the police again.

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