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California city enlists controversial lawman to cut rising crime

Los Angeles police chief William Bratton (L) stands next to an unidentified officer as people take part in a May Day protest march for immig
Los Angeles police chief William Bratton (L) stands next to an unidentified officer as people take part in a May Day protest march for immig

By Ronnie Cohen

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The city of Oakland hired a prominent national lawman credited with overhauling troubled police departments and helping curb street crime in New York, Los Angeles and Boston to design a plan to quell violence in California's most crime-ridden city.

City leaders voted 7-1 on Wednesday to spend $250,000 to employ William Bratton, who advocates zero-tolerance policing to stop crime and has unapologetically expressed support for a controversial practice known as "stop and frisk."

Bratton's job, approved in a heated nine-hour city council meeting, will be to devise crime-reduction strategies in the city of 400,000 that last year recorded 131 homicides, the highest number since 2006, when 148 were killed.

He brings decades of experience. In Los Angeles, where Bratton was police chief from 2002 to 2009, he helped reduce gang violence and improve strained relations with the community.

At the helm of Boston's police force in the early 1990s, Bratton initiated a neighborhood policing effort to cut violence among young people. As New York police commissioner under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he implemented a crackdown on street crime that ushered in a period of record crime reduction.

Angry community members blasted the move to hire the high-profile lawman, while ministers blessed it.

"All you are doing by your continuous police actions is putting a Band Aid on a gunshot wound," yelled Cat Brooks, a single mother who fears for her children's safety.

"Poverty causes crime. Hunger causes crime... Bratton is not going to solve any of these problems. And I say to you he is not going to end violence in Oakland," she said.

But Reverend Lawrence VanHook, who said he has performed funeral services for three young men shot down in Oakland in 2013, sees Bratton as the city's best hope.

"I'm for him because I know it's going to take some real professionals to navigate how to get these guns off the streets and how to give us a fresh start," VanHook told Reuters.

TROUBLED DEPARTMENT

The move to hire Bratton in a city with a history of civil unrest and police violence follows a December agreement that narrowly averted a federal court takeover of Oakland's troubled police force over a longstanding civil rights case.

Under the agreement, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson will appoint another new official to institute reforms but will leave the day-to-day operations in city hands. Police Chief Howard Jordan asked the city to hire Bratton to advise him.

The deal stems from a civil rights lawsuit, settled in 2003, in which 119 people, almost all African-American, alleged police planted evidence and beat suspects. Under the settlement, the city agreed to changes in officer investigations and discipline as well as measures to stop racial profiling.

But a decade later Oakland has yet to complete work on a list of promised reforms. Images of Oakland police in riot gear using tear gas to subdue members of the Occupy protest movement a year ago raised a global outcry.

Bratton, who as Los Angeles police chief said he would not tolerate racial profiling, could not be immediately reached for comment. But in a recent interview with a CBS affiliate in San Francisco, he defended the use of "stop and frisk" when applied uniformly across communities.

"Every police department in America does it. The challenge is to do it constitutionally within the law. The challenge is to do it compassionately; you're dealing with human beings," he said.

"And the challenge is to do it consistently so you cannot be accused that you're only doing it in one neighborhood in the city or directed against one population of the city," he added.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)

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