Caracas Journal: A Veteran Cop on a Tough New Beat
April 21, 2001
By Larry Rohter
When William J. Bratton walked into police headquarters here this week, Henry Rivas, the director of the Caracas Metropolitan Police, was waiting at the door for him. In a nearby conference room, division heads and precinct chiefs of the 8,000-member force had assembled for a strategy session with the former New York City police commissioner.
"Welcome to your police," Mr. Rivas said to Mr. Bratton. "We have even got a uniform for you."
Going along with the joke, Mr. Bratton smiled and raised his right hand. "I'm ready to take my oath," he replied.
As New York's top cop from 1994 to 1996, Mr. Bratton presided over a sharp drop in homicides and other serious crimes that earned him a national reputation. He has come here to take on what may be an even more daunting challenge: helping the local government apply his crime-busting techniques to this sprawling and violent capital.
"Not only do we have poverty and unemployment, but we must also contend with corruption, weakness of the rule of law, a lack of resources and a culture of impunity," said Ivan Simonovis, the recently appointed municipal secretary of public security here. "That creates an ideal climate for the growth of crime."
Indeed, crime here has been on a steady rise for the past 15 years, with the number of reported incidents leaping 30 percent just in the past two years.
Public opinion polls consistently list "lack of security" as the top concern throughout this nation of 24 million people.
"I thought I'd seen it all" during 30 years of police work, Mr. Bratton said as he, accompanied by Spanish-language interpreters, visited police stations, talked with civic, business and political leaders and met with the chiefs of the city's six separate police forces to prepare an anti-crime offensive. "But the public safety issues here are incredible."
What local authorities are calling the Bratton Plan has been heralded as the solution to that crisis, and so Mr. Bratton is regarded here as both a savior and a celebrity.
At a police graduation ceremony that he attended on Wednesday, the police band struck up "New York, New York" when he arrived, residents greeted him by waving banners bearing his name and one especially grateful man, Antonio Belandria, even rushed up to kiss his hand.
"He is the Supercop, so we are confident that he will be able to help us," said Felipe Eduardo Manriquez, 63, a government employee, as he watched the proceedings. "Crime is out of control: I've been robbed five times, there is no police presence in the neighborhood where I live, and the criminals no longer have fear of anyone."
Even before Mr. Bratton was brought on board last month, local authorities were making efforts to restore flagging public confidence and strengthen the force. More than 4,000 new police officers are to be hired and trained this year and next, for instance; 361 officers have been dismissed for corruption; and starting salaries have been more than doubled, to $700 a month, in an effort to recruit better-educated officers and make corruption less tempting.
But the mayor of Caracas, Alfredo Pena, said that visits to New York had made him eager to have Mr. Bratton introduce innovations like community policing, computerized tabulation of crime statistics, standardized complaint forms and business improvement districts here. "These are systems to fight crime that are not unique but can be applied in many places," he said.
Mr. Bratton, though, has been careful to damp expectations of any sort of a miraculous turnaround.
In an interview before he returned to New York on Thursday, he noted that Caracas's six police forces have a combined strength of only 11,000 to keep order in a city of five million people, compared with about 40,000 police officers for New York City, which has about eight million residents. The police here are also burdened with weak antinarcotics, internal affairs and investigative divisions, all of which he said need to be reinforced and coordinated.
"The growth of this city has far outstripped that of its police," Mr. Bratton said. "They admit they have a problem, and they want to take steps, so at least the journey back has begun. There is potential here, but the reality is that they are facing a real crisis."
In addition, Venezuela's political climate is highly charged these days, making Mr. Bratton's presence controversial in some quarters. President Hugo Chavez is a left-wing nationalist who has been strengthening ties with Cuba, China, Iraq and Libya. At the same time, he has been distancing himself from the United States by limiting cooperation in joint counternarcotics efforts and withdrawing from regional military exercises.
In its annual human rights report this year the State Department said that "excessive use of deadly force by police and security forces was a serious problem" here, estimating that at least 2,000 suspected criminals were killed by the Venezuelan police last year.
Mr. Chavez and his government quickly responded by telling Washington to mind its own business. "How many people died in the United States in the year 2000 as a result of human rights abuses and executions?" Mr. Chavez said in a speech.
Foreign Minister Luis Davila, who was minister of internal affairs and justice during the period covered by the report, described Mr. Bratton's hiring as unnecessary. "Venezuela rejects any kind of outside interference in its internal affairs," he said.
Mayor Pena is also a member of Mr. Chavez's governing Patriotic Pole coalition, but he minimized official resentment of his decision to hire a foreign adviser.
"Since drug traffickers and organized-crime groups recognize no boundaries in a globalized world, the nations of the world must unite to fight them," he said. "So we must look for help wherever we can, and bring in the people who have shown that they know how to deliver results."
©2001 The New York Times