PALO ALTO — Now, it is up to the people. With the release of the Christopher Commission's excellent report and, after initial stonewalling, Police Chief Daryl F. Gates' promise to resign by the end of the year, responsibility for reform is now where it belongs--on the shoulders of the people of Los Angeles. Gates had remained the center of controversy by stubbornly refusing to retire but, on his departure, necessary reform can begin. The Christopher Commission only confirmed the need for new leadership in the Los Angeles Police Department.
Yet, there is a danger in making Gates a scapegoat. Problems will not vanish on his retirement. Widespread rank-and-file support for Gates reveals the LAPD, as an organization, backed the chief in his replay of the "few bad apples" defense used by countless police departments to avoid reform in the wake of scandal. Unless the people of Los Angeles and their elected officials accept the commission findings and their own responsibility for allowing the growth of a racist, sexist and brutal police subculture, the new chief will lack the mandate necessary to implement painful reforms. Cosmetic changes in training and structure will be made, but the negative police culture will weather the storm and get stronger because it hasn't been rooted out.
Angelenos must ask themselves why it took a videotaped scandal and the Christopher Commission's report to see the obvious? Why did they allow Gates to articulate and implement an aberrant style of policing leading to the racist, sexist and brutal police culture described by the commission?
During the last two decades, the nation's big-city police departments wrestled with reforms and gradually embraced concepts of affirmative action and community policing. But the LAPD and its chiefs were permitted--if not encouraged--to march to a different drum.
When a police chief talks about hanging people at the airport--as Gates' predecessor did--it hardly inspires rank-and-file cops to keep their cool when confronted with the very real frustrations of an ineffective justice system. When the chief ridiculed affirmative-action efforts, designed to eliminate racial and ethnic imbalances in the department, it reinforced racist and unprofessional attitudes held by all too many cops.
Yet, Los Angeles not only tolerated that racial insensitivity, it choose Assistant Chief Gates as the new chief, who continued in the same vein. The LAPD proudly emphasized its hard-nosed style of confrontational policing, with emphasis on arrests and sweeps. Gates boasted the "hammer will fall" on gangs and called gang members "dirty little cowards." Certainly, gangs need to be controlled--but when the police department sounds and acts like just another gang, the public gets confused and gang members get turned on. Heavy-handed police action cannot eliminate gangs. But firm law enforcement by police, coupled with programs by neighborhoods, schools, youth workers and community organizations, can minimize gangs and the violence they spawn. These programs do not work when the police see themselves as the only answer to crime.
When Gates told a committee of the U.S. Senate that casual drug users should be taken out and shot, he showed his frustration over drug abuse, a complex problem dumped on the police to solve. But by making a dehumanizing suggestion, he again told Los Angeles how he views the use of force.
On previous occasions, when Gates made negative statements about Latinos, blacks and other minorities, they were well reported. Why, then, are people in Los Angeles surprised when some cops respond to their frustrations the same way on the street?
The millions of dollars in damages paid out by Los Angeles in compensation for illegal police use of force was also well reported--as were the complaints of minorities not lucky enough to have their beatings videotaped. Given the commission's findings of a department code of silence, its lack of investigation of complaints and lenient, if any, discipline for excessive use of force, it is clear that the Rodney G. King incident was not unique.
But Angelenos, like people in other large cities, are justifiably frightened of crime and don't like to hear ill of their protectors. After all, look who's complaining. People with criminal records and minorities. And racism? Perhaps Los Angeles is like my high school back in the Bronx. We only had one black in our senior class, so we of a segregated society elected him class president--showing we weren't prejudiced and relieving our consciences of the need to think about discrimination. How many white voters in Los Angeles did the same thing, voting for Mayor Tom Bradley--and ignoring signs of racism in the police department?