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Police Story : For a City Divided, Report Offers Too Little, Too Late

July 14, 1991|Mike Davis | Mike Davis is the author of "City of Quartz: Excavating the Future of Los Angeles" (Routledge, Chapman & Hall).

Will a few minutes of homemade videotape continue to darken the image of Los Angeles for years to come?

Parts of the daunting mandate of the Christopher Commission is to reassure the world that underneath the surface brutality of its streets--and its police--Los Angeles remains the Land of Sunshine. It won't be easy.

In a profound sense, the commission is 26 years too late. Its principal finding--that violence and racism are pervasive in the policing of the inner city--should have been the verdict of the McCone Commission after the Watts riots in 1965. But the McCone commissioners, drawn from the Downtown corporate elite--and including the young Warren Christopher--were eager to placate the LAPD's powerful Police Chief William Parker, and they ignored overwhelming evidence of police misconduct. The riots were blamed instead on ghetto "riffraff," and the LAPD was allowed to escalate its warlike patrol tactics in the black and Latino communities.

The best-intentioned supporters of the Christopher Commission report hope that it will not only force Chief Daryl F. Gates to resign, but will finally drive a silver stake through the malign legacy of Parker, which still suffuses the police headquarters bearing his name. To many out-of-town observers, however, the current commission's efforts only appear heroic relative to the extreme timidity of Los Angeles politics.

Despite much tinkering to rebalance the power of the mayor and his appointees over the LAPD, no far-reaching structural reforms are advocated by the commission. There is no proposal, for example, for a city residence requirement to de-mercenarize the police force, nor for the creation of a civilian police review board--as recently established by popular referendum in Long Beach.

Moreover, the focus on the charismatic role of the chief, and the accompanying reification of "management practices," tends to detract from the larger context of police lawlessness. Sheriff Sherman Block, for example, is universally praised for his calm, intelligent disquisitions on law and order, yet, despite his "reasonableness," Block's department--in Lynwood, the Antelope Valley and elsewhere--is alleged to be as out of control as any of the LAPD's rogue detachments.

It is not clear that, in a metropolis as riven with class and racial division as Los Angeles, the police can be expected to act as impartial guardians. The enforcers of oppressive conditions are, after all, oppressors by definition. As a famous civil-rights leader, Bayard Rustin, pointed out in the aftermath of the Watts riots, even if policemen acted like "angels," the ghetto "would still be a zoo . . . and they would be the blue-coated zoo-keepers."

Until the oppressive conditions themselves--including soaring poverty among youth, collapsing schools, coolie wages, growing homelessness--are directly addressed, Los Angeles will remain a city of the night, a super-Beirut mesmerizing a guilty world with its spectacles of communal self-destruction.

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