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The Wrong Way to Pick a Latino as L.A. Police Chief : Law enforcement: Alatorre's plan to alter the City Charter so a Latino might be Gates' successor is the old politics of special dispensation.

March 08, 1992|Victor Valle and Rudy D. Torres | Victor Valle is assistant professor of journalism and Chicano/Latino Studies at Cal State University, Long Beach; Rudy D. Torres is associate professor of public policy and Chicano/Latino Studies at Cal State University, Long Beach

When a Latino candidate to replace Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates was not among the six finalists, leaders of the Latino community didn't hesitate to express their justifiable outrage. Even the chairman of the selection committee, John K. Van de Kamp, was sympathetic to their protests, complaining that his panel was burdened "with a fundamentally unfair set of rules." Still, the manner in which City Councilman Richard Alatorre has tried to exploit the community's anger highlights the political bankruptcy of Latino policy-making and Latino survival politics-as-usual.

"It's a tremendous injustice to a community that represents 40% of the (city)," said Alatorre after Lee Baca, a L.A. County Sheriff's division chief, was excluded from the finalist list. What the council member seemed to be saying was that demographics alone demanded that a Latino succeed Gates. Alatorre's comment was vulnerable to being interpreted as a slight to the African-American candidates.

The size of the Latino population, however, is no match for the City Charter, which has perpetuated Anglo old-boy control of the LAPD. Because Baca is an "outsider," he must score higher than LAPD veterans to stay in the running for chief. He didn't, though he rated third overall.

Now Alatorre hopes to persuade his City Council colleagues to delay the selection process long enough for them to amend the charter, and thus put Baca's name back on the short list.

The councilman is counting on years of bottled-up Latino resentment toward the LAPD to boost his plan. He's not taking much of a risk here. As one member of the Christopher Commission, which investigated the LAPD following the Rodney G. King beating, concluded after hearing all the evidence, "Latinos were more often the victims (of LAPD abuse) than any other group."

But Alatorre's seemingly noble gesture disguises two fundamental problems of local Latino politics. One is a failure to demonstrate meaningful and timely leadership. In the aftermath of the videotaped beating of King, Alatorre, as well as other Latino officials, had numerous opportunities to join African-Americans in criticizing the LAPD. His failure to do so makes his case for amending the City Charter that much weaker--and appear that much more politically opportunistic. Why didn't he join Councilman Michael Woo in calling for Gates' removal, or, later on, try to influence the criteria to be used in selecting a new chief.

Last August, when Sheriff's deputies shoot Arturo Jimenez, a 19-year-old Romona Gardens resident, to death, Alatorre missed another opportunity for political bridge-building. As commission member Leo F. Estrada noted last August, "The Jimenez case requires that the public demand that Christopher Commission-like recommendations be applied across the board" to both city and county law-enforcement agencies.

Estrada's comment was an invitation to form a Latino-African-American coalition if there ever was one. All Alatorre or L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina had to do was reach out to the African-American community by stressing that the Jimenez shooting, like the beating of King, was symptomatic of the militarization of law enforcement in their respective communities. Unfortunately, neither Alatorre nor Molina followed up.

Alatorre's response to Baca's exclusion also dramatizes the larger problem: Local Latino elected officials have failed to provide imaginative policy responses to the changing demographic, economic and cultural realities of the nation's leading post-industrial city.

Cynics will note that you can't expect any politician, Latino or not, to violate the first commandment of political survival--reelection. After all, had Alatorre boldly criticized the LAPD or aligned himself with Woo, he may been an easy target for reprisals. Some council members, for example, feared that Gates might stir up voters in their home districts by ending popular crime-fighting programs.

Conventional cynicism, however, can't explain away the passivity of local Latino political leadership. Rather, their failure to lead during the King controversy stems from a political culture that converts the posture of the embattled and outnumbered minority into an implicit article of faith. Not so long ago, leaders like Assembly Speaker Willie Brown successfully used the art of the back-room deal to even the odds against an unresponsive political Establishment. This strategy of political expediency still makes sense in Sacramento when Latino and African-American elected officials represent poor, disenfranchised voters in districts with few economic assets.

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