He came to power after the latest in a seemingly unending series of police scandals--high-ranking LAPD officers had been indicted for providing protection for a notorious local madam with Mafia connections--and he came with an unprecedented mandate. Armed with City Charter and Civil Service protection not enjoyed by most of his predecessors, Police Chief William H. Parker vowed to clean up the Los Angeles Police Department--and clean it up he did.
Occasional scandals still occurred--including the "Bloody Christmas" beating of seven prisoners in 1951. But the Los Angeles media loved the LAPD unconditionally in those days so--typically--early newspaper stories reported only an attack against the police, not the ensuing beating by the police; the first Times headline said "Officers Beaten in Bar Brawl; Seven Men Jailed."
Parker initially denied charges of police brutality and accused critics of trying to discredit the department. He later launched an intensive investigation. The chief ultimately transferred 54 officers--including two deputy chiefs--and suspended 39 others. A grand jury indicted eight officers for felonious assault; five were convicted.
Parker's message got through, and almost overnight, it seemed, he had made the LAPD the most professional, corruption-free police force in the country. The department went from local disgrace to national fame--a crisp, militaristic "thin blue line" (a phrase Parker coined) admired and emulated from coast to coast as it struggled valiantly to protect civilized society from godless communists, murderous thugs and the widespread dangers and decay of modern urban life.
Given access and approval by Parker--after some initial skepticism--Jack Webb and his "Dragnet" television show helped polish the LAPD's image further, as did Parker's own television show--called "The Thin Blue Line"--and the department's press office, created by Parker in 1956.
Parker was very sophisticated about the media. Lt. Dan Cooke, longtime LAPD spokesman before his retirement in 1988, recalls several instances when television reporters would tell Parker they wanted "a minute or two" with the chief on camera, "and Parker would say, 'Well, which is it--one or two?' Then he'd go off the top of his head and stop at two minutes on the button."
The combination of Webb and Parker--and the blunt-spoken, media savvy ways of subsequent LAPD Chiefs Ed Davis and Daryl F. Gates--largely explain why the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which employs more people and covers a larger area than the LAPD, has never had the cachet or the media attention, good and bad, that has long been focused on the LAPD. With no sheriff's equivalent of "Dragnet" and with comparatively bland leaders dating back 60 years, the sheriff's office has generally been the neglected stepchild of media scrutiny.
Parker was never neglected.
Indeed, for most of his reign, the media treated him--and his department--like heroes. After all, for the media in the 1950s and early 1960s, police stories were still essentially crime stories, and Parker had built the best crime-fighting force around.
To many, Parker's baronial autonomy--and the often idolatrous coverage that the media gave him--helped foster conditions that ultimately made the Rodney G. King beating and the ensuing riots possible, if not inevitable.
There is a "lineage--a direct line" between Parker and the King case, says Ron Kaye, assistant managing editor at the Daily News, who, like everyone else interviewed for today's story, spoke before the verdicts in the King case and the three days of rioting that followed.
It was Parker who began the department's "proactive" approach to policing. Unlike police in many other big cities, LAPD officers do not sit around doughnut shop parking lots in patrol cars waiting for the next radio call; they cruise the streets, looking for trouble before it happens, trying to spot possible criminals by their appearance and their demeanor, determined to do unto them before they can do unto anyone else.
As the Christopher Commission would find out 40 years later, that often meant hassling young black males--innocent black males.
This problem was not unique to Los Angeles, of course. An 11-city study by Peter Rossi at Johns Hopkins University in 1968 showed that because "the urban lower class is today disproportionately black . . . a dark skin is to the police a statistically significant cue to social status and thus to potential criminality."
But the proactive approach of the LAPD has probably made officers even more likely to act aggressively on that cue here than elsewhere.