Spawned by the Rodney G. King beating, the measure to reform the Los Angeles Police Department has evolved into a referendum on the worst U.S. riots this century, with leaders on both sides of the issue struggling to harness images for their own purposes.
"History was the great communicator of this campaign," said Steve Glazer, a strategic consultant hired by Citizens for Law Enforcement and Reform (CLEAR), which is backing Charter Amendment F on Tuesday's ballot.
"Los Angeles voters and the world watched the Rodney King beating, the Christopher Commission review and findings, the verdict, the riots and the inadequate police response," Glazer said. "The challenge of the campaigns is to reinforce these historic events or rewrite them."
Geoffrey Garfield, campaign director for the Police Protective League, the lead opponent of the measure, agreed.
"The campaign evolved into an interpretation of the riots," Garfield said. "The riots became the context and Rodney King the subtext."
So as the campaign entered its final stretch, both camps were hastily replacing pictures of the King beating with photographs of burning buildings and looting in political advertisements.
Essentially, Charter Amendment F would limit a police chief to two five-year terms, allow the mayor to select a chief with the approval of the City Council and provide civilian review of officer misconduct by adding a civilian to disciplinary panels.
But the heated debate over the measure went far beyond its provisions after the widespread street violence.
Proponents blamed the Police Department's slow initial response to the riots on a failure of management--the same management they said has failed to deal with racism and bias among officers.
Opponents charged that the department's response was stymied by politicians, particularly City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who urged police to use restraint in the aftermath of not guilty verdicts returned last month in the case of four officers charged with beating King.
The riots changed the political landscape and sent the Charter Amendment F campaigns into a temporary tailspin, said Eric Rose, a City Hall lobbyist and former political consultant to Chief Daryl F. Gates.
"There was a temporary period where both campaigns were in a down mode trying to re-evaluate their strategies," Rose said. "But the Yes on F effort had a built-in media advantage: 13 months of LAPD-bashing and graphic images of the beating of Rodney King played daily on television."
The campaign to amend the 60-year-old City Charter began in March as a potential clash between two influential men and the different Los Angeles that each represents.
On the side of change was Warren Christopher, the lawyer and former diplomat who headed the blue-ribbon panel that investigated the Police Department after the King beating. He spoke for the emerging multiracial city and its desire to have greater control over its Police Department. On the other side stood the embattled Gates, representing a more conservative constituency comfortable with the department's semiautonomous relationship with City Hall.
All that changed in mid-April when the powerful police union belatedly entered the fray, bringing in the New York-based firm of Jerry Austin and Hank Sheinkopf.
Police union leaders talked of their ability to spend $500,000 on the campaign and to dispatch hundreds of off-duty officers to tell voters that the measure amounted to a political grab for control of the department.
The union's campaign had barely gotten off the ground when it was derailed by the verdicts in the King case and the riots. The promised cadre of "Officer Friendlies" never materialized because police officers were too tired to stump against the measure.
"Who would have thought that riots would put police officers on 14-hour shifts with no days off for two weeks?" Garfield asked. "We had to redouble our efforts to get civilian volunteers."
The union also produced mailers, radio and television commercials suggesting that politicians contributed to the violence by urging police to use restraint after the verdicts.
But CLEAR strategists pleaded with the officials targeted by the union--including Ridley-Thomas and Mayor Tom Bradley--to keep a low profile and avoid public clashes.
"It becomes critical at certain junctures that we speak with one voice. Sometimes that means some voices are muted while others are louder," CLEAR spokesman Fred McFarlane said. The tactic "didn't give our opposition a chance to pick away at personalities," he said.
Instead, the job of public speaking in support of the measure was left primarily to Christopher and former Police Chiefs Tom Reddin and Ed Davis--all of whom were considered beyond reproach.
The police union has had its own problems dealing with Gates, who many viewed as a liability to the No on F campaign.