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Knock the Police Chief Off His City Pedestal

March 16, 1997|Ruben Martinez | Ruben Martinez, an editor at Pacific News Service, is currently working on a book about life and death in the borderlands for Metropolitan/Holt

In a city bitterly divided into groups and subgroups, our fixation on the chief of police helps unite us. You're a homeowner in the San Fernando Valley victimized three times by burglars. You're the mother of a preteen in the inner city, fearful your baby will become a victim of a stray bullet fired by a gangbanger. You're a civil libertarian concerned about discrimination against minorities, the homeless, women, gays and lesbians. Who do you turn to for justice?

The Office of the Chief of Police of the City of Los Angeles: The very future of the city depends on it. After all, didn't former Police Chief Daryl F. Gates and his philosophy of policing--cops as a buffer between white and nonwhite, rich and poor--set in motion the events that culminated in the worst urban conflagration in U.S. history? And, conversely, isn't soon-to-be former Police Chief Willie L. Williams, the community-policing advocate, the man who could lend a sympathetic ear to all sides, the glue that holds the city together in the post-riot era?

And therein lies the problem: Los Angeles has come to view its chief as something of a demi-god. Perhaps the ghost of Gates makes us do it--who, if not Gates, believed himself, and taught others to believe in him, as city-savior? Williams was certainly a kinder, gentler chief, but we still secretly wanted him to save us, didn't we?

Williams wasn't just the city's top law-enforcement official. In many ways, the city asked him to solve all its problems, from crime to race relations to class conflict. No wonder he couldn't live up to the job. We asked him to do everything that we couldn't.

It's part and parcel of our obsession with Law and Order, which really is an obsession with Lawlessness and Disorder, the sense that we've spun out of control in a city where the senseless makes too much sense. In such a place, we yearn for simple solutions. We yearn for a hero. And he's a cop.

The police, their numbers and style of enforcement, have become a staple of every politicians' stump speech. If big government can't save us, the cops will.

This would all be comic if the impact weren't so tragic. The story line of recent LAPD history reads as if it came straight out of a second-rate Hollywood screenplay: bad white chief, good black chief. Round out the bill, depending on your taste, with a horde of mindless narco-rappers blasting away at each other, or a bunch of rogue, racist cops meting out their version of justice a la Mark Fuhrman. Black and white, good and bad, Valley versus inner city. Is Los Angeles really that simple?

It never has been, of course, and it certainly isn't now, but our politicos have given us two sides of the same coin for decades. On the one hand, the conservatives and their tough-on-crime policy (more cops, more prisons--as many as it takes to subdue the hoodlums). On the other, the liberals who fantasize that a political handshake can bridge the gap between the middle class and the working poor (the black-Jewish, Westside-South Central coalition of the Tom Bradley era). The former turned the city into a pressure cooker that eventually blew; the latter were too busy congratulating themselves and handing out perks to cronies to realize that their measures were more symbol than substance (Williams was clearly in this tradition).

Reality check: Los Angeles is 40% Latino, with a burgeoning Asian population, and political solutions like the race-conscious appointment of a police chief will not move the city forward.

Forget the color of the next chief. Forget the chief, if for just a moment. We all projected onto Williams our fantasies of what the city's savior should look and act like. The bad news is that no single person, no matter their color or qualifications, can save us. The good news is that we now have an opportunity to re-imagine the city's political soul. A city in which not one political player, but many collide and meld to form a collective identity. A city where no single community's interest is more important than another's, but where all are equally important.

The late rapper Tupac Shakur, viewed by many as a thug, and by many others as a typical inner-city kid caught between doing the right thing and destroying himself and others, prophesied in his posthumously released album that the inner city--blacks and Mexicans together--would rise up again in insurrection if injustice remained the rule in the majority of L.A.'s neighborhoods. It wasn't so much a threat as it was Shakur reading the writing on the wall. This city, nearly five years after the riots and nearly five years after Williams arrived from Philadelphia promising us a new Los Angeles, is no less divided along the jagged lines of race and class. If anything, the demographic shifts that increasingly place the inner city within the sanctum of the formerly monochrome suburbs have increased the tensions. Now, we have no choice but to face each other. Or to face off.

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