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The Spin / BILL BOYARSKY

Good Policing Starts at Top

July 31, 1997|BILL BOYARSKY

While the Police Commission was announcing its three finalists for L.A.'s top cop, Mayor Richard Riordan was just where he should have been, in the neighborhoods of his city.

I caught up with him in a place that, outwardly, had nothing to do with a new chief. All the TV vans and most of the reporters were a few miles to the east, at police headquarters in Parker Center, where the commissioners were holding a press conference.

But here was Riordan in the conference room of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sophia, at the intersection of Pico Boulevard and Normandie Avenue, a faded section of the city that is now home, mostly, to Central American immigrants.

The magnificent cathedral, with its gold encrusted interior, sits across a lawn from the conference room, which was much simpler. Coffee--plenty of it--was at one side the room, a big plate of Greek pastries at the other. The conversation was friendly, but intense.

And, although the scene was far from the cold, bland exterior and cheerless interiors of Parker Center, it told more about the job facing the new police chief than anything the police commissioners said to that horde of reporters.

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Seated at the conference table were about 20 men and women, an unusual cultural and ethnic mix. Some were leaders in the neighborhood. Joining the neighborhood folks was the Very Rev. John S. Bakas, dean of the cathedral, who threw himself into the proceedings with a big voice and unrestrained enthusiasm. Nearby was Theo J. Pastras, the cathedral's cultural chairman, who had brought me to the cathedral last spring to show me how the Greek Orthodox congregants, mostly suburban dwellers, are beginning to work with the neighborhood, which they had previously tended to ignore.

They told me then about their plans to make the streets drug-free and combine their cultures into a unique mix, turning the shabby storefronts along Pico Boulevard into a Byzantine-Latino Quarter with stores, restaurants and galleries.

Now they were telling Riordan about their vision--and asking for police help to attain it.

The mayor didn't make any promises or give them an easy answer.

The residents themselves must shoulder some of the responsibility, he said. He advised them to go in a large group to the police station and demand more cops. Get involved with their neighborhood police advisory committee, one of the groups that are being formed to work with cops on making the LAPD more responsive and effective.

The mayor acknowledged, however, that lobbying the local police station hasn't helped much in the past.

There was a lot of history behind his acknowledgment.

Since the reign of the late Chief Bill Parker, which ended in 1966, the LAPD has been tightly run from the top down. All key decisions, such as deployment of cops, have been pretty much made at downtown headquarters, Parker Center.

Parker wanted to root out entrenched station house fiefdoms, where cops had long-standing bribery business deals with neighborhood gamblers and pimps. So he centralized power at downtown headquarters, with discipline enforced by tough, ruthless internal affairs investigators.

The old chief hadn't realized that the headquarters itself would become a fiefdom, a Kremlin-like, monolithic institution, filled with anonymous apparatchiks who ground out regulations, reports and statistics that, when added up, meant nothing.

Over the years, as the hold of Daryl F. Gates weakened, and his successor, Willie L. Williams, failed to exert strong leadership, Parker Center split into several fiefdoms. Now, with Parker Center in disarray and the station commanders defanged, it's hard to figure out who's in charge of what.

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Riordan did not to go into all this history when he talked to the group at St. Sophia's. But he knows the problem.

That was clear when he said, "What I expect of the new chief of police is more accountability in the neighborhoods. There is too much ordering by memo from Parker Center."

The mayor has said this before. In fact, one reason he was unhappy with Williams was the chief's failure to make the stations accountable for policing in their neighborhoods.

Such accountability is what the people who came together at the Cathedral of St. Sophia want. They want to know who is responsible for chasing away the drug dealers and putting more cops on the streets on weekends.

These are neighborhood problems, remote from bureaucrats in Parker Center. Only cops who know the neighborhood--and commanders who are not routinely transferred after a couple of years--can solve them.

This is a simple idea, but Riordan hasn't been able to sell it since he took office. You can figure a new chief, picked by the mayor, will listen.

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Very early in the O.J. Simpson trial, Dennis Schatzman, reporting for the Los Angeles Sentinel, a major voice in the African American community, told me, "Black jurors are thinking differently about the evidence than whites do." I'm glad I listened. We had many more conversations about race as we covered the long trial. He was relentless in pressing his views and he taught me a lot. Dennis' death July 16, when he was just 47, deprived L.A. of a strong, unique journalistic voice.

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A final note: Last week I incorrectly reported that Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas voted for a resolution demanding public disclosure of Los Angeles arena deal documents. Actually, Ridley-Thomas left the chamber and was recorded as absent.

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