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Commentary | PERSPECTIVE ON THE L.A. POLICE COMMISSION

Learn From LAPD's History With Latinos

Diluting the power of its inspector general could void hard-won gains in community relations.

November 16, 1998|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Los Angeles is a mecca for Latinos, and not just immigrants from Mexico or Central America who fill the low-wage jobs U.S. citizens won't take. Many young Latino professionals also come here to establish careers after being raised in smaller cities or rural communities of the U.S. Southwest. Sometimes they are educated along the way at Stanford, an Ivy League college or a fine state school like the University of Texas.

We can endlessly debate whether poor Latin American immigrants help Los Angeles, but who can argue that we don't benefit from the no-less-persistent flow of ambitious Chicanos from all over the Southwest? They include some of our top professors, scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers and business executives.

Some have provided valuable political leadership, too, even if that sometimes annoys locally bred Latinos. Normally, I have no qualms about a Latino from outside L.A. taking an important public position here--except when they do things that betray an ignorance of the city or that could have negative implications for public policy. That is what I fear may now be going on in the Los Angeles Police Commission, whose president is Edith R. Perez.

Perez is a native of Marysville in Northern California and a partner in the big downtown law firm Latham & Watkins. In legal circles she has a reputation as a smart, no-nonsense real estate specialist. Those are credentials that surely impressed Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, wheeling-and-dealing businessman that he is. So it was no big surprise when he appointed Perez to the civilian police panel in 1992.

Perez's tenure on the Police Commission had been unremarkable until recently. She now is embroiled in a nasty bureaucratic brawl over LAPD Inspector General Katherine Mader that seems to go beyond a conflict that is perhaps inevitable when two strong-willed attorneys disagree. (Mader is a former prosecutor and defense attorney.) This fight could set back the long and difficult campaign to reform the LAPD.

Mader wearied of the battle last week and abruptly resigned. Through an official spokesman, commissioners made it known that they were preparing to fire Mader because they did not like the quality of her work. For her part, Mader blasted the Police Commission for trying to turn her job, as the first independent inspector general the LAPD has ever had, into "a fraud."

If true, Mader's charge is frightening to someone like me, who grew up in Los Angeles and knows personally the difficult history of the local Latino community's periodic clashes with law enforcement, particularly with the LAPD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. And while I have no doubt that Perez and other Latinos from out of town also know that history, I wonder if they feel it in their gut the way L.A. Latinos do?

Just this week I expressed concern about Mader's departure to a young Latina professional who was not raised here but holds an important position in town. I was taken aback when this very smart woman did not know that the so-called "Bloody Christmas" incident was real and not a fiction concocted by screenwriters for the hit film "L.A. Confidential."

For anyone else who doesn't know, the incident depicted with dramatic license in the movie is based on fact: the beating of seven Mexican-American prisoners in the city's central jail, in the predawn hours of Christmas 1951 by inebriated policemen. At first, LAPD Chief William Parker denied any police brutality. But subsequent investigations led to the first grand jury indictments of serving officers and the first convictions for excessive use of force in LAPD history.

The incident also led to the formation of organizations to defend Latino rights. Among them was the Community Service Organization, which employed an organizer from Arizona named Cesar Chavez.

Chavez would go on to greater fame as founder of the United Farm Workers union. But years later, he would tell biographers that CSO's role in the Bloody Christmas case was his most effective calling card as a young community organizer. Latinos outside L.A. might not have known CSO back then, but they knew LAPD's harsh reputation. And they were eager to learn about any group that could help bring justice in the notorious Bloody Christmas case.

That collective memory must not be forgotten. Not because the LAPD should be forever punished for the sins of its past. Indeed, it deserves credit for how far it has come since then. But memories of past injustice provide a context for reform. And without that context, it is easy to dismiss the urgency of the needed reforms, or even to backslide.

The recent election of Lee H. Baca as Los Angeles County sheriff created the opportunity for a new, more positive era in relations between Los Angeles' ever-growing Latino community and local law enforcement. So it would be not just ironic, but tragic, if Edith Perez and her fellow LAPD commissioners were to set the clock back--however unwittingly--to a darker time.

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