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CAMPAIGN 2000 | COLUMN ONE

Police Chief Parks: a Man on the Spot

Response to protests is a chance to show that corruption scandal has not sapped the LAPD's resolve.

August 11, 2000|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his office hangs the serene portrait of a black woman, her right hand cradling her head.

It took pride and perseverance to put that painting in that spot. It took an unbending African American who always knows where he is and never forgets where he came from.

It took Bernard C. Parks.

He has a long, unforgiving memory, and one of the things Parks has never forgotten is how the Police Department he now leads once confiscated his painting.

In 1978, when the LAPD's chief and all his immediate subordinates were white men, a deputy chief touring the 77th Street Division saw the painting on the young captain's wall and concluded that it was racially inflammatory. He ordered it removed and shipped to South Bureau, where it was sheathed in butcher paper and hidden from view.

Returning from vacation to find his painting gone, an indignant Parks demanded it back. After a long standoff, he prevailed. The portrait, which Parks' cousin had painted and given to him as a gift, was returned, still wrapped in paper.

Parks hung it that way, an advertisement of his defiance.

Today that portrait--now triumphantly unwrapped--occupies a sunny nook in the office of the Los Angeles Police Department's 52nd chief.

Over the years, Parks' pride and sense of purpose have created an unyielding persona that has seen him through a storied career. He will be tested again this week, when the protests surrounding the Democratic National Convention challenge Parks and his department on a scale unmatched since the 1992 riots, which found the LAPD so sorely wanting.

For the department, this could be a time to make the city forget, or at least forgive, 1992 and to demonstrate that the corruption scandal of the last 11 months has not sapped its performance or resolve. The scandal--which began with revelations of corruption in the Rampart Division and has spread to other stations--has taken its toll on the LAPD and its chief.

Parks has responded aggressively. Internally, he convened a departmental board of inquiry to recommend reforms and he has cracked down on wayward police officers. Since becoming chief, he has enraged rank-and-file police officers and their union by disciplining hundreds of officers. More than 300 have either been forced out of the LAPD or resigned with complaints against them pending.

Externally, he has lashed out at those he sees as adversaries--including Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti, Police Commission Inspector General Jeffrey Eglash, members of the City Council and the Los Angeles Times. He has chafed at Eglash's attempts to investigate wrongdoing by officers and attempted to undermine his civilian boss, Police Commission President Gerald L. Chaleff, by encouraging critical coverage in the alternative press--to no avail.

The results have been mixed. The department under Parks is more crisply organized and more obviously responsive to leadership. But he's losing the outside fight, the one to keep the federal government out of what he sees as his business. City officials are negotiating with the U.S. Department of Justice in pursuit of an agreement that would forestall a lawsuit against the department. Such an agreement would almost inevitably install a federal monitor to oversee many aspects of the LAPD's conduct, a prospect Parks vigorously opposes.

This week, he confronts a more familiar foe, protesters, some of whom are committed to engaging in civil disobedience to make their point, some of whom may be willing to resort to property damage or violence.

History suggests that the careers of Los Angeles police chiefs rarely recover from serious civil unrest. The Watts riots of 1965 deepened the failure of William Parker's health. The riots after the acquittal of LAPD officers who beat Rodney G. King in 1992 ended the career of Daryl F. Gates. Now it is Parks' turn--either to rise to the occasion or to go into eclipse like his predecessors.

Meet the man in the bull's-eye.

Rising by Will and Diligence

Parks' 35-year career has been described, mostly by people who don't know him, as an unimpeded walk up the LAPD ladder. "A seemingly uninterrupted climb toward the stars," one recent article called it.

In fact, he came to the job by chance and drove himself up the ranks by will and diligence. He was resented along the way, nearly toppled once, passed over for chief, humiliatingly demoted and then, only then, tapped for the job he coveted.

Growing up in Los Angeles, where his family moved from Texas when he was a baby, Parks was a decent but unspectacular student. His grades, he says, were good but he worked to keep them that way mainly so he could qualify for the football team. Grades or no grades, he clearly was popular: Although he was one of a handful of black students, Parks was elected senior class president of his Catholic high school, Daniel Murphy.

His father was a Harbor police officer, but Parks initially was not drawn to a profession that favors the kind of person who, when he hears a gunshot, runs toward it.

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