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The Last Stand of a Dying Police Culture

May 14, 2000|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick is the author of "To Protect and to Serve: LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams."

As Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks sat stone-faced last Monday during a closed-door meeting with city officials and lawyers from the U.S. Justice Department, a press release summing up the reason for Parks' grim demeanor was being distributed. "The LAPD," read the release, "is engaged in a pattern or practice of constitutional violations through excessive force, false arrests, unreasonable searches and seizures, and . . . management deficiencies have allowed this misconduct to occur . . . on a regular basis." Later that day, the Justice Department revealed that it was also investigating charges that the LAPD has regularly discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities in enforcing the law.

At the Monday meeting, the Justice Department also made clear that it was prepared, if necessary, to sue the city to force it to reform its police department. A day later, the City Council announced that it would support a consent decree to avoid a lawsuit, one likely to put oversight of the LAPD in the hands of a federal judge. In such circumstances, Parks might well be a bystander.

The Justice Department's charges, and the threat behind them, were a stinging, unequivocal rebuke to the city's political establishment and criminal-justice system. But for Parks, they must have seemed a wallop to his solar plexus. Should a consent decree give a federal judge the final word on LAPD policies and reforms, Parks, who has zealously defended the proprietary rights of his department, will have effectively lost control of it. Wasn't it just three years ago that Parks basked in the near-idolatrous support of the mayor, the Police Commission and the public? What went wrong, and how could attempts to reform the LAPD have failed so miserably?

Following the police beating of Rodney G. King, the worst U.S. riots in the 20th century and a scathing report on the LAPD's management and policing practices by the Christopher Commission, a hoped-for breath of fresh air flew into Los Angeles: Willie L. Williams. The new chief's mandate was to reform the department and implement the Christopher Commission's recommendations.

But Williams soon clashed with Richard Riordan over the mayor's goal of rapidly increasing the LAPD's manpower and earned Riordan's lasting enmity. Meanwhile, a hostile command staff at Parker Center, including Parks, openly mocked their new chief. Adrift in a system he didn't understand, Williams contributed to his own problems by trusting no one, alienating the political establishment, failing to get a grip on his department and allowing key Christopher Commission reforms to languish.

When Riordan's Police Commission refused to rehire Williams, the mayor handpicked Parks to succeed him. Under President Edith R. Perez, the Police Commission gave Parks its unswerving loyalty to carry out his and the mayor's goal of creating a buffed-up, more efficient version of the old militaristic, hard-charging LAPD. It encountered little resistance.

Nor did Riordan's choice of Parks. Because Parks, like Williams, is an African American, replacing Williams with him could not be viewed as racism. Parks was a highly regarded veteran with the reputation of being a smart, efficient, discipline-minded technocrat who knew the department inside out and could get things done. Moreover, Parks was a favorite of the black bourgeoisie, and, more important, of the incestuous, back-scratching downtown political establishment that runs the city. For most people, Parks was the ideal choice to be chief.

Few people listened, however, when Parks said that he didn't so much want to reform the department as fix it. When asked before his selection as chief about the LAPD's "tremendous problems," he replied: "When you think about the millions of contacts our officers have on a yearly basis, a high, high percentage of them are done in a positive manner, with no complaints. So I don't think you can make the case that there are these 'tremendous' problems."

Once in office, Parks has proved to be an extraordinarily proud, unbending man. And as he has come under increasing fire as a result of the Rampart scandal, his reaction has been to stand tall and dismiss criticism, never realizing that it was time to save what he could.

It's hard to explain how Parks became so intransigent in the face of adversity. Tom Bradley, former LAPD lieutenant and five-term mayor of Los Angeles, possessed a similar pride, developed in large measure as a consequence of being black in a racist society and police department. But Bradley's pride was tempered with the politician's sense of reality and the art of compromise.

Parks has shown none of that. In dealing with a questioning press and politicians who challenge him, he is often condescending, an attitude that perhaps comes from being a veteran of an organization that always encouraged its members to believe they are a cut above the people they serve.

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