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Police Reform Hinges on Election 2001, Not Bush or Gore

November 16, 2000|RAPHAEL J. SONENSHEIN | Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at Cal State Fullerton, served as executive director of the Appointed Los Angeles Charter Reform Commission

It is widely assumed that the presidential election will have an impact on the implementation of police reform in Los Angeles. Because Gov. George W. Bush has often stated his opposition to consent decrees similar to the one negotiated with Los Angeles by the U.S. Department of Justice, some have suggested that a Bush administration would ease or remove the pressure from Washington that led to the city's agreement. Because Vice President Al Gore has supported such consent decrees, it is assumed that a Gore administration would be very tough in enforcing it.

Whether either Bush or Gore would fit these expectations is unknown--and beside the point. The real battle is not between the federal government and the city of Los Angeles. It is a battle within the city. In the long run, the attitude of the people of Los Angeles will mean more to the fate of police reform than the attitude of the federal government. The 2001 city elections may have a more profound impact than the 2000 presidential election.

Until the televised beating of Rodney King in 1991, the local forces of reform barely were able to stay even with those that defended the prerogatives of the Police Department and the chief to be accountable to no one. The King beating and, later, the Christopher Commission's response to it, not only leveled the playing field but gave the high ground to the reformers.

Los Angeles voters made clear on three separate occasions in the 1990s that they favored police reform. In 1992, a majority supported Proposition F, which embodied most of the recommendations of the Christopher Commission. In 1995, the voters passed a measure to implement the office of inspector general to oversee investigations of police misconduct. In 1999, voters approved a new City Charter that strengthened the office of the inspector general. The city's agreement to the consent decree was another big step forward, not just in substantive terms but because the City Council managed to build a hard-won local consensus in favor of police reform.

Nothing is as important now as a local commitment to complete the long struggle for civilian oversight of the department. Public opinion is not single-minded on the subject. There has always been a strong, overlapping constituency for both police reform and public safety. The voters in the 1993 mayoral race made a choice between an emphasis on public safety presented by Richard Riordan and an emphasis on police reform presented by Michael Woo. The voters selected Riordan in a relatively close vote. Not long after his election, Riordan began his promised buildup of the Police Department. While Riordan had been a prominent backer of Proposition F in 1992, his version of reform placed police expansion over the implementation of the Christopher Commission's recommendations.

Riordan's election and reelection suggested that his emphasis on public safety was popular. It placed him in opposition to reform-minded Police Chief Willie Williams, who openly questioned the ability of the department to absorb 3,000 new officers. When Williams applied for a second term in 1997, Riordan's Police Commission turned him down and Bernard C. Parks was appointed to replace him.

Riordan has strongly backed Parks, and the mayor and the chief resisted the consent decree to the bitter end. Since then, Parks and some members of the Police Commission have been resistant to police reform and to guaranteeing the independence of the inspector general. To its credit, a majority of the Police Commission has been standing up for reform, sometimes in the face of considerable political pressure. In the latest tussle, however, two members drafted work rules for the inspector general that would severely limit the IG's ability to oversee investigations of police misconduct.

The upcoming mayoral election will have great implications for police reform generally and for Parks specifically. The City Charter limits the chief of police to two five-year terms, and Parks will undoubtedly apply to the Police Commission for a second term in 2002. He will, however, lose his greatest ally at City Hall when Riordan leaves office on June 30, 2001. The new mayor will appoint a new Police Commission whose members share his or her vision. If the new mayor takes Riordan's approach to police reform, Parks will probably be safe. If the new mayor is a strong advocate of police reform, Parks will be in a more vulnerable position.

Chief William Parker, who designed the modern LAPD, was an authoritarian leader who made it difficult if not impossible for civilian authorities to govern the department. In his vision, the LAPD would be a military-style organization, built around high personal standards, unquestioning obedience to the chief, strict discipline and distance from the community. The police would guarantee public safety, and there would be no police reform. This approach has been out-of-date for decades, but reformers are only now in a position to create a vision to replace it.

With the benefit of the consent decree, local police reformers can now move from uphill battles to further reforms beyond the decree and to showing the public how police reform can enhance public safety. It is hoped the city's new leaders in 2001 will push toward that vision for policing in Los Angeles and thereby ensure the long-term success of police reform.

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