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NEWS ANALYSIS

Police Reform: Where There's Little Will, There's No Way

November 17, 2000|JIM NEWTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The new report on the state of the Los Angeles Police Department is a condemnation of the chief, the mayor, the Police Commission and the culture of the LAPD. But what it shows more vividly than anything else is that Los Angeles is a city where painfully little actually gets done.

Among the most trenchant observations in the current study, the Report of the Rampart Independent Review Panel: The city's Police Commission does not exercise effective civilian oversight over the LAPD; the chief arrogantly rules by fear and disregards popular and political views, no matter how sensible; the Police Department's field training officers are not well-prepared for their vital role in teaching young officers; and "the LAPD does not appear to have a bank of goodwill in minority communities. . . . "

Each one of those criticisms has dogged the LAPD at least since 1991, when the Christopher Commission examined the department after the highly publicized beating of Rodney G. King. Voters overwhelmingly demonstrated their agreement with the Christopher Commission by approving a slate of recommendations drawn from it and enacted as a charter amendment in 1992.

Mayor Richard Riordan supported those recommendations and so did virtually every member of the Los Angeles City Council. And in the years since the Christopher report, others have called public attention to the faltering progress of its recommendations.

In 1996, lawyer Merrick Bobb headed a five-year update on the reforms that said the "department has not undergone reform to the extent that was possible or required." After that report, as with the others, officials promised to redouble their efforts and finish the job.

So why, given all the warnings and all the public support, does another panel--appointed by the Police Commission--this week come forward after another hard look at the LAPD and reach virtually the same conclusions?

The answer to that vexing question is partly structural and partly personal.

For starters, critics have long charged that Riordan's support of the Christopher recommendations is skin-deep; that he backs them in concept but has done little to put them in place, instead emphasizing the department's expansion over its reform.

"There has been no way whatsoever in which Riordan has been a force for positive change in the Police Department," said Erwin Chemerinsky, a law professor who spearheaded efforts to reform the City Charter and who recently studied the LAPD.

Chemerinsky, who disagrees with Riordan on many issues but has sided with the mayor on some key matters, said he sees police reform as a singular Riordan failure--an area where the mayor's record is without any redeeming features.

Similar charges have been lobbed at Police Chief Bernard C. Parks and his predecessor, Willie L. Williams, both nominally supportive of the reform measures but prone to foot-dragging. Williams failed year after year to find money in the LAPD budget to pay for a computer tracking system to begin keeping records on police conduct. It took the Police Commission to dig into its vastly smaller budget to find the start-up cash for that project.

Richard Drooyan, general counsel for the Rampart Independent Review Panel, said Williams and Parks each bear some blame for the slow progress in recent years.

Williams, he said, "was not an effective manager" and as a result, "some things didn't get done."

Parks, by contrast, "is able to get things done, but he's resistant to outside reforms."

At the City Council, the changing membership over the last decade has left the city's legislative body ill-equipped to press for complex change.

Ten years ago, the council was dominated by a trio of powerful leaders: John Ferraro, Zev Yaroslavsky and Richard Alatorre. When they moved together, which didn't happen all the time, the council followed.

Today, ill health has diminished Ferraro, scandal helped drive Alatorre out of public life, and Yaroslavsky won election to the county Board of Supervisors. Without their leadership, the council has sunk into floundering and inattention.

Although some members have continued to sound the call for reform--Mike Feuer and Mark Ridley-Thomas are its most conspicuous advocates--the council as a group has struggled to find its way to lead on the issue.

The prolonged gridlock on police reform--especially in the face of an unmistakable public mandate for it--helps explain how Los Angeles ended up as the largest city in America whose police department is governed by the terms of a consent decree with the federal government. The Justice Department simply lost patience with local authorities and their empty promises of progress.

In some cases, the city's failure to adopt reforms has been so clumsy that it almost has invited an outside agency to intervene.

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