Effective municipal leadership invariably means swallowing a few bitter pills and conceding personal ground for the greater good of a city and its residents. Los Angeles moved a big step closer to that greater good when Mayor Richard Riordan and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks said late Friday that they are willing to compromise with the Justice Department to reach a speedy resolution on true reform of the Police Department.
Even if they had no prudent political choice--and they didn't--it's good that Riordan and Parks didn't prolong their opposition. It's a decision that can ultimately save taxpayers millions of dollars that will otherwise be spent in a protracted legal battle that Los Angeles ultimately has little chance of winning.
The Justice Department's civil rights chief, Bill Lann Lee, had sent the city a clear ultimatum regarding the LAPD's continuing corruption scandal: Agree to a federal consent decree and an outside monitor who will assess progress toward the decree's goals or be sued by the federal government. City leaders were being challenged to finally ensure that long-delayed police reforms would be implemented.
The City Council's majority approval of a consent decree was always assured. Getting 10 out of 15 votes to override a mayoral veto of the deal was another story. The mayor and the chief had in hand four solid, wrongheaded votes against an agreement with the federal government--Councilmen Hal Bernson, Nate Holden, Nick Pacheco and Rudy Svorinich. Nine members were strongly leaning or had decided in favor of saving the city time, money and respect with a consent decree. To prevent an override, Riordan and Parks needed the two council members who had not declared their positions, ailing council President John Ferraro and first-termer Alex Padilla.
Rampart, the catalyst for this struggle, has tentacles reaching far beyond that police division's boundaries, with allegations that officers shot, beat and framed innocent people. It began with the revelations of rampant misconduct by a Rampart Division cop turned bad, Rafael Perez. The case took another jolt over the weekend, from the statements of a former Perez girlfriend that his drug dealing began long before he went to the Rampart Division anti-gang unit that was the focus of investigation.
Already, 68 federal lawsuits have been filed by people who allege they were framed or assaulted by Rampart officers. That figure could hit 275, according to the city attorney's office. Still pending is a federal judge's recent decision allowing plaintiffs to sue Rampart officers under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which allows triple damage awards.
Perhaps, in the end, it was as simple as Riordan and Parks realizing that men with their heads in the sand will drown when the tide rolls in. And the tide was definitely rolling shoreward, beginning with the council's decision to publicly debate the pros and cons of a consent decree, with a second and longer public session planned for today. That had the effect of exposing the weakness of arguments against a decree, such as the wildly inaccurate claim that the feds wanted to take over day-to-day operations of the LAPD.
The proposed consent decree included strict guidelines for using confidential informants; an unprecedented degree of community outreach, open meetings and public information; a computerized system to track problem officers; holding the police chief more accountable for disciplinary decisions, and tightening control of anti-gang units.
Padilla and Ferraro made the right choice, signing onto a letter with Riordan and Parks. Part of that letter states that their support is contingent on settling certain details of the agreement, but there appear to be few trouble spots. For example, the federal government should have no problem agreeing to give the city a chance to fix problems that an outside monitor uncovers. That is precisely the goal of such decrees. However, the city shouldn't count on getting an automatic end date for the consent decree. Traditionally, local and state governments under such decrees can apply to be released after two years. That seems reasonable here as well.
Today's planned council debate can proceed with new confidence and vigor; a fair agreement might be only days away. This should be seen by all, especially by the chief and the mayor, not as a day of embarrassing retreat but as one in which the city began to seize an opportunity.