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Riordan Revives Reform Debate --and Ensures Its Irrelevance

Chief Parks is in the catbird seat.

February 11, 2001|Joe Domanick | Joe Domanick is author of "To Protect and to Serve: LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams."

Last Monday, Mayor Richard Riordan did the city of Los Angeles an enormous favor by firing Police Commission President Gerald Chaleff. For just as hopes for a top-to-bottom transformation of the Los Angeles Police Department were fading, the mayor stepped up and reignited a debate that was fast heading to the burial ground of past reform efforts. It was none too soon. Reform was already on life support.

From the start, public concern over Officer Rafael Perez's transcribed confessions of widespread police abuse have never inflamed the public as did the Rodney G. King-beating video. Even at the height of the Rampart scandal, the public seemed to feel that violating the civil liberties of gangsters and immigrants, in a neighborhood as poor and politically marginal as Pico-Union, was a necessary part of a dirty job. The longer the scandal dragged on, the less it seemed to care.

There was little that followed Perez's initial revelations to bolster the story's momentum. The LAPD's self-serving report on the scandal limited itself to the Rampart Division's anti-gang CRASH unit. The Police Commission's inquiry, though candid and more substantive, was also not the in-depth, wide-ranging probe of other CRASH officers that was needed.

Similarly, the absence of police reform as a contentious issue in the mayoral campaign, the lack of a vocal coalition of citizens to hold the candidates' feet to the fire on the issue, the election of a new president who believes the federal government should not intervene in local police affairs and a City Council committee's foot-dragging on placing LAPD-reform initiatives on the ballot--all contributed to serious reform of the Police Department be-ing pushed to the sidelines. But by firing Chaleff, Riordan not only revived the debate, he also greatly clarified it. The question used to be: Will we have reform? Last week, Riordan inadvertently raised two others: Who will define reform, and what kind of reform will we have?

Riordan's answers can be gleaned from his dismissal of Chaleff, a respected defense attorney with a sterling record in support of civil liberties.

The city's liberals expected big things from Chaleff, but relatively little was delivered. He refused, for example, to publicly defend the department's first inspector general, Katherine Mader, when Riordan and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks used the Police Commission to force her out of office for committing the sin of independently doing her job of monitoring the LAPD. Then, at a critical juncture, Chaleff opposed a full-fledged outside investigation of the department that would have challenged Parks' oft-repeated contention that the Rampart scandal was nothing more than an isolated incident that should not reflect on the department's overall behavior.

But Chaleff also stood up to Riordan and Parks when he led the Police Commission in ruling that the fatal shooting, in 1999, of Margaret Mitchell, an elderly homeless woman suspected of stealing a shopping cart, violated department policy. The ruling enraged Riordan and Parks. Chaleff also broke ranks when he unequivocally supported negotiating a federal consent decree, aimed at reforming the LAPD, with the Justice Department. Riordan and Parks had adamantly opposed the idea. In the end, Chaleff proved not to be an obsequious team player, so he had to go.

In firing Chaleff, Riordan blamed him for the department's low morale, unsuccessful recruitment efforts and failure to implement community-based policing. In so doing, the mayor redefined reform. Making cops happier, the force larger and instituting a community-policing strategy, rather than fixing the LAPD's broken culture, are now Riordan's goals of reform.

Riordan's excuses for firing Chaleff are simply ridiculous. It is Parks' autocratic, sometimes arbitrary and often inflexible leadership that has largely compelled hundreds of officers to leave the department in the last year, and that has caused the president of the Police Protective League to do the unthinkable and call for the formation of a police review board. If it were Chaleff, not Parks, who was responsible for the department's recruitment problems, why, then, did the mayor blame former Chief Willie L. Williams, not the Police Commission, for precisely the same problems?

The answer should be more obvious than ever: The mayor does not want real police reform. Throughout his eight-year tenure, Riordan has defined reform as fighting crime, more cops on the street and ever-mounting arrest statistics. While crime fighting must be the primary goal of any police department, and adding more police officers a necessary element in that fight, neither can even remotely be considered police reform. What the mayor has been pushing for is a smoother, well-oiled version of the old hard-charging LAPD, not the democratization of the oversight of the department or getting the troops to respect the public and the Constitution.

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