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Remodel of Police Reform

March 18, 2001

There's a joke going around City Hall that Mayor Richard Riordan is working on his legacy room: The problem is he started out with a closet and now is trying to remodel it into a family room in the three months before he leaves office.

Thus a frenzy of activity came to Los Angeles last week in the form of two press conferences, one on new disciplinary rules for police officers and another on the restoration of officers working as liaisons with neighborhoods.

New police misconduct guidelines announced Monday by the chief at the urging of the mayor promise fair, equitable and consistent punishment. Rank-and-file officers have for years complained that high-ranking, well-connected officers often got off easy for serious offenses that would have derailed the career of a lower-ranking member of the department.

Chief Bernard C. Parks, a strict disciplinarian who has fired more officers than any other chief, has long been opposed to such guidelines. In 1998 he swept away a similar set he believed infringed on his authority to impose tough consequences on cops who violated the rules.

The mayor and the chief were singing a different tune last week, although it's no longer clear that the once close allies are singing from the same page. On Tuesday, Mayor Riordan announced that "community policing is back" with the return of the popular senior lead officers program, which freed experienced officers from most patrol duties so they could work directly with neighborhoods to fight crime. Senior leads were the local face of the Los Angeles Police Department and much beloved by many community activists. Chief Parks disagreed with pulling some officers off patrol and dismantled the program two years ago. The civilian Police Commission took action last fall to reinstate the program. After it didn't quite happen, the mayor gave it a push last week.

We're glad that the senior lead officers program, probably the most effective community policing tool in recent years, is apparently really back this time. And consistency of discipline for police officers is an important means for boosting department morale.

Mayor Riordan first ran in 1993 largely on a campaign to enlarge the Police Department and get tougher on crime. The steps taken last week, while positive, should not blind Angelenos to the hard climb that still must be made to achieve real reform of the LAPD. Until it became politically futile, Riordan and Parks fought the federal consent decree that mandates the most comprehensive set of reforms ever imposed on the LAPD and requires the appointment of an outside monitor to track implementation and progress.

The Rampart Division scandal--the police abuses that were revealed and the city's liability for those abuses--remains a mess for the next mayor to clean up. The new disciplinary guidelines are important, but true police reform is a whole lot bigger than reinstating senior lead officers, and no amount of quick legacy-building maneuvers can change that.

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