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Mayoral Candidates Take Strong Positions on LAPD

Politics: Reform issues demand campaigners' attention and they respond with varied approaches.

March 25, 2001|JAMES RAINEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Businessman Steve Soboroff says the city needs to "get back to fighting crime" and opposes an expanded role for the federal government in monitoring police misconduct. Former legislator Antonio Villaraigosa would roll out the welcome mat for the federal monitors of the Los Angeles Police Department.

And who should lead the LAPD? City Councilman Joel Wachs says he would immediately begin moving to replace Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, while City Atty. James K. Hahn says the chief still can be an exemplary leader.

State Controller Kathleen Connell argues that her mayoral rivals lack the management experience to oversee the LAPD. And U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra focuses on recruitment, saying he'd offer scholarships to high school students and give officers breaks on their utility bills to beef up the LAPD's depleted ranks.

Few institutions within the reach of Los Angeles' mayor demand more attention, face more problems or invite more proposals for reform than the LAPD. On Saturday, new revelations raised questions about the department's determination and effectiveness in rooting out corruption in the ranks, adding to a growing list of questions about how the department is managed.

One result of the continuing controversies is that the LAPD has been the most consistently debated topic in the Los Angeles mayoral campaign, now entering its final two weeks. And in a season of political equivocation, the six major candidates for mayor have staked out a series of clear and often controversial positions on reviving the Police Department and pulling it through its current troubles.

The leading candidates must help resolve a series of interlocking complaints of excessive force and evidence planting, among other things--collectively known as the Rampart scandal. They need to bolster sagging morale and reverse attrition that has cost the department more than 1,000 officers. They must find a way to deploy more police to work with neighborhood groups, as demanded by many communities.

Finally, they face an ominous rise in crime in recent months that has reversed five years of gains and preoccupied Mayor Richard Riordan as he approaches the end of his second and final term.

All six contenders to succeed Riordan claim they can attend to all those needs simultaneously and with equal vigor. But they send markedly different signals on priorities and how they would proceed.

Soboroff has made it clear that his focus would be on building the department and the morale of officers first, because he believes the attention on reforms, while important, has distracted from crime fighting.

To emphasize this point at mayoral debates, Soboroff tells audiences the apocryphal tale of street cops who must now pass out apology cards to every citizen asking the question: "Was I rude to you?" Soboroff's message: Police must be freed to do their jobs.

The Pacific Palisades businessman is the only candidate in the race who opposes the deal between the city and the federal government to give a federal judge the power to oversee LAPD reforms. He frequently cites the example of Pittsburgh, which in 1997 was the first major city to fall under similar federal oversight.

Soboroff says that, in Pittsburgh, arrests and police stops went down while crime went up as a result of the federal intervention. Records and interviews from the Pennsylvania city do not entirely bear that out. In fact, there has been a slight drop-off in police performance--much of which predated the decree there--but also a marked decrease in citizens' complaints and lawsuits.

"I just don't think that police reform, in and of itself, is the road to a safer city," Soboroff said in an interview. "It's one important lane to follow, but there are also important lanes to recruiting kids away from gangs and to supporting police officers and improving their morale so they can do their job."

At the other end of that question's spectrum, Villaraigosa was the race's earliest and most forceful advocate of a federal court monitor. Villaraigosa even made that case last summer in front of the city's police union, an audience that did not welcome the stand.

Although he says "the vast majority of cops are honest and decent," Villaraigosa has been more willing than other candidates to cite specific cases in which he believes police used excessive force. He "unequivocally" says, for example, that LAPD bicycle officers failed when they killed a frail, homeless woman named Margaret Mitchell in 1999.

Other mayoral contenders strike a far more cautious line on that controversial shooting. In interviews with The Times, the other five major candidates hesitated to criticize the officers who shot Mitchell, even though Chief Parks faulted the officers' tactics and the Los Angeles Police Commission went even further, concluding that the officer who shot Mitchell was wrong to pull the trigger.

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