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Traditional Allies Clash Over Parks

LAPD: Civil liberties advocates and black leaders disagree on how reform was handled by the police chief, who is fighting to keep his job.

April 01, 2002|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The standoff between Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Police Chief Bernard C. Parks is causing an unusual rift between traditional allies: civil libertarians and black political and religious leaders.

The split is the more striking because both sides ascribe to the same cause: police reform.

Yet some of Los Angeles' most prominent civil liberties advocates and black leaders with whom they have long stood side-by-side have come to vastly different conclusions about how the Los Angeles Police Department has progressed under Parks, who faces a key test today as he makes his case to keep his job before the city's Police Commission.

On one hand, black community leaders say that Parks has made good strides in what they deem key areas of reform: officer accountability and addressing citizen complaints. "There is just no chief who has done as much," said black City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, a Parks supporter.

On the other, some civil libertarians insist that Parks epitomizes the LAPD status quo, resisting reform on such measures as civilian oversight at every turn. "It's like two separate conversations," said civil rights lawyer Constance Rice, a Parks opponent who is black.

Although some civil liberties advocates have taken a stand against Parks, others are neutral on his reappointment.

Parks, a 37-year LAPD veteran, is nearing the end of his first five-year term as chief. He is opposed by Hahn, and faces an uphill battle for reappointment by the mayoral-appointed Police Commission, which could reach a decision within days. The issue has touched racial nerves and split political constituencies.

"We all want the same thing for the city. So it's painful for us on the progressive side to see the civil rights and African American leadership at odds over this issue," said Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, which is neutral on Parks' reappointment.

"It's very regrettable," said Los Angeles Urban League President John W. Mack, a Parks supporter, "that some of our traditional civil liberties allies are not with us."

Although the split breaks along racial lines to some extent, there are people of each race on both sides, and they profess a nuanced range of opinions. But vastly different assessments of reform progress under Parks have relegated natural brothers-in-arms to different sides.

At the same time, the realignment has resulted in what Sokatch calls "strange bedfellows," as civil liberties advocates line up with the city police officers union against the chief's reappointment.

African American political leaders, meanwhile, have maintained their habitual posture in opposition to the union, which they label reactionary and hostile to black interests.

Some civil liberties advocates such as Erwin Chemerinsky, a constitutional law professor at USC, have taken strong stands against the chief. Others, such as Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a former police commissioner, have remained silent on Parks, confining their comments to concern over what they see as the slow progress on reform.

For their part, groups such as the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California have opted not to take a stand on the reappointment of Parks. But leaders of both organizations question whether reform under Parks has been adequate. For the ACLU, it is "a very difficult situation," said Ramona Ripston, the group's executive director.

Such ambivalent or critical positions contrast sharply with those held by an array of black clergy and traditionally black civil-rights groups. Leaders of the Urban League and the local chapter of the Southern Leadership Conference strongly back the chief on the same grounds on which his critics oppose him: reform.

On both sides of the divide, advocates question the others' motives. Civil liberties advocates accuse black supporters of Parks of acting out of racial solidarity, or out of a sense that Hahn, whose campaign for mayor they vigorously supported, betrayed them.

Black leaders counter that the civil liberties advocates are so caught up in esoteric conflicts with the chief that they have lost touch with those whom reform is supposed to benefit.

Both sides claim a better perspective from which to evaluate the chief's performance. And on both sides, people seem unnerved by the split.

It's one thing to battle routine foes, quite another to take up arms against people "who in any other context I've been allies with," said Chemerinsky.

The dispute may expose deeper divisions between urban blacks and "liberal white groups who feel they know what's best for the black community ....To be honest, they are not in touch," said Parks supporter Najee Ali, executive director of Project Islamic HOPE.

For Sokatch, the conflict is simply, "very saddening ... there is a feeling that this issue has created a rift within the alliance," he said.

Definition of Police Reform Is at Issue

At least part of the disagreement is rooted in how one defines reform.

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