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NEWS ANALYSIS

What of Reform Without Parks?

Leadership: Losing the chief will have little effect on progress made under consent decree, but his changes could be threatened.

April 11, 2002|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The almost-certain departure of Chief Bernard C. Parks from the helm of the Los Angeles Police Department is unlikely to have a major impact on the extensive package of court-approved reforms set in motion by a federal consent decree during his tenure.

Largely unaffected by any leadership change will be many areas covered by the government order. It contains scores of detailed provisions that guide changes on use-of-force investigations, collection of racial profiling data and taking of complaints. It also lays out elaborate requirements for a system to track problem officers.

But under new leadership, there may well be other challenges to the changes ushered in under Parks--in particular the strong, personal control he has asserted over officer discipline.

Many uncertainties remain, and despite federal pressure, many reforms can be influenced by local leadership. Reform in the LAPD today is partly a matter of closing loopholes--that is, of designing systems to make sure that officers stay within the rules and that individual discretion in applying the rules is carefully defined.

Exactly how such systems are designed, and how effectively they can be made to work in the real world, are looming issues for whoever leads the department in the future.

It may take years, for example, before anyone really knows whether there will be erosion in such areas as Parks' tough officer discipline system. Also unclear is whether his departure will mean further advances on such reform fronts as civilian oversight, as his key opponent, Mayor James K. Hahn, contends. Parks' disciplinary system was a particular flash point, fueling the ire of opponents who sought his removal.

Even more uncertain is whether the police reforms undertaken in recent years will achieve the desired effect: preventing riots and Rampart-style corruption scandals.

Questions over the future of LAPD reform hinge partly on what is meant by the term--and who's asking.

They are further complicated by the fact that the reform banner has been waved by all camps in the recent debate over Parks, whose reappointment request was denied 4 to 1 by the Los Angeles Police Commission on Tuesday.

From the mayor, to the chief, to the commissioners, even to the officers union--each party has claimed to be the bigger reformer. Reform was touted by all, although sometimes to promote quite different agendas.

Parks, who says he will appeal the commission's rejection to the City Council--but is highly unlikely to prevail--has long insisted that his commitment to new discipline standards is one reason he has taken so much heat.

The revamp, he says, is to blame for low officer morale, an issue that weighed heavily against him in the commission's deliberations.

Commissioners countered that the chief had failed to "take ownership" of morale problems in the department, and that he could have done more to improve morale without compromising reform.

This week, as union leaders rejoiced at Parks' defeat, commissioners sought to assuage fears among some of the chief's supporters that losing him would lead to a rollback on reforms designed to keep officers from impinging on residents' civil rights.

Sensitive on this point, Police Commissioner Silvia Saucedo took pains to make clear that Parks' defeat would not set back reforms, many of which are mandated by the 2000 consent decree agreement with the federal government.

"As long as I am a commissioner, we are not going to backslide from reform. We are going to move forward full force," she said.

Most experts accept a definition for police reform today that is quite different from past reform concepts. Police reform efforts were once intended mostly to counter corruption--officers protecting bookmakers, for example.

In more recent times, the focus has shifted to racial justice issues, particularly racial profiling, police use of force and the protection of civil rights.

In practice, this has come to mean an increasingly standard menu of reforms spreading to police departments across the country, many with roots in Los Angeles' troubled history.

The menu is reflected to a large extent in the federal consent decree, which LAPD Cmdr. Dan Koe-nig calls "without question the most complex consent decree anywhere."

The decree followed a federal investigation--launched in 1996--of alleged patterns of civil-rights violations by LAPD officers, according to a high-level U.S. Justice Department official.

In 1994, in a political atmosphere still colored by LAPD officers' beating of motorist Rodney King, federal legislation was approved to give federal justice officials new powers to sue police departments. The resulting consent decree in Los Angeles was one of the earliest actions initiated.

The federal government has since established a total of four consent decrees, and three similar documents known as memorandums of agreements, with various police agencies around the country.

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