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It Takes a Chief

The LAPD needs a boss who's tough, who knows how to lead and who believes in reform. Is that too much to ask?

April 14, 2002|JOE DOMANICK | Joe Domanick, the author of "To Protect and to Serve: The LAPD's Century of War in the City of Dreams," is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg School of Communication's Institute for Justice in Journalism.

Am I alone here? Or are other people getting tired, too, of the center-stage soap opera that's been playing at the Los Angeles Police Department for more than a decade? I keep waiting for the city to cut through a morass of false assumptions about its chiefs of police and see them in a clear light.

Consider last Tuesday's dueling press conferences. The first featured Rick J. Caruso, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, explaining why his group had followed the lead of Mayor James Hahn--who, of course, hand-picked the commission--and voted 4 to 1 not to rehire LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks. By Caruso's account, Parks' greatest sin seemed to be his responsibility for the ever-plunging morale of the LAPD's rank and file--rather than the Rampart scandal, or the chief's complete unwillingness to transform the LAPD's paramilitary culture.

It was enough to make one wonder if the city's African American leadership hadn't been right in charging that Mayor Hahn, and now his Police Commission, were jettisoning Parks as political payback to the white-dominated Police Protective League, which gave critical support to Hahn during his run for mayor.

At his own press conference, meanwhile, Parks was avoiding the real issues as skillfully as Caruso. The chief admitted to no failings or missteps and defiantly vowed to take his battle to the City Council. The Council, if it so chooses, could overturn the Commission's decision by a two-thirds vote--a highly unlikely scenario.

Parks is rightly viewed by many African Americans in Los Angeles as an important symbol--a smart, successful black man holding down one of the most visible and powerful public positions in the city. But in the end, being a symbol was not enough. Parks was simply unwilling to institute the crucial reforms that would have provided the city with the police department it desperately needs and deserves. Consequently, he's become the latest in a long line of LAPD chiefs whose tenures have ultimately been failures.

Although in perfect philosophical sync with Mayor Richard Riordan, who appointed him Chief in 1997, Bernard Parks never gave the people of Los Angeles what they voted for in 1992 and 1995 when they overwhelmingly passed a sweeping package of police reforms recommended by the Christopher Commission and designed to serve as the mechanism for rebuilding and reforming the LAPD. Training and discipline were to be placed under far greater civilian control, while monitored by a civilian Inspector General's Office. And a Christopher Commision-endorsed computer system for tracking problem officers was to be installed. Underpinning all this was to be a new operating philosophy of community-based policing, in which officers would work with the community rather than ride herd over it.

Little of this, however, was on former Mayor Richard Riordan's agenda. He wanted a big, tough, smoothly oiled crime fighting machine--a less-controversial, better-run version of the old LAPD. When Riordan's Police Commission named Parks as the new chief in 1997, the mayor laid out the criteria by which he'd judge Parks' success: crime stats and arrest numbers. That was what Riordan considered reform.

Parks embraced Riordan's message. But he danced as well to his own tune. For nearly half a century the central tenet of all LAPD chiefs (save Willie Williams, the despised outsider) has been that the chief and only the chief ran the LAPD. And Parks, by instinct, training and character, is very much in that tradition.

In 1950, Chief William H. Parker was the first to recognize the astounding power granted a chief in the city charter, and he used it shrewdly to make the LAPD his own. Ed Davis, police chief throughout most of the 1970s, once summed up his and Parker's attitude toward outsiders "interfering" with their department. "Parker," said Davis, "found himself fighting off the evil forces from City Hall ... and various groups in the city. And it is absolutely vital that this department not be dominated by politicians." Davis also understood the power of the office. Asked if he intended to run for mayor, he replied, "I don't want to be mayor; I already have more power than the mayor." And he was right. From 1950 to 1992, LAPD chiefs had ironclad civil-service protection and the same lifetime tenure enjoyed by federal judges. Mayors came and went, but a chief of police remained as long as he wished. That situation changed only when Charter Amendment F, passed in 1992, limited future chiefs to one five-year term, with the option of applying for a second and final five years in office.

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