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Next Chief's Duty Is to Exorcise Police Department's Demons

April 28, 2002|FRANK del OLMO

It is good that Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks has chosen to move on. Although Parks' downfall was not entirely of his own making, I hope it is the last gasp of an old LAPD culture that sparked the 1992 riots.

I am not criticizing the city's current police force, whose officers look more like the rest of L.A. than the LAPD has in maybe 100 years. I refer to the postwar LAPD built by the late Chief William Parker and presided over by men he groomed as his successors--such as Daryl Gates, who was the chief at the time of the riots.

Like Parker, that old LAPD was imperious, rigid and often bigoted. And for all his claims to being a reformer, Parks clearly spent too long--37 years--in the bosom of the old LAPD. How else can one explain his stubborn resistance to civilian control, his hypersensitivity to criticism and his slowness in making the changes the LAPD still needs?

Parks' critics often called him a "black Daryl Gates," but a more accurate description would be a black Bill Parker.

By laying the blame for the '92 riots on the LAPD, I don't mean to dismiss other factors that clearly played a role. Economic inequality, racial prejudice and plain criminality cannot be ignored.

But too many recollections of the riots focus on those big social factors, which merely fed the conflagration. What sparked the violence was a series of abysmally bad decisions by LAPD leadership--starting with the sergeant who should have done more to control the officers who beat black motorist Rodney King on March 3, 1991.

Slightly more than a year later, when four of those officers were acquitted by a suburban jury, the LAPD decision-making was no better. Within an hour of the verdicts angry mobs were taking control of South-Central Los Angeles as LAPD units retreated to safety. Gates, meanwhile, was breezily headed to a political fund-raiser.

The scope of the anger on the streets was evident to anyone watching TV, but by the time Gates and his staff grasped the enormity of the situation, it was too late.

Like Parker, Gates said and did many arrogant things during his tenure as chief. But what perhaps cost Gates a lifetime job, and eventually led voters to impose term limits on future police chiefs, was the LAPD's failure to maintain order after the verdicts. The city--indeed, the whole world--realized that the LAPD was a paper tiger, its tough reputation sustained by old TV shows.

The old LAPD no longer had the public support, much less the moral authority, to control the streets of a new Los Angeles.

Anyone watching closely saw that sea change coming as far back as 1965. The Watts riots that summer, also sparked by what started as the routine arrest of a black motorist, were the first warning signs that the LAPD's militaristic style of policing was becoming outdated.

For the next 25 years, unresolved tensions left by the Watts riots continued to simmer. They led to smaller riots in Century City in 1967, in East L.A. in 1970, at UCLA in 1971 and on and on. Yet Bill Parker's successors stubbornly insisted that the LAPD's way was the only way to keep peace.

A final confrontation was inevitable. It was delayed for a few years by the election of Tom Bradley, an African American, as mayor in 1971. An LAPD veteran who left the force before its culture could infect him, Bradley changed things on the margins. But even Bradley could achieve only a standoff with the likes of Gates.

All the while, L.A. continued to change. The mostly white, middle-class and suburban city that had once supported the old LAPD gave way to a new ethnic and economic mix. And the new L.A. would not tolerate a police force that acted like an occupying army.

Now, with 10 years of hindsight, it is clear that as awful as they were, the riots were not really significant in and of themselves. They were merely the final, bloody act of a very long and difficult drama that began a generation earlier.

May Bernie Parks be the last casualty of that long struggle. And may he even find himself a more constructive role to play in the new Los Angeles. It will be up to his successor to finally exorcise the ghost of Bill Parker.

Frank del Olmo is associate editor of The Times.

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