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No Way to Pick a Chief

The debate about Parks' future has pitted elite blacks against a police union. Where's the rest of the city?

January 20, 2002|JOE DOMANICK

Whose police department is it? That's the question the people of Los Angeles should be asking themselves as the first term of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks expires. Parks has strongly indicated that he wants another five years as chief, a decision he's expected to make official next month. Whether the Police Commission reappoints him or looks elsewhere, however, seems, so far, unrelated to what the rest of the city may want, or to what's best for the city. Instead, it's come down to a nasty political fight with heavy racial overtones between the city's black establishment and the department's rank-and-file union, the Police Protective League.

The question of de facto ownership of the Los Angeles Police Department used to be easy to answer. It belonged to the chief of police--to William Parker, Ed Davis and Daryl F. Gates. They ran the department as if it were a personal fiefdom, proudly accountable to no one, serving at their own pleasure for as long as they chose.

Then came the videotaped beating of Rodney G. King by four LAPD officers, the highly critical Christopher Commission report outlining the department's misconduct, the 1992 Los Angeles riots and a voter-approved charter amendment limiting the chief's term in office. The chief no longer has life tenure. He is now limited to one five-year term, after which an additional five may be requested, with 10 years being the maximum.

During his five years as chief, Willie Williams never owned his department. An outsider from Philadelphia, he was hostilely greeted by the department's command staff and by newly elected Mayor Richard Riordan, who hadn't chosen him and didn't like him. Such politically cold treatment, combined with Williams' own erratic behavior, led to his dismissal. The commission then chose the man who Riordan wanted for the job--Parks.

Parks tried to make the department his and Riordan's. But in 1999, the Rampart police corruption scandal raised questions about Parks' leadership, management skills and commitment to the Christopher Commission reforms. Parks also got himself into more trouble when, acting on principle, he opposed the Police Protective League's flexible-workweek plan, which allows officers to work 12-hour shifts three days a week or 10-hour shifts fours days a week. Parks did himself further harm by implementing a disciplinary system the League considers harsh, arbitrary and capricious--the root cause, the union claims, for officers leaving the department by the hundreds.

All this made Parks' reappointment an issue in last years' mayoral campaign. Facing a tough challenge from former Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa, then-City Atty. James K. Hahn hit on the winning strategy of making Villaraigosa appear dangerous to conservative white voters, of gaining the Police Protective League's support by promising to implement its flexible-workweek plan and of gathering up the black vote by promising African Americans a seat at his administration's table and, in contrast to Villaraigosa, being noncommittal about Parks' future.

Now Hahn is caught in the middle of his two key constituencies, and the city is paying the price.

The battle began in late November, when the police union, after polling its members, released a "report card" giving Parks' leadership all Ds and Fs. In response, black leaders, including two congresswomen and three City Council members, blasted the League and announced their undying support for Parks. "Hahn has to do the right thing for the whole city," asserted Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas. "And placating the [league] is not consistent with doing what needs to be done in the interest of public safety."

Last Thursday, the league released the results of its latest poll--a no-confidence vote--that, according to league director Ted Hunt, had a "rate of return" of 68%. Of those, 93% voted "no confidence" in Parks. "The league," said Hunt, is "willing to spend up to $1 million to tell the people of Los Angeles that the LAPD is mismanaged and organizationally broken....[W]orking conditions [under Parks] are simply intolerable."

Earlier, the president-elect of the black police officers' association, the Oscar Joel Bryant Foundation, sent an open letter to Hahn. Describing the current situation as an "internal race war," Ronnie Cato wrote that "the [Protective] League is determined to convince you ... that [Parks] should not be selected for a second term. ... They have hired a political campaign firm ... to inundate you and the Police Commission with negative misinformation about the chief. ... He is being targeted by a [predominately] all-white league that has never allowed an African American to serve on its board

The black political elite and L.A.'s business establishment that most vocally support Parks, and the largely white union that opposes him, constitute far less than 1% of the city. That leaves more that 99% of the city unheard in the debate over whether Parks should be reappointed.

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