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Hahn, Parks Spar on Crime

Testy exchanges over homicide rate reflect the enmity between the mayor, challenger.

September 20, 2004|Jessica Garrison | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles City Councilman Bernard C. Parks, latching onto the city's slight increase in homicides so far this year, sharply questioned Mayor James K. Hahn's ability to keep Los Angeles safe.

Days later, Hahn told reporters at a news conference that the tenure of the former police chief, who is running for mayor, was a failure.

The dust-up between Parks and Hahn, which triggered a feisty exchange of made-for-TV events and zinger-filled letters, has turned into the first real debate of the Los Angeles mayor's race. The subject -- crime -- is a perennial one. And it's likely to continue to have a featured role in the mayoral election, which is still six months off. Not only has it long topped the list of voter concerns, it taps into one of the more tantalizing subplots of the race: the bitter relationship between Parks and Hahn.

Hahn, who has made public safety the centerpiece of his administration, touts his decision to push Parks out of the LAPD and replace him with William J. Bratton as a critical step toward making Los Angeles safer.

Parks, for his part, maintains that he presided over a department that brought crime rates to record lows in the late 1990s -- rates that increased after Hahn allowed some officers to work three 12-hour days instead of five days a week.

When Parks raised the crime issue, the other major candidates in the race -- state Sen. Richard Alarcon, Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa and former Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg -- leaped into the debate.

Hertzberg pointed out that the homicide rate was dropping in cities such as New York and Chicago while creeping up here. Alarcon criticized Hahn for failing to hire more police officers and said he would find a way to hire them. And Villaraigosa promised he would focus on "hotbeds for violent crime."

But those candidates soon retreated to the sidelines, while Parks and Hahn continue to spar over the issue.

For Parks, whose replacement, Bratton, has charmed the city's leaders, the strategy of attacking Hahn on public safety carries the risk of giving Hahn an opening to lambaste Parks' stewardship of the Los Angeles Police Department.

Parks, too, has inadvertently drawn attention to the downside of his time as police chief. On Monday, he summoned reporters to the steps of City Hall where he assailed Hahn's record on crime and surrounded himself with relatives of homicide victims. But many of them had actually lost their loved ones to gunfire before the flexible schedule was in place, when Parks was chief.

The mayor's chief political strategist, Bill Carrick, was not quite sure what to make of that piece of political theater, saying he found it "very strange and quite extraordinary."

"He brings these people to come validate his argument when they were actually victims of crime when he was chief," Carrick said. "We dismissed the last police chief, who was a failure, and put in a new police chief, who has been a tremendous success. And the city is safer."

Parks said it was appropriate for the relatives of those who died while he was chief to stand beside him as he critiqued the mayor.

"We weren't trying to stack the deck," he said. "The fact that officers are working less days -- they believe that homicides will continue to go up -- that's what's relevant."

Even if Parks runs a risk in trying to make the case for his record as chief, his dogged attacks could help Hahn's challengers if Parks convinces some voters that the mayor has not done enough.

"Hahn is being forced to defend the fact that he hasn't fulfilled his campaign promises," said Villaraigosa political advisor Parke Skelton, noting that the mayor pledged to add police officers and make Los Angeles the safest big city in America. "It is not good for Mayor Hahn."

Parks seized on the homicide issue the day City Council members returned from their summer recess, announcing that he planned to hold hearings on the rising number of killings in his South Los Angeles district and across the city.

As his cue, Parks took Bratton's recent admission that he was not going to meet his goal of reducing homicides by 20% this year.

In fact, there have been more killings this year -- 379 as of Sept. 11 -- than during the same period last year, when there were 365, according to Police Department statistics.

A day later, Parks aimed another critique at the mayor, accusing Hahn of taking officers off the streets by allowing many to work three 12-hour days. When he was chief, Parks vehemently opposed Hahn's decision to put in place the so-called flexible work schedule.

Parks suggests that crime went up in 2002, in part, because that schedule took officers off the street. Hahn maintains that the schedule, which the police union lobbied for, was great for morale and allowed officers to be deployed when and where they were needed most.

Bratton said that officers aren't calling in sick as much, and that the department is responding to calls more quickly.

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