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New LAPD Digs, Old Name?

Some question whether the next headquarters should still recall the era of a controversial former chief, William Parker.

March 19, 2006|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

In 1950, William H. Parker was welcomed as just the kind of no-nonsense chief the Los Angeles Police Department needed after being rocked by disclosures that Hollywood vice cops were protecting prostitutes.

A war hero who believed cops shouldn't even accept a free meal on their beat, Parker cleaned up the department, fostered its "Dragnet" image and went on to serve the longest tenure of any LAPD chief: 16 years.

So it was not surprising when city leaders put Parker's name on the front of LAPD's downtown headquarters when it opened a half-century ago. And now that the department plans to move to a new headquarters a block away, City Councilwoman Jan Perry expects the trademark to follow.

"The name Parker Center obviously has some historical significance and context," said Perry, whose district includes much of downtown. "Unless there is some groundswell against it, I would expect to use the name on the new building."

But some city leaders are suggesting that the future headquarters carry a different nameplate. Many believe that one of the most prominent structures in the Civic Center should reflect the LAPD of the future, not of the past.

Those officials and civil rights leaders say Parker's tough, confrontational style of policing ran roughshod over the rights of minority communities.

"He is a negative symbol," said the Rev. Jim Lawson, president of the Southern California chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "He is a symbol of the system of harassment we faced then, and that we continue to face."

John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Police Commission and former head of the local branch of the Urban League, agreed that city officials should consider a different name.

"In the minds of many within the African American community he clearly was not only old-school but represented an oppressive kind of leadership that caused a tremendous amount of consternation," Mack said.

Geraldine Washington, head of the local branch of the NAACP, said the building should just be called Los Angeles Police Department headquarters. Indeed, police buildings in New York City, Chicago and Houston are not named after anyone.

If a person's name has to be used, Washington suggested Tom Bradley, the former mayor who began his city career with the LAPD.

Former Police Chief Ed Davis said Parker's name was good enough for the current building and should be good enough for the new one.

"Chief Parker stood for honesty and integrity," Davis said. "I would stand up for Bill. He was known for being steadfast and resolute about not allowing the left wing to take over the Police Department."

Davis is fond of telling of his first meeting with Parker, when Davis was in a recruit class. Parker warned the young officers that if they gave in to corruption, they would get a one-way trip to San Quentin.

Former Deputy Chief Robert Vernon, who also supports keeping the name, credits Parker with cultivating a relationship with Hollywood, which portrayed the LAPD in a good light, most notably through the television series "Dragnet."

"His contribution was discipline and integrity," Vernon said. "He would probably not be a successful chief today with all the politics and political correctness, but I don't think you can take away the major contributions he made."

Jay Grodin, a prominent attorney and former police officer, said Parker "was a great visionary who brought professionalism to the LAPD."

The naming of government buildings is often a tricky task, tied up in the sensitive issue of how history is interpreted.

There was some controversy when the state's downtown office building was named for Ronald Reagan, but hardly a peep last week when the Los Angeles Parks Commission renamed the Van Ness Recreation Center in honor of civil rights attorney Johnnie L. Cochran Jr.

At one point, some city officials tried to adopt a policy limiting the naming of buildings to people who had died, but that idea was scrapped.

In naming the current police headquarters after Parker, city officials cited his record of public service.

Parker joined the LAPD in 1927 and served 15 years before taking a leave to fight in World War II. He received a Silver Star in France, an Italian Star in Sardinia and a Purple Heart after being wounded during the Normandy invasion.

"After the war, Capt. Parker returned to the department, where he rapidly ascended through the ranks," a Police Department biography said.

Parker is often credited with turning the LAPD into a modern department. Before he took over, an investigation found that vice officers were protecting prostitutes, including Hollywood madam Brenda Allen. That scandal led to the early retirement of Police Chief Clemence B. Horrall.

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