The Los Angeles City Council balked Wednesday at voting on a contentious proposal to name the new police headquarters building after William Parker, a legendary former police chief whose legacy is clouded by the negative influence he had on race relations in the city.
Faced with anger from civic and religious leaders, and flummoxed by the lack of any clear rules governing how public buildings are named in its own city, the council instead voted unanimously to punt the touchy issue back to various committees and directed staff to develop a public process for christening the gleaming building at Main and 1st streets downtown.
Parker became chief in 1950 and served for an unprecedented 16 years. He is widely credited with cleaning up what was then a poorly run organization that was rife with corruption and molding it into a professional agency, in which standards were tightened and discipline imposed.
Many believe, however, that in reconstructing the department, Parker also allowed a culture of discrimination and brutality within its ranks, especially toward the African American neighborhoods of South Los Angeles. Long-simmering racial tensions between Angelenos and the police erupted near the end of Parker's tenure in 1965, when 34 people died in the Watts riots. Parker himself made several racially charged comments throughout his career.
The current, dilapidated LAPD headquarters has borne Parker's name since the late 1960s, after the City Council went through an extensive selection process. During the council's debate Wednesday, the proposal's author, Councilman Bernard C. Parks, argued that Parker's name should carry over to the new building barring a new selection by the council. In an earlier interview with The Times, he also defended Parker's legacy and said it was unfair to single Parker out from other historical figures in the city.
Several council members objected, saying that adorning the new building with Parker's name would detract from reforms and progress the department has made in recent years in building closer ties with minority communities.
"There are changes in the Los Angeles Police Department. It is a new day," said Councilman Herb Wesson, who is black. "A building is being constructed. Everything in that building is new. The name should reflect . . . the new LAPD."
Council members also introduced two alternatives: One called for the building to be named for former Mayor Tom Bradley, and the other suggested it be a memorial to officers killed in action.
In the end, Parks, also black and a former LAPD chief, amended his own motion, allowing the council to avoid an up or down vote on Parker. In an interview, Parks portrayed the move as a victory.
"Whatever the name will be, it should be a public process," he said. "If we're going to later remove someone's name, we need to have some criteria, as opposed to a group showing up and deciding that person is irrelevant today."