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LAPD's chief and term limits

A proposal to do away with term limits on the police chief ignores L.A.'s history.

March 31, 2009

At the height of his influence, Los Angeles Police Chief Ed Davis was asked whether he would consider running for mayor. Why, the chief responded with characteristic mischief, would he give up all his power? Years later, Davis, by then retired, testified before the Christopher Commission and recommended that the city's police chief, whose job was protected by civil service rules, instead be limited to two five-year terms as a way of recalibrating the balance of power between the chief and his civilian bosses. His proposal was accepted by the commission and approved by voters the following year, earning Davis the gratitude of the city and the everlasting enmity of Chief Daryl F. Gates, who was forced out by the reforms of that period.

The term limit for the position of police chief has since served the city well. After Willie L. Williams' first term, the Police Commission chose not to reappoint him to a second. Same for Bernard C. Parks, Williams' successor. By contrast, the commission was satisfied with William J. Bratton's performance and offered him a second term, which he accepted. Each transition was controversial but orderly and professional. Decades of contentious relations between City Hall and Parker Center gave way to relative calm and police acceptance of civilian oversight.

Now comes City Councilman Herb Wesson with a proposal to upend that progress by eliminating the term limit. His motives are at least partly understandable: We like Bratton too. And we don't think much of term limits, at least for elected officials. But rules should not be designed to suit individuals. Rather, they should protect the city over the long term, and the term limit for the chief grows out of Los Angeles' troubled history, not just its recent past.

As Davis' impish observation underscored, the police chief has held a position of extraordinary influence in Los Angeles life. That man -- there has never been a woman in the office -- commands an armed force of thousands, the largest of all city departments and the most visible. Some chiefs have been admirable, some corrupt or racist. Some have protected the city; others have ravaged it. The Christopher Commission properly recognized that history with its recommendation for a term limit.

Bratton chafes under the limit and suggests that abolishing it would help move the city beyond the legacy of Rodney King. But the legacy it addresses is bigger than King. It's the Watts riots and the 1992 riots. It's the vacillations of Williams' tenure and the rigidity of Parks'. It's Rampart, Margaret Mitchell and May Day -- the recurring reminders that although the LAPD is an essential and admirable institution, it has periodically tested the city's confidence and endangered civic stability. Los Angeles' Police Department functions best when civilians most closely control it. The term limit has reinforced that relationship.

Then there's the Police Protective League. The police union has transformed Wesson's reasonable rumination on the term limit into a self-interested alternative. Asked about Wesson's proposal, league President Paul M. Weber countered with the idea that the chief should no longer be appointed, but rather elected. No doubt tantalized by visions of low-turnout elections in which police officers vote in great numbers, the union imagines a chief of its own. That is worse than dangerous. Municipal unions in Los Angeles already have too much sway over politics. Weber's idea would make the police chief principally beholden to his workforce rather than to the city's political leadership.

Wesson's proposal is understandable but wrong. The Police Protective League's is cynical and corrupt. Leave the term limit alone.

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