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Merit, not race

For the first time in years, racial politics need not play a big role in choosing who will lead the LAPD.

October 21, 2009

In politicized, ethnically diverse Los Angeles, it is naive to assume that any major public policy decision is made without regard to its implications for the city's racial politics. But recognizing racial politics and practicing them are two different things. For a variety of reasons, the next chief of the Los Angeles Police Department can and should be selected on merit, without regard to race.

That is easier said than done. Indeed, there have been moments in recent years when race did play an important part in the qualification of a would-be chief, and appropriately so. After the beating of Rodney G. King in 1991 and the riots the following year, it was clear to any sentient Angeleno that a sharp break from the LAPD's history was required in order to restore public trust in the police. So much antagonism had built up between the department and minority communities -- particularly the African American community -- that a wholly new direction was needed. In addition to redoubling efforts to diversify the ranks of the department, that meant it was essential to reach outside the LAPD for its next chief, and it argued strongly for a minority chief. The result was that city leaders hired Willie L. Williams from Philadelphia.

Williams' tenure was not without accomplishment. He charmed Los Angeles and calmed the LAPD, particularly in his early months. But he proved a waffling and evasive leader, and the Police Commission came to question his honesty. He was denied a second term, and Mayor Richard Riordan opted for Bernard C. Parks, one of the most senior African American officers in the LAPD and one whom Williams had publicly demoted. Riordan's choice was not entirely or even mostly a racial calculation, but race played a part. The appointment of another nonwhite chief helped reassure residents that Williams' failure would not be attributed to his race or held against other black officers.

In 2002, the dynamics were different, but race still figured in the debate over whether Parks deserved a second term. Mayor James Hahn, heir to a family name revered in much of black Los Angeles, had been elected by a strange coalition of African Americans and San Fernando Valley moderates and conservatives (his opponent was the more liberal Antonio Villaraigosa). Given his background, Hahn gambled that he could defy racial politics and drop a black chief in favor of a white one. He did, hiring William J. Bratton. Whatever the merits of that decision, the political implications for Hahn were profound: Dropping Parks cost Hahn one half of his coalition, and his successful campaign against Valley secession cut deeply into the other. He lost his bid for reelection.

Hahn's decision cost him dearly but has paid many dividends for the city. As Bratton prepares to leave the department, Los Angeles can proudly point to this moment as one in which racial politics, for the first time in many years, might not play a significant role in the calculations of choosing a police chief. The LAPD, which saw its public approval rating plummet in the early '90s, today enjoys broad and deep appreciation. A Harvard study conducted this year concluded that 83% of Angelenos approve of their police. Although white support for the department was highest, more than two-thirds of blacks and Latinos joined in commending its work. By contrast, in the aftermath of the King beating, 50% of whites disapproved of the LAPD; two-thirds of Latinos agreed, as did eight out of 10 blacks.

The department's progress in racial terms also can be seen in its ranks. Once an overwhelmingly white, male institution, the LAPD today is notably diverse -- white males no longer constitute a majority of the force. Those gains are partly the result of consent decrees on hiring and promotion, and partly the product of enlightened leadership, not just by Bratton but by his predecessors as well. For the next chief, the qualification for office is not to be a certain race or gender but to ensure that the policies that have diversified the LAPD continue.

The field of candidates being interviewed by the Police Commission this week includes women and men of various ethnicities: Assistant Chief Earl Paysinger is the department's highest-ranking black officer; deputy chiefs Sergio Diaz and Mark Perez are ranking Latinos. Two candidates are white women: Assistant Chief Sharon Papa and Deputy Chief Sandy Jo MacArthur. And Assistant Chief Jim McDonnell and Deputy Chief Charlie Beck are white men. As the commission considers the credentials of those and other candidates, it should ask who would best execute the fundamentals of fighting crime, maintaining public order, encouraging diversity and insisting on accountability.

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