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God, the Mayor and Bernard Parks 

So just who is responsible for our chief of police?

Wednesday, May 3 2000
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The mayor once told us to thank ”dear God“ for Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard Parks; as I recall, however, he forgot at the time to tell us why.

But most of us realize that it isn‘t God we really have to thank for Bernie Parks. It’s Dick Riordan himself.

So it was certainly appropriate for the mayor momentarily to recall this fact himself last week and, in a forthright moment, to tell us that he, Mayor Dick Riordan, was ”responsible and accountable“ for the entire shambling mess in the LAPD that could cost the city more than $100 million in settlements. Although it took a tough question from the floor of a town-hall lunch fest to make him admit it.

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The event seemed designed to let the mayor air his views on the crisis before a crowd of his downtown friends and critics. Yet Riordan chose to defend Parks, not himself, in the ever-unwinding, deepening scandal. And you just might wonder whether, in some deeply cynical, corporate-inflected recess of his being, the mayor was not, perhaps, in defending Parks, also distancing himself from responsibility.

Last week, the mayor -- like Parks -- blamed just about anyone in the Police Department for the incredible spreading rot -- manager-captains, midlevel managers, rank-and-file officers -- except the chief. Of course, for our mayor to question the competence of the man he apparently handpicked for police chief even before he won his first term as mayor might not reflect well on his judgment. But it would certainly be a very sound move. If the chief only felt more responsibility for what‘s wrong in his department, he might do a better job fixing things.

What we must understand about Dick Riordan is his sometime-liberal politics are bipolar. Among children and minorities, or when rooting for the striking janitors or promoting the election of a new school-board majority, the mayor is a capital-P Progressive. But in a law-and-order context, Riordan growls the rhetoric of right-wing severity. As pioneer libertarian Karl Hess once put it, when it comes to law enforcement, the conservative agenda tends toward hurt, hurt, hurt, punish, punish, punish, kill, kill, kill.

Just what’s so great, you might ask, about Parks‘ chiefdom so far, including as it does the only scandal in LAPD history to outweigh the corruption antics of the late 1930s -- antics that forced the departure of both the then-mayor and the police chief? The mayor will probably tell you, as he recently told the Times, ”We have an incredibly tough disciplinarian in Chief Bernard Parks. He will not tolerate this type of behavior.“

But there is, in fact, a fairly common term for a terrific disciplinarian who lacks other leadership qualities. The term is ”martinet.“ Just how many more things than a martinet must a modern chief of a big city be? More than one can say, probably. Certainly, he must be a politician, inside and outside of his force. But the only person Parks can now count upon politically is Riordan. By now he’s alienated most of the City Council with his months of reticence and arrogance. (Certainly, his March statement that there is no more a code of silence in the LAPD than in any other institution was among the most outrageous ever made in that venue.) He alienated District Attorney Gil Garcetti by refusing to share case materials on Rampart. He miffed City Attorney Jim Hahn, who was forced, indeed, to chasten Parks to make him lawfully cooperate with Garcetti. It‘s a given that most of Parks’ officers disdain him: not just because he‘s fired so many of them for alleged wrongdoing, but also because of what many see as an unbecoming pettiness and the impression he gives of actually disliking his troops.

And of course, a police chief must be a community leader, which nowadays means helping the communities and the officers to work with and get along with one another. Daryl Gates realized this need far too late; Willie Williams never felt comfortable in the role. But of all the recent LAPD chiefs, Bernard Parks seems most averse to the fundamental idea of community-based policing. Instead, he seems to want to take us back to the ”toughness is all“ policies of Chief Bill Parker.

Or so it appears in practice. This week, City Councilman Joel Wachs went on the warpath against what is -- Rampart apart -- Parks’ perhaps signal negative accomplishment to date. This is the dilution of the system of senior lead officers (SLOs) throughout the neighborhoods of Los Angeles. Senior leads, as they were usually known, were the officers assigned both to get to know the neighborhoods and to work with the neighborhood-watch groups and similar local organizations. There were 168 in all, almost 10 for every LAPD division. According to council members and community activists, this assignment of rank-and-file patrol people was one of the most popular innovations of the Christopher Commission findings. Parks‘ order to basically put those community officers back on patrol was made weeks after he took office two years ago.

But it wasn’t put into effect until last fall, just as the Rampart scandal broke. Parks has claimed that somehow putting the SLOs back in black-and-whites is going to make all the rest of the patrol officers smarter when it comes to community relations. But clearly he doesn‘t believe in the SLO concept; rather, he thinks that the best way to fight crime is with bulk force in the field. ”All officers in the field are [now] involved in problem solving,“ Parks’ spokesman David Kalish said. Why, of course. But having what Wachs called the ”eyes and ears“ of the community on their side certainly made their problem solving easier.

This week, Wachs introduced his proposal to get the council to either change Parks‘ directive itself (the legal aspects of this proposed action remain amorphous at this writing) or ask the Police Commission to do so. Having been circumvented out of the Rampart investigation by council President (and former police commissioner) John Ferraro’s own directive, our council could make this issue the battleground for its own stand against Parks.

Parks himself ardently defended his policy. Testifying before the council‘s Public Safety Committee on May 1, he claimed that crime would go up if 168 officers were put back on lead duty. (He did not, however, maintain that crime had gone down since the leads were transferred last year.) His publicist, Mark Moore, said that the purpose of the transfer was not to take out the community-related officers, but rather that ”effective partnerships shouldn’t be relegated to one section of the department.“ In other words, all officers would be community-minded.

What‘s that old saying, ”When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible“? That’s the sense you got from 20-some community leaders who said that, on the contrary, now the police officers they contacted in lieu of their leads often didn‘t know how to pronounce, or even the location of, the streets in their neighborhoods. They also said that neighborhood-policing-meeting attendance had dropped 80 percent since the lead program had been ended.

Whichever way the senior-lead-officer issue goes -- or even if it is tabled --- Wachs’ proposal highlights the fact that the council is ready to take on Parks on his single greatest fault: his fundamental resistance to the key reform of community-based policing, which two mayors (Riordan at least gave it lip service), the council and the voters have supported for over a decade. To make it happen, being an acute disciplinarian is simply not enough.

By the way, just as with the famed, eponymous pair Captain Boycott and Judge Lynch, it turns out that there really was a guy named Martinet: Jean Martinet, a colonel in Louis XIV‘s army. He is recalled as a terrific, not to say savage, disciplinarian and drillmaster. I also discovered in my encyclopedia that he was fatally shot by his own troops during a 1672 siege. The troops said it was an accident.

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