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Double-Standard Dick 

School reformer Riordan is the mayor of inertia at the LAPD

Wednesday, May 17 2000
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Photos by Robert Yager (left)
and Slobodan Dimitrov

Here’s a question:

Say there’s this vast, powerful public institution in L.A., which the public clearly wants to shape up but which resists every mandate and opportunity to change. Its civilian governing board is largely the creature of the administrative bureaucracy, which wants to run things as it has always run things, with no one looking over its shoulder or questioning its authority. The more it refuses to change, however, the more it becomes an affront to the people of Los Angeles, and, eventually, a crisis ensues.

The question is: If you’re Mayor Richard Riordan, what do you do about it?

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The answer is: It depends. If we’re talking about the school district, you move heaven and earth to elect a governing board of reformers, who dump the old-guard superintendent and put in some outsiders to shake up the system.

If we’re talking about the LAPD, on the other hand, you appoint a governing board that defines its mission as giving the chief absolute autonomy at all times, and that undermines the voter-mandated civilian oversight of the department. You appoint a chief who ignores the mandates for reform and who defines the Rampart crisis almost entirely as a threat to his own prerogatives. And you yourself are so dismissive of all attempts to subject the department to a modicum of civilian control that now the feds are about to deliver that department to the care and keeping of the courts.

Apparently, you can search the mind of Richard Riordan — or, for that matter, the collective consciousness of L.A.’s political elite — without coming across anything approaching a unified field theory of public administration. At the LAUSD, Riordan and Co. have repeatedly told us, only an outsider can bring the critical distance required to look at the agency afresh. Acting Superintendent Ramon Cortines and operations Pooh-Bah Howard Miller were hired because they came from outside and were blissfully unwedded to the go-along, get-along, don’t-rock-the-boat ethos that produced the Belmont debacle. Nor have any of the candidates currently under consideration to succeed Cortines been tainted by any contact with the district itself. According to the current consensus, whatever special familiarity insiders may bring to the job is clearly outweighed by all the entangling alliances they’ve entered into on their way up, by all the old crap they’ve believed in.

At the LAPD, however, the word has always been that no outsider can possibly succeed. Rulers must come from within the family. Parker begat Reddin begat Davis begat Gates begat Parks; and the failure of Willie Williams, the sole chief in the past half-century not to come from within, only confirms that someone untouched by the special familiarity, alliances and beliefs of the insider hasn’t got a chance. Poor Willie didn’t know what buttons to push to win support within the department or from the mayor. Never mind that the crime rate began its plunge on his watch, or that the disasters of Parker (the 1965 riots), Gates (Rodney King and the 1992 riots) and Parks (the Rampart debacle) — all disasters rooted in the unwillingness to alter longstanding departmental practice — dwarf any problems we associate with the clueless Williams. No matter: An outsider just can’t cut it.

More generally, our mayor has viewed his mission as promoting the very management practices at the ã LAPD that he worked to undo at the LAUSD. His appointed police commissioners not only supported Bernie Parks at every turn. Working behind the scenes with the mayor’s office, they also consistently subverted the work of the department’s civilian monitor, Katherine Mader, making it impossible for her to do the inspector general’s job that the Christopher Commission had created. Riordan commissars like Edith Perez have been idolatrous in their defense of the chief and his tottering ancien régime. School-board member Vickie Castro’s defense of embattled superintendent Ruben Zacarias and the Belmont complex seems tepid by comparison.

Worse yet, Riordan has stood by Parks even when his commissioners have wavered. When Parks determined that his officers’ killing of homeless, diminutive shopping-cart lady Margaret Mitchell was “in policy,” or when Parks laid blame for Rampart on inexpert middle management at one station house, Riordan’s response, in essence, was “Ain’t Bernie great?” More fundamentally, Riordan selected Parks precisely because he was in total accord with the mayor’s belief that enlarging the department took precedence over reforming it. The Christopher Commission reforms, Parks said upon taking office, were largely (“86 percent,” he said) accomplished, and those that weren’t quite done yet — like setting up a tracking system for officers involved in questionable shootings, or working up psychological tests for recruits — weren’t a big thing.

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