By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
By winning the face-off with Los Angeles‘ mayor and police chief last week, the Los Angeles City Council finally did something in this millennium to justify its existence. Better still, what it did might, after a generation of failed tries, create an LAPD that reflects the city’s 21st-century needs.
Of course, there were short-term reasons for the veto-proof vote to approve a consent-decree format addressing the problems of the city‘s troubled police force. One was the obvious alternative. As City Councilman Mike Feuer put it, ”We’d have had to go into litigation [against the Justice Department], and we‘d have been slaughtered.“
To put it mildly. But the city is finally, collectively tired of the LAPD’s one-step-forward, one-step-back resistance to reform. The departmental culture deep-sixed the community-policing ventures of Chief Ed Davis in the mid-1970s and many changes the Christopher Commission recommended and the voters approved in the early ‘90s. Daryl Gates undid those first reforms, and Bernard Parks has managed to undo some Christopher reforms (senior lead officers and community panels) while avoiding others -- bad-officer tracking most particularly.
Obviously, if the changes were to be, outside help was needed. Yet it seemed a miracle that the council, after a year of self-proclaimed weakness, gathered strength at so crucial a moment. Ailing council President John Ferraro deserves credit, but so do the others who supported him in his confrontation with the mayor. Since the new charter passed in June 1999, Dick Riordan has regularly rolled over council authority. The mayor got his way with the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. He flung out unfavored managers without hindrance. His new strength even helped the mayor’s closest ally, Police Chief Bernard Parks, to spike council-proposed LAPD changes. Then, all of a sudden, on the most vital issue the city‘s ever faced, the council formed an invincible phalanx against them both. Pushed into a corner on this single crucial issue, the council members recalled the strength of unity.
”We all felt that we needed all the help we could get, reforming the LAPD,“ said Council Member Jackie Goldberg. ”It’s been resisting restructuring now for over 25 years.“ While Goldberg is among the council‘s most progressive members, she expressed a consensus that includes the controller and city attorney. At Monday’s special council meeting, even Deputy Mayor Kelly Martin acquiesced to members‘ strengthening the proposed consent decree with recommendations from USC professor Erwin Chemerinsky’s critical response to last April‘s official LAPD report on the Rampart scandal (which, you recall, exculpated the LAPD brass while heaping blame on the rank and file). This process particularly pleased Councilman Mike Hernandez, who applauded the suggestion that bilingual liaison staff be added. ”A lot of the problems at Rampart really developed [from] bad community communications,“ Hernandez said. Other members appreciated that the consent decree now mandates the bad-cop tracking system Parks has long avoided.
The council sought a stronger consent decree than the Justice Department itself wanted. Even latecomers to the majority (which, as of September 21, stood at 12 members) favored this shopping-cart approach. ”Once we’ve established we aren‘t giving the keys to the city away,“ said 14th District Councilman Nick Pacheco, ”this was a good thing to do.“ Only the mavericks -- Rudy Svorinich, Nate Holden and Hal Bernson -- finally stood against the decree. Even Parks -- conspicuously absent at September 18’s special consent-decree meeting -- came on board two days later as a supporter of the agreement he‘d battled.
In opposition, Holden maintained that accepting the decree boded disaster. I’m guessing that‘s at least the 200th disaster Holden’s predicted as resulting from the council‘s doing the right thing. Other City Hall regulars quietly wondered whether litigation that might put the decree under a tough federal judge -- as opposed to the agreed-upon nonprosecutorial monitor -- might be more effective against the city’s most resilient and reform-proof institution.
Even the decree‘s enthusiastic supporters have lingering doubts. Goldberg said, ”My worst fear is that after five years, once the decree is over and things have settled down, the LAPD might yet manage to return to its old ways.“
But the council may no longer be that forgetful. Cal State Fullerton professor Raphe Sonenshein, who directed one of the two parallel panels that shaped the new charter, said, ”The ability of the council to reach consensus on the need for a consent decree and the willingness of the mayor and police chief not to fight against that consensus hopefully represents the city’s readiness to move forward on police reform.“
In fact, he adds, that‘s the council’s intended new role. By taking the lead, the council fulfilled its reformed function, planned by the new charter‘s framers. These planners deleted council administrative powers that conflicted with the mayor’s, but enhanced its deliberative and policy-setting functions.
And that‘s what the lame council finally pulled itself together to accomplish. For months unable, administratively speaking, even to make Parks or the Police Commission restore the community-policing function of senior lead officer, it has now installed a policy that is likely, over the long run, to do much more.
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