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Beating History 

Hahn better hope voters forget his mistakes dealing with Daryl Gates and Rodney King

Wednesday, May 9 2001
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Photo by Ted Soqui

TEN YEARS AGO, THE POLICE BEATING OF RODNEY KING GAVE L.A. leaders the political character test of a lifetime. One of the key actors in that municipal meltdown, City Attorney Jim Hahn, performed so dubiously that he had to shelve his mayoral aspirations until now. In 1991, he found his ambitions caught between adamantly opposed forces. On one side, the shrinking African-American political base he shared with then-Mayor Tom Bradley, whose job he coveted. On the other, Bradley's explosive adversary, Police Chief Daryl Gates, supported by the City Council and most white voters.

The ensuing political war altered our civic landscape. Credit Hahn for being a survivor. Of L.A.'s top officials at that time, he's the only one who appears to retain a substantial political future today. Back then, however, his swerves and dodges on what to do about the embattled Gates looked craven and self-serving. It took years of lying low and then more awkward political maneuvering for Hahn to re-emerge. Now he is the presumptive if unreliable favorite of African-Americans for the job he wanted so badly a decade ago.

Hahn's efforts to save Gates, and his misleading and conflicting advice to the City Council and Police Commission, are contained in records of closed-door sessions, internal memos, interviews and newspaper accounts. It is a history Hahn would just as soon voters ignore.

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As then­Police Commissioner Melanie Lomax recalls, "There could be no public confidence restored in the LAPD with Gates remaining there as chief." But what to do about Gates became an ordeal that extended well beyond the King beating, the Christopher Commission Report, the Simi Valley trial and the 1992 riots. It wasn't until the summer of 1992, 15 months after the beating, that Gates was out the door.

Gates could have been given the heave-ho right after the beating if it had not been for the ambitions and actions of Hahn. We can only wonder, sadly, how differently things might have turned out if only the inflammatory chief had been extracted from the equation in the immediate aftermath of the King beating -- as Bradley struggled to do, however ineptly -- more than a year before the Simi Valley trial verdicts and the riots they unleashed on an unprepared city with a paralyzed government. Lomax, who played a key role in the Police Commission's attempt to remove Gates from office, says the chief should have gone long before: "All he did was to serve to enrage the community."

FOR WEEKS AFTER THE BEATING, MOST OF THE City Council played "duck-and-run," as an L.A. Times editorial called it, refusing to say whether Gates should stay or go. Hahn, meanwhile, revealed his political ambitions by publicly rebuking not Gates but Bradley, when the mayor left town on a planned trip early in the beating controversy. Hahn accused Bradley in an open letter of failing to recognize the "serious crime problems facing the city." "I think he will be surprised," Hahn told the Times. "I think he will be upset that his supposed friend would write this letter." Denying that he was running for his supposed friend's office, Hahn claimed that he was "just an angry city attorney dealing with increasing crime." Hahn also knew that a struggle to remove the volatile chief could be politically ruinous. Even if an investigation of the beating were to find the police at fault, a majority of the city's white population would probably still oppose the chief's firing. At least that is what a Times poll found soon after the first broadcasts of the scandalous videotape.

In a confidential legal opinion dated March 27, 1991, Hahn's office advised the Bradley-appointed Police Commission that it had the legal authority to suspend Gates while the LAPD was investigated for mismanagement. Then in another secret memo a week later it suggested the commission hire private counsel before taking action. Although the City Attorney's Office had advised the Police Commission that it had "ample legal authority, in both law and practice, to support the imposition of an involuntary administrative leave on the chief of police," the office now made it clear that it would not legally defend the commission if it took action against Gates.

Relying on the city attorney's written advice regarding its authority, the Police Commission suspended Gates for 60 days pending the outcome of its investigation. But this sparked an immediate outcry from the City Council majority intimidated by or beholden to the chief. Gates' defenders on the council were suddenly led most vociferously by Joel Wachs, who with unintended irony claimed to be defending the police chief's civil rights. "I am a strong civil libertarian," said Wachs of his strident defense of Gates. "A chief of police has as much rights to his civil liberties as everyone."

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