By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
It soon became known that Hahn had first advised the Police Commission that it had the authority to suspend Gates and then helped the City Council to reinstate him. The city attorney was denounced from various quarters for flip-flopping, political opportunism and betraying his African-American supporters. It appeared to the Police Commission and black leaders that Hahn had not only guided the council's action, but even colluded with Gates' attorneys in negotiating their threatened lawsuit against the city, as a means to set up the mechanism for his reinstatement-by-settlement. The commission and civil rights organizations sued to invalidate the Gates settlement, alleging that the city attorney had a conflict of interest and calling the settlement a sham.
The Times reported that commissioners felt "stabbed in the back" by the city attorney. According to Urban League president John Mack, Hahn was "treading on political quicksand." USC law professor Erwin Chemerinsky said that once Hahn had advised the commission, "he was the lawyer for the commission. He shouldn't be then helping the council undo what the commission did on the basis of his legal advice." But Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian upheld the settlement restoring Gates, and disavowed the charges of collusion and conflict of interest. Hahn had bet on Gates' survival and won -- legally, if not politically.
Based on the judge's ruling and a request from a city councilman, Hahn announced he would consider disqualifying the Police Commission from taking any future disciplinary action against Gates, which the charter empowers the city attorney to do. With the Police Commission emasculated and Gates back in office, commission president Dan Garcia resigned and warned ominously that the city was headed for greater trouble.
ALTHOUGH MELANIE LOMAX RECENTLY DECIDED TO support Hahn for mayor and does not hold him responsible for keeping Gates in office 10 years ago, she said if the Police Commission had been able to dislodge Gates sooner, L.A. history could have taken a different path. The 1992 riots were not inevitable. "It wasn't just the Simi Valley verdicts," Lomax says. "If we had been successful then, there would not have been over a year of visceral rage building in the community that exploded when the verdicts came out of Simi Valley."
Today as then, Hahn defends his actions, saying that he simply was doing his job and avoided the chief's lawsuit, without taking a position on whether Gates should stay or go. What ultimately mattered was "not whether Gates should have been fired or not fired," but rather that police reform went forward, Hahn said in a recent radio interview. ("That puts him clearly out of step with his base in 1991," says Kerman Maddox, who led a drive in the black community to recall Gates.)
In the same interview, Hahn even claimed that he "stepped into a vacuum to exercise leadership on police reform." These days he often tries to associate himself with the Christopher Commission, which back then called on Gates to step down. But a member of that commission, UCLA professor Leo Estrada, says that Hahn initially assumed the largely Bradley-appointed investigation would fail and was "as surprised as anyone" when its recommendations were well-received. "Taking on the LAPD," Estrada told me of Hahn, "in his mind, always had more negatives than positives for his political ambitions."
Just last year, Hahn made a clumsy attempt to pose as the champion of the legacy of the Christopher Commission. Committed to the mayor's race but once again on the spot to address another LAPD scandal, Hahn called on Warren Christopher to head a new independent investigation, this time of the Rampart Division. Christopher not only rebuffed the idea, he also called for the existing civilian oversight structures to be allowed to do their job. So far, at least, Hahn's history of equivocations, blunders and leadership failures has yet to catch up to him. Christopher himself supports Hahn for mayor.
IN 1991, HAHN'S MAYORAL AMBITIONS AND HIS SENSE of where the city was going led him to break with Bradley and maneuver to help keep Gates in office. Although Hahn had made it in politics with the name and African-American voter support he inherited from his longtime county supervisor dad, that voter base was in decline, and what remained of Bradley's biracial coalition lay in shambles. With the city so polarized, Hahn sided with Gates against Bradley and a mobilized African-American community. As thenL.A. Times columnist Bill Boyarsky put it, "James Hahn learned many political lessons from his father, not the least of which was how to count."
Indeed, Jim Hahn was not alone in turning his back on Bradley and the black community on the Gates issue. The old man himself, on the same day Bradley appointed the Christopher Commission, came out in defense of Gates, calling him the "best chief in the nation." County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn, at that time publicly considering another run for re-election, added that Gates "should not resign." The elder Hahn thought that the chief would weather the storm, which he regarded to be an image problem. He suggested that Gates hire "a first-class public relations firm to build back the confidence of the public." Father and son seem to have been on the same page. ä