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Beyond Bernie 

The future nears for the LAPD

Wednesday, Mar 13 2002
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Early last week, top leaders in the local African-American clergy held a private breakfast meeting. I don’t know what it was about. But whatever decision was made, it doesn‘t seem to have been to amp up the protest against Mayor Jim Hahn’s decision not to rehire his police chief. New York mouth-at-large Al Sharpton was supposed to arrive in town to boost Bernie around then, but if he did, it must have been a stealth visit.

Let‘s face it. At this point, it looks like no force in existence can save the job of Police Chief Bernard Parks. This is because all his career Parks has been such an LAPD-style thinker that he just can’t adapt to certain new realities. In the LAPD culture‘s tradition, elected-civilian oversight was plain ”political interference“ -- something against which the entire force had to close its ranks. Thus Parks rose to chiefdom believing that, once he held that job, no mortal on Earth could tell him what to do.

Let alone a mere mayor. But that isn’t true anymore, and Parks‘ inability to deal with the change is his fatal problem. Parks is the first chief from that LAPD culture to have his job tenure, if not his department, under civilian control. And the top civilian is the mayor. This is the real meaning of the conflict between Parks and the rest of City Hall -- a conflict Parks is destined to lose.

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Parks, of course, even bucked Dick Riordan -- the mayor who adored and appointed him -- when Riordan tried to persuade him to re-install the community-policing measures Parks had halted. He bucked the City Council when he told them two years ago, in the heat of the Rampart debate, that there was no LAPD culture of silence -- equivalent to saying the force doesn’t wear dark-blue uniforms. Parks acts like this because he has little but contempt for elected officials and, one guesses, for the rest of us besides -- including his rank-and-file employees.

Now this contempt has chewed up his career. Historically speaking, you can‘t blame Bernie for the way he is. For at least half of his 37-year career, Parks probably experienced old-time LAPD racism at its most viscid. The best evocation I know of what it must have been like to be a black LAPD officer years ago is in John Gregory Dunne’s novel True Confessions, which portrays a segregated cop who is really a fictionalized Tom Bradley, biting his tongue, eating his rage, citing regulations and doing perfect work in a by-the-book response to the racist taunts that accompany his every working hour. But Dunne‘s fictional cop -- like Bradley -- bails out of his a police career and succeeds in politics.

Bernie hung in there, loving the job and trusting that emerging civil justice would provide an avenue to the chief’s office -- if he embraced the culture that had forced out Bradley. And he finally got there. But Parks brought with him a consequent and contemptuous anger that smacks you in the face every time he walks into a room. He focused this contempt on Jim Hahn back when Hahn was city attorney. He retained it when Hahn became mayor -- even though, if he‘d read even a single Hahn campaign speech or debate transcript, he’d have known that Hahn had him in his gun sights. Hahn stated repeatedly that he‘d evaluate Parks’ performance during his first months as mayor. But during that time, Parks continued to drag his feet on issues like senior lead officers and racial profiling. Parks was, in effect, daring Hahn to pull the trigger.

The other way Parks‘ contempt hurt him was in his disdain for his troops. I don’t suppose the sardonic ‘80s corporate slogan ”The beatings will continue until morale improves“ really hangs on Parks’ office wall. But it might as well. One assumes that Dick Riordan liked Parks because he saw in him the same attitude toward employees that Riordan held in his earlier career as a low-rent corporate raider: ”They‘re expendable, treat them harshly; better the troops fear you than love you.’‘

But policing is a hard enough profession without such attitude. And good cops are now in high demand in cities where the command posture and the pay are better. It’s one thing playing the martinet in a closed military system in which you can have your slackers shot. It‘s quite another behaving that way in a civilian organization in which your employees can walk into better jobs. Such an attitude also becomes a recruit repellent.

So LAPD numbers and productivity go down. Crime goes up. More people are killed. And Parks hangs on, but not, I am guessing, for long. Even if divine intervention struck and the Police Commission voted to rehire Parks, it’s possible to imagine the City Council finding eight or even 10 votes to overrule the panel. Interesting, when you consider that there are probably only three council members who‘d oppose Parks’ layoff.

Then who might be our next police chief? Sometimes such answers are guessable: Riordan seemed to want Parks even before he was elected mayor.

Things aren‘t that clear now. Hahn’s said nothing, so the city might do the kind of nationwide search that netted the luckless Willie Williams in 1992.

Parks himself doesn‘t seem to have many top assistants who’d fill the bill. One reason for this is that the chief literally abolished the number-two rank of assistant chief early after taking office. The ranks now jump from two-star deputy chief to four-star Bernie chief.

But some LAPD-associated names are mentioned. One is Mark Kroeker‘s, who left the force in 1997 to become the successful, outspoken chief of Portland, Oregon. Kroeker would be the best of both worlds in the eyes of many: He was a well-thought-of senior LAPD officer, yet -- some hope -- he’s worked outside the culture long enough not to be its prisoner. But Kroeker isn‘t of minority extraction, and may even feel that bosky Portland is a better place to complete his career than his old hometown. And his good LAPD record is shadowed by his having been a member of former Deputy Chief Robert “Bible Bob” Vernon’s church.

One possible complete outsider is San Diego Police Chief David Bejarano, a 25-year SDPD veteran. Bejarano has a Latino background, and his apparent success in the headlining Danielle van Dam kidnap-murder has brought him national fame. Again, the question is, would he give all that up for what could easily be a mere five-year term as L.A.‘s top cop?

Probably uninterested in the job for the same reason is L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, just re-elected to an all-but-unopposed second term. Baca applied for the LAPD-chief job back in 1992, and finished just out of the running. Since then, though, he’s become the most respected L.A. sheriff in generations. Even under the new term limits, he‘s got another possible 12 years in office ahead of him -- which would get him into his early 70s. The new police chief would serve a maximum of 10 years. But of course no one’s nailed that second five-year term yet.

Not too many names come up within the current LAPD roster. One is that of Commander George Gascon (not to be confused with the more senior Deputy Chief David Gascon), who heads the LAPD Training Group. An Army veteran, Gascon is probably the only top staffer on the LAPD who is bilingual. He is also a veteran of the elite Democratic Party Coro Foundation‘s leadership-training program -- a qualification more typical of a council staffer than a police officer. He could be the choice of the Latino political faction.

Another interesting and even more outside-the-box possibility is Margaret York, the first LAPD woman to attain the rank of deputy chief. She commands Operations Central Bureau, one of the toughest assignments in the department. She is impressively connected to the downtown establishment (and is married to Judge Lance Ito of Simpson-trial fame). And of course she’d be the city‘s first woman chief. But some wonder whether she’s tough enough to boss the entrenched bureaucracy.

Otherwise, it‘s possible that the new chief might be someone whose name we have yet to hear in our city. The candidate search and the ensuing competition politics are certain to make City Hall’s summer doldrums unusually interesting this year.

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