Still Kicking 

Bernie Parks weighs political future to even the score

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
Photo by Jack Gould

SO EX-CHIEF BERNARD PARKS IS thinking of running for the City Council instead of suing it. Although he doesn't appear to live there at the moment, Parks certainly has a better-than-even chance next year of winning the 8th District seat that Mark Ridley-Thomas will vacate this December when he wins election to the state Assembly. (It would be virtually impossible for Democrat Ridley-Thomas to be beaten by a Republican in this district.)

But I wonder if our just-departed chief has really thought this one through. Instead of being the city's central luminary, as councilman he'd be just one of 15 elected representatives. And he'd have to work with his colleagues instead of trying to thwart them. Most importantly, when speaking in the council chamber, he could only talk for three minutes at a time. This could work dire hardship on the man who, just last week, addressed his potential future colleagues for 90 minutes straight about his favorite subject: himself.

Unless you're Fidel Castro, an hour and a half is a pretty long time to hold forth -- even in a goodbye speech. With his refusal to assume even the tiniest vestige of blame for the Rampart scandal and all of the other problems of his tenure, Parks gave us all a good look at that fatal lack of critical self-awareness that plagued his entire five years as chief.

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No, it was everyone else who was at fault, particularly those out there "impugning my unquestioned honesty and integrity." Now here is a funny thing: Honest people generally do not brag. When someone comes to your house vaunting honesty, you better count the silverware before he leaves.

This is not to say that Parks didn't score points against his opponents. Had he simply stopped after 30 minutes, bowed and thanked everybody for their time, he might have left us a strong impression of a good man wronged. It is barely possible that he might have carried another vote or two on the council to review the Police Commission's 4-1 decision not to rehire him. A lot of us agreed that the process looked flawed.

Parks has stressed that there was no good reason for the Police Commission to hold his personnel hearing in closed session. He noted that the question of whether his last performance review had been properly cycled around the system was basically meaningless. From what I read, the substance of the draft evaluation the panel saw didn't differ substantially from the alternative version. And Parks made a decent case that his rejection hadn't been accompanied by the same amount of paperwork that had gone into the ouster of his predecessor, Willie L. Williams.

BUT THEN PARKS FURTHER CONtended that Mayor Jim Hahn was trying to get him. That Hahn had expressed his preferences not only to the Police Commission, but -- for all we know -- to members of the City Council. And you know what? That wasn't news to anyone but Bernie Parks. There is no law that says your new boss has to fall in love with you. Particularly if you keep acting like you can't stand him.

To Parks, however, it was atrocious that anyone could not want him to be police chief for another five years. And worse that this someone would actually work to get rid of him. Just what kind of monster was this mayor guy Hahn, anyway?

Bernie let us know. Hahn had -- perhaps -- conspired with the police union not only by promising to oust Bernie in return for its support, but in getting the city to give the union $3.5 million to campaign against Parks. Never mind that this particular transfer was intended to defend officers in disciplinary hearings and hasn't been used for anything else, and that Parks had himself agreed to it.

Then our honest and integral Parks blamed the reinstatement of Christopher Commission­mandated community-based policing measures -- which he had so long resisted -- for the soaring inner-city homicide rate. He blamed the LAPD's attrition rate on bad officers who'd been forced into retirement. He acceded, sort of, to the common contention that LAPD morale was a mess. But then he made his most amazing claim of all: Good officer morale, he effectively said, means bad civilian morale. "The LAPD tries to balance the morale of its employees with the morale of its communities," he said. This time, the council members were looking at one another and the ceiling, but Parks kept going. He asserted that the high morale the LAPD allegedly enjoyed in the freewheeling days of Daryl Gates (which sure was news to me; has he checked with Joe Wambaugh on that?) was responsible for both the past department's anti-civil-rights break-head zeal and the high crime rate of 20 years ago. Would-be LAPD applicants note and file: If cops like their jobs, Parks was practically saying, they'll do lousy work and hurt people.

AND THERE, IN A SINGLE LIGHTNING flash, you had the naked Bernard Parks, spread out on a lab table. The issue wasn't (as his supporters contend) that the cops of the LAPD hate Bernie. It was that Bernie hates them.

As he spiraled on, Parks reverted to the language of the Daryl Gates era he'd just reviled. He denounced the "politics" of his ouster -- as though politics with Dick Riordan had nothing to do with his being chief. He was now the victim of "outside pressures." That code term from the Gates era meant things like the will of the people, voters at the polls, the democratic process. To Parks, these seem to be paving stones in the road to public corruption -- "The finest government money can buy,'' as Parks put it. In this thinking, all civilians -- particularly elected ones -- are corrupt: Only cops can be trusted. This is the credo of the old LAPD culture that produced Chief Bernie Parks.

It's Parks' bad luck to be the last (one can only hope) LAPD chief that this culture produced. For nearly 45 years, whoever held this office was the most powerful, best-known and least accountable man in the city. Now the city's voters have decided it's time to risk democracy. This means that whomever you vote for as mayor effectively gets to tell this chief -- after five years in office -- whether his services are no longer required. Even so, Los Angeles' mayor has less direct control over the hiring and firing of the police chief than any other mayor of any great city in America.

SO ISN'T IT TIME THE CITY DUMPED the farce of an "independent" police commission, appointed by a mayor who knows how the members will vote -- particularly regarding a chief? Why not just let the mayor decree that he wants a new chief? At a time when secession's been an increasingly serious issue, L.A.'s been further scarred by the months of border fighting between Parks and his partisans and City Hall. The African-American community is now badly split and isolated just when, with its ebbing demographics, it needs to be neither. All this happened because the Police Commission did just what the mayor expected it to do. While maintaining all along -- with its repeated pretense of "independence" -- that it just possibly, maybe, might not.

Such an "independent" commission is an oxymoron. Like a kosher cheeseburger, which, if it's kosher, can't have the cheese and vice versa. Similarly, a mayor-ordained police commission can't really be independent, can it? My USC professor friend Erwin Chemerinsky said that's not the point: "A mayor is unlikely to appoint anyone to the commission who doesn't agree with him." Particularly on the vital issue of who runs the cops.

Chemerinsky argues that such city commissions provide Los Angeles with a "citizen involvement" that makes it more democratic than, say, New York. Where Mayor Rudy Giuliani could instantly oust his excellent police commissioner, William Bratton, for the crime of excessive media exposure.

I do respect Chemerinsky's view. Certainly, no one can now accuse our city of stifling the discourse on Parks' abilities. And if Parks does run for the council, that debate will still be roaring nearly a year from today.

Even so, to me the whole thing still tastes like aged Cheddar on rare ground round.

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