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Leadership, Leadership, Leadership 

A new LAPD chief must bring a new approach

Wednesday, Sep 4 2002
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Photo by Robert Yager

IN THE EARLY 1990s, DURING HIS ACCEPTANCE SPEECH AS the newly installed president of the L.A. County Peace Officers' Association, LAPD Assistant Chief Bernard Parks reportedly said that the three most important qualities an individual can bring to the job of chief of police are "Leadership, leadership, leadership."

Early this year, LAPD Chief Parks, his first five-year term winding down, found himself in charge of a department in disarray. Employees — those who had not already made their feelings known by taking valuable training and experience and signing up with other departments — were on the brink of rebellion. The city's political leadership had become fed up with the chief's obstinacy and arrogance. When offered advice or assistance, he essentially responded, "Don't bother me. I'm busy being the chief."

As a result, his bosses — the Police Commission and the mayor — declined to offer Parks a second five-year term.

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When appointed chief, Parks appeared to possess all of the qualities traditionally considered to indicate leadership potential. He was bright, energetic, well-spoken, diligent, tenacious, physically imposing, impeccably tailored, and experienced in police administration and municipal politics.

Why didn't Parks' traditionally valued qualities equal success? And what are the qualities that predict success for a chief of police in this 21st century?

Arrest and incarceration traditionally have been considered by societies past and present as the solution to crime problems — the LAPD has been no exception. Little emphasis has been given by police and government to the study of societal conditions that may contribute to, if not cause, crime. The why of crime was the province of those engaged in social work and became the subject of official comment only when some simplistic explanation was offered in support of a desired piece of legislation or a requested budget allocation. Examples are numerous in the rhetoric surrounding the wars on drugs and gangs.

In Los Angeles, this arrest/incarceration model for crime control appears to have received its greatest impetus in the middle of the 20th century during a movement toward professionalism in the police service. L.A.'s legendary Chief William H. Parker preached a philosophy of a cool, detached, scientifically professional approach to providing police services, making use of modern organizational and management techniques developed by industrial engineers in the private sector. These techniques depended heavily on statistical analyses and productivity measurements, frequently to the exclusion of human factors.

This attempt to apply science to the provision of police services was also motivated by the relatively small number of LAPD officers — fewer than two per 1,000 residents in Chief Parker's day. Other major U.S. cities had twice as many. Because of the small number of officers and because Los Angeles' sprawl covered such a vast territory, motor patrol was adopted as the primary means of deploying officers. This limited the constant, casual, non-confrontational interaction with citizens enjoyed by officers in other, more adequately staffed, vertical cities.

This seemed to work well, keeping business interests and the largely middle-class, white residents reasonably satisfied. Minority residents, as was to be illustrated during the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, frequently had a different experience, and a correspondingly different view.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the confluence of at least two major trends threatened this traditional lock-'em-up policing model, trends that have not yet been fully adjusted to by police professionals and politicians.

First, the tools that police relied upon to implement the arrest/incarceration model were systematically reduced by court decisions and legislative action.

Courts interpreted constitutional protections against unwarranted searches, self-incrimination and warrantless arrests in ways much more restrictive of police procedures than in the past. The reaction of police administrators, both nationally and locally, was to decry the rulings and predict catastrophe. Many saw them as a plot to undermine police, part of a greater subversive plan. Los Angeles' chiefs have been particularly vocal in this regard. Few, if any, examined their operations, policies or practices to accommodate the spirit of the new rules.

In terms of legislation, a series of state laws were passed governing public use of alcohol, prostitution, lewd conduct and trespass. From the Great Depression up through the 1960s, many of these local ordinances discouraged indigents from being too comfortable, prostitutes from publicly plying their trade, certain sexual practices in private as well as in public, and a variety of trespasses. They were used by police to harass those deemed undesirable for a host of reasons, be they dust-bowl refugees, left-leaning longshoremen and studio union members, Vietnam War protesters, homosexuals, indigents, or Justice for Janitors marchers. Conflicts between First Amendment guarantees and laws governing the maintenance of public order positioned the police squarely in the middle of controversy. And the LAPD, attempting to solve conflicts with the traditional arrest or threat-of-arrest response, often became the protesters' principal target.

Second, the import of the well-documented shift in the demographic makeup of Los Angeles was not fully realized by the LAPD. No longer the predominantly white, middle-class, 1950s, Middle America-style society that tended to see things clearly in black and white, Los Angeles experienced revolutionary class, race, culture and lifestyle changes.

Applying laws conceived in a markedly different cultural context and in a way that fails to recognize human factors has worked against the police in solving community problems, be they criminal or merely contributory to a reduced quality of life for residents.

We can agree with Bernard Parks. Leadership is indeed the paramount quality for the top cop. But how and to where will a new chief lead? And how does he or she propose to get there?

The new chief to be chosen by Mayor Hahn must display an understanding that police alone are unable to solve problems of crime and disorder. The chief must also understand that he or she alone cannot effectively manage the hugely complex LAPD organization. The chief must forgo the past personal and institutional go-it-alone philosophy and invite full participation of government, department members, a broad spectrum of the community and those in the private sector with special skills in establishing departmental goals, policies and methods. The objective will be to supplement the traditional arrest-based model with problem-solving strategies — the essence of community policing.

The new chief must accept as fact the social changes that have occurred in the past half-century and understand how they affect the role of the police. The chief must be willing to provide leadership in broad community-based efforts to address the problems posed by drug use, gangs, the homeless, the mentally ill, labor unrest and public disorders.

A good place to start is to note the example now being set by our own Los Angeles County sheriff. Lee Baca has demonstrated the kind of imaginative thinking any chief should bring to the position. Principally in programs administered within his huge county jail system, Sheriff Baca has implemented efforts to target underlying causes of spousal abuse and drug addiction and has focused attention on the need for broad community action to address the problems of the mentally ill who make up a substantial portion of the jail population.

Sheriff Moonbeam, as he wryly refers to himself, has enlisted community support for programs that provide help to the homeless in humane, non-traditional ways rather than merely pushing them from one location to another or arresting them. He has recognized the need for independent review of internal misconduct investigations by establishing a panel of civil rights attorneys to oversee and make recommendations on such matters.

The new LAPD chief must follow the path being opened by Baca. The chief must also have a management and organizational plan that allows the delegation of routine duties, freeing the chief from the mundane and allowing him or her to interact with others on a more cosmic level. The management plan must include a system that holds each successive subordinate level accountable. If upper-level managers can't enthusiastically support programs arrived at in the collective, collaborative process, they should be encouraged to leave.

The new chief must explain in specific terms how he or she proposes to lead the department in these new directions. Ill-defined platitudes should not be accepted by the mayor or Police Commission as a substitute for programmatic substance.

Most important, the chief must be allowed the organizational flexibility, the budget and the authority to accomplish this essential paradigmatic shift. Without that support, leadership of the LAPD will remain an empty concept.

David Dotson served as assistant chief of the LAPD. He retired in 1992 after giving extensive testimony to the Christopher Commission that angered then-Chief Daryl Gates. Dotson now serves as a consultant to police-reform and civil-liberties organizations.

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