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A Fail to the Chief

The city’s Police Commission had the opportunity to decide the future of Chief Bernard Parks on its merits, and its members, to a person, insist that they did so. The final vote was 4-1 against offering a second five-year term to Parks. So, for the second time since reforms were enacted in 1992, the commission has exercised its proper authority to remove the chief of police.

And while it‘s debatable whether the commission made its best case against Parks, there’s no question that the case could be made, even though the decision could never be separated from the specter of divisive questions of race and politics. That was impossible in the wake of a mayoral race in which James Hahn relied on the support of African-American leaders, and then, after his election, turned against the city‘s black police chief.

The City Council could override the commission’s decision, but it would require an unlikely supermajority of 10 votes.

The Police Commission took its own vote in closed session Tuesday, just minutes before it was publicly announced, and it broke along racial lines, with David Cunningham III, the only African-American board member, casting the lone dissenting vote.

But Cunningham and the other commissioners left it to others to play the race card. They appeared together when commission President Rick Caruso made the announcement to a packed crowd of reporters and onlookers during a hastily assembled press conference outside Parker Center.

Saying the city owed Chief Parks, 58, a “debt of gratitude” for his 37 years of service at the LAPD, Caruso, nonetheless, ticked off the reasons why the commission, “with regrets,” voted the way it did.

Caruso chose his words carefully, but his critique was not entirely on point, as when he relied on statistics suggesting that a rising crime rate coincided with a declining number of arrests. Crime rates are heavily influenced by such factors as economic slumps and demographics -- the number of teenagers in a city, for example. City Council members would certainly not want their performance evaluated by unfavorable statistical blips that are the product of complex and hard-to-evaluate factors. It wasn‘t convincing when Parks, in years past, took credit for falling crime rates (given that crime rates also were falling nationwide), and the converse is not especially persuasive now.

Caruso made more sense with another central theme. After a lengthy review of Parks’ leadership record over the past three years and detailed interviews with the chief, said Caruso, the commission concluded that Parks had shown no “sincere commitment” to making the changes needed to move the department from its current “state of crisis.”

“It is that type of inflexibility and denial of a systemic problem within the department that in part has caused poor morale and attrition of officers,” said Caruso.

“Trust and confidence between those in uniform and their chief has been mortally wounded,” he continued. “This department needs a leader who is demanding but fair, accepts responsibility and seeks solutions. Someone who is capable of energizing and motivating the men and women in the field and can communicate and relate to his subordinates.” a

The trouble with this argument is not that it‘s wrong, but that it uncomfortably echoes the reasoning of the Police Protective League, the powerful police union that has also backed Hahn politically, while opposing Parks. PPL president Mitzi Grasso showed little reluctance to pour gasoline on the fire by referring to Parks, just prior to the announcement, as a “dead man walking.”

Any official parroting of the league’s critique is just more grist for Parks‘ supporters in the black community, who feel doubly spurned that Hahn would value the future political support of the officers union more highly than its own.

Calling the mayor “hypocritical,” City Councilman Nate Holden charged that, prior to Hahn’s public stand against Parks‘ reappointment, Hahn had told him and the other African-American council members that he would not give in to the league’s demand to oust the chief.

“He should have told us how he really felt before the election,” said an obviously angry Holden. “He should have been honest with us. Because, I tell you, the election would have turned out different.”

Holden speaks especially for an older generation of black leaders, for whom access to positions of power was itself a victory over political apartheid. They cannot see Parks‘ departure as anything but a step backward. But Parks was not a favorite of black leaders such as attorney Connie Rice, who has been persistently in the forefront of pushing for real police reform, as opposed to the symbolism of having a black man at the helm.

“I give Parks a thousand percent credit for improving cops’ street demeanor and paying more attention to the civilian-complaint process,” said Rice on Tuesday. “Parks is a good cop, a great cop. But the vision and leadership thing is another matter.

”I‘m looking at a culture, not a man,“ she added. ”The commission has had quite a few months to think about this. Parks’ arrogance and imperiousness was okay under Mayor Riordan, but not under Hahn. Parks is too old-culture-LAPD to change.“

That culture‘s embodiment in Parks could not have been more apparent on Tuesday, as the chief, coolly rational and immaculately dressed, spoke formally of his disappointment, directly in front of his command staff. He was flanked by three lines of uniformed officers, a visual rebuke to those who cited his failure to lead and inspire.

”I am proud of my record of service, and I’m disappointed the Board of Police Commissioners has decided not to support my application to continue to serve,“ said Parks, who complained that he never got to put forward his plans for a second term in a public forum, a clear and legitimate swipe at the commission‘s decision to refuse his request for a public evaluation.

To the extent that commissioners couched their decision in the rhetoric of law and order, or even officer ”morale,“ they absolved Parks, his department and themselves of meeting the standard to which they all should rightfully be held to answer, the standard of reform.

That Parks became chief at all was a legacy of the Christopher Commission, which was impaneled after the Rodney King riots broke out almost exactly 10 years ago. Warren Christopher’s commission recognized the crucial need to change the entrenched, paramilitary culture of the LAPD. One of the ideas adopted from its reform roster was that chiefs be limited to two five-year terms, and that an incumbent chief receive a second term only after careful review. In the wake of the riots, Willie Williams was named to replace the ousted Daryl Gates; when Williams failed to impress then-Mayor Richard Riordan, it was Parks‘ turn.

Once in office, Parks should have understood it was mandatory that he build on the reform movement that brought him the top job. Instead, he used reform as a foil to advance his own narrower, more traditional agenda. Like so many police chiefs before him, Parks was obsessed with control; he set out to achieve it via a revamped discipline system through which the slightest infraction of department rules and procedures could result in a full-scale investigation and, too often, in discipline out of proportion to the offense.

He achieved the worst of both worlds: internal resentment from rank-and-file officers without real reform to the militaristic culture that could have made it worth offending them. Officers felt demeaned and then angry, their reaction coalescing in a virtual rebellion by way of the always-contentious Police Protective League. Still, to the outside world -- and to a habitually malleable Police Commission -- Parks was able, until recently, to tout discipline as reform, while allowing the us-versus-them mentality of the heavy-handed cop to go unchallenged.

Take the internal-discipline figures for the past year, reported to the Police Commission last week. Parks was able to show that an unprecedented 5,489 complaints were investigated, and that 36 percent were ”sustained.“ But a quick breakdown of the numbers shows that some complaints resulted in much surer retribution than others. Officers were found culpable on charges of neglect of duty and domestic violence, for example, at relatively high rates. But on key categories that might reflect police abuse and misconduct in the field, the rates were much lower. The department logged 1,963 complaints of excessive force, for example, but found against the officers in only 42; of 379 complaints for unlawful search, only nine were upheld.

When it came to Rampart, the scandal that defined his administration, Parks again prized his own personal control over true reform. Thus he commissioned an extensive and largely opaque Board of Inquiry into misconduct by the CRASH anti-gang unit and the rest of the inner-city division, but he vigorously opposed efforts by ”outsiders“ -- including the district attorney and the Public Defender’s Office -- to learn details of specific cases or to obtain the records of individual officers.

On the Rampart score, Parks‘ legacy remains incomplete. Notably, he headed the department’s Internal Affairs division during years when some of the most serious misconduct at Rampart was reported; Parks will still have to answer questions in a raft of civil suits about what he knew and when he knew it.

As for the Police Commission, it‘s made one tough decision. Now its members have the opportunity to move beyond their own tough-on-crime rhetoric. They -- along with Mayor Hahn -- have the chance to seek a chief who could, at long last, take the reform agenda laid out by the Christopher Commission -- with its emphasis on community policing and individual accountability -- and set about instilling it at the LAPD.

Additional reporting by Erin Aubry Kaplan.


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