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Beating History

Photo by Ted Soqui

TEN YEARS AGO, THE POLICE BEATING OF RODNEY KING GAVE L.A. leaders the political character test of a lifetime. One of the key actors in that municipal meltdown, City Attorney Jim Hahn, performed so dubiously that he had to shelve his mayoral aspirations until now. In 1991, he found his ambitions caught between adamantly opposed forces. On one side, the shrinking African-American political base he shared with then-Mayor Tom Bradley, whose job he coveted. On the other, Bradley's explosive adversary, Police Chief Daryl Gates, supported by the City Council and most white voters.

The ensuing political war altered our civic landscape. Credit Hahn for being a survivor. Of L.A.'s top officials at that time, he's the only one who appears to retain a substantial political future today. Back then, however, his swerves and dodges on what to do about the embattled Gates looked craven and self-serving. It took years of lying low and then more awkward political maneuvering for Hahn to re-emerge. Now he is the presumptive if unreliable favorite of African-Americans for the job he wanted so badly a decade ago.

Hahn's efforts to save Gates, and his misleading and conflicting advice to the City Council and Police Commission, are contained in records of closed-door sessions, internal memos, interviews and newspaper accounts. It is a history Hahn would just as soon voters ignore.

As then­Police Commissioner Melanie Lomax recalls, "There could be no public confidence restored in the LAPD with Gates remaining there as chief." But what to do about Gates became an ordeal that extended well beyond the King beating, the Christopher Commission Report, the Simi Valley trial and the 1992 riots. It wasn't until the summer of 1992, 15 months after the beating, that Gates was out the door.

Gates could have been given the heave-ho right after the beating if it had not been for the ambitions and actions of Hahn. We can only wonder, sadly, how differently things might have turned out if only the inflammatory chief had been extracted from the equation in the immediate aftermath of the King beating -- as Bradley struggled to do, however ineptly -- more than a year before the Simi Valley trial verdicts and the riots they unleashed on an unprepared city with a paralyzed government. Lomax, who played a key role in the Police Commission's attempt to remove Gates from office, says the chief should have gone long before: "All he did was to serve to enrage the community."

FOR WEEKS AFTER THE BEATING, MOST OF THE City Council played "duck-and-run," as an L.A. Times editorial called it, refusing to say whether Gates should stay or go. Hahn, meanwhile, revealed his political ambitions by publicly rebuking not Gates but Bradley, when the mayor left town on a planned trip early in the beating controversy. Hahn accused Bradley in an open letter of failing to recognize the "serious crime problems facing the city." "I think he will be surprised," Hahn told the Times. "I think he will be upset that his supposed friend would write this letter." Denying that he was running for his supposed friend's office, Hahn claimed that he was "just an angry city attorney dealing with increasing crime." Hahn also knew that a struggle to remove the volatile chief could be politically ruinous. Even if an investigation of the beating were to find the police at fault, a majority of the city's white population would probably still oppose the chief's firing. At least that is what a Times poll found soon after the first broadcasts of the scandalous videotape.

In a confidential legal opinion dated March 27, 1991, Hahn's office advised the Bradley-appointed Police Commission that it had the legal authority to suspend Gates while the LAPD was investigated for mismanagement. Then in another secret memo a week later it suggested the commission hire private counsel before taking action. Although the City Attorney's Office had advised the Police Commission that it had "ample legal authority, in both law and practice, to support the imposition of an involuntary administrative leave on the chief of police," the office now made it clear that it would not legally defend the commission if it took action against Gates.

Relying on the city attorney's written advice regarding its authority, the Police Commission suspended Gates for 60 days pending the outcome of its investigation. But this sparked an immediate outcry from the City Council majority intimidated by or beholden to the chief. Gates' defenders on the council were suddenly led most vociferously by Joel Wachs, who with unintended irony claimed to be defending the police chief's civil rights. "I am a strong civil libertarian," said Wachs of his strident defense of Gates. "A chief of police has as much rights to his civil liberties as everyone."  

The City Council lacked authority under the charter to simply override the Police Commission's action, but Hahn advised the council that it could reinstate Gates by using its power to settle lawsuits brought against any part of city government. Meeting with the council, Hahn personally worked out a deal with Gates' lawyers over the telephone and helped put together the motion, introduced by Wachs, by which the deal would be approved. The council voted to authorize Hahn to reinstate Gates as part of a settlement of a lawsuit that Gates' lawyers had not yet filed, nor apparently even drafted. Gates' lawyers ended up delivering a copy of the still-unfiled lawsuit the day after the council's vote to "settle" by restoring the chief to power.

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

The elder Hahn would come under widespread criticism from black leaders for defending Gates, and significant challenges to what would have been his 10th re-election began to emerge. Kenneth Hahn waved off the criticism and impending opposition as a factor in his decision whether to run again. Nevertheless, that fall he opted to retire. His son had already come to the conclusion that he would have to put his own political ambitions on hold.

For Jim Hahn to run for mayor in 1993 would have meant having to give up the City Attorney's Office. By the end of May '91, Hahn-the-younger publicly acknowledged his mayoral prospects had dimmed. "I am very close to absolutely ruling it out," he told the press. "I think the turmoil in City Hall damages all of the people in City Hall, including myself, in the eyes of the public."

By 1996, the scene and climate had changed. Once again facing re-election, Hahn tried to mend fences with his African-American political base by backing a black police chief against the designs of a white mayor. In spite of certain criticism from a Police Commission beholden to Richard Riordan, Hahn endorsed a second term for Gates' woefully inadequate successor, Willie Williams. With African-American voters strongly supporting Williams, and whites indifferent, Hahn figured that an unusual public endorsement would be a winner -- now he could be pro-police and pro-black at the same time. But in so doing he undermined his excuse for not having opposed Gates five years previous.

Riordan and the remade commission intended to replace the ineffectual Williams, which the amended charter now facilitated. But Hahn's endorsement once again meant that the city attorney could not legally represent the commission in the event Williams opted to sue, which he did. Police commissioners blasted Hahn for forcing the commission to incur the expense of hiring private counsel and encouraging the Williams lawsuit, however inadvertently in this case. "I think it's egregious. I think it compromises the whole office, and I can't believe he did it," said Police Commissioner Art Mattox.

SOME COULD SEE CLEARLY THE DISASTER awaiting the city if Gates were allowed to stay on as chief. Representative Maxine Waters asked, "What if the people of South-Central realize that they cannot remove Daryl Gates? I think the result could be very dangerous." In 1991 Urban League President John Mack went further: "The temperature in the community is high. If something is not done, it could invite some people to resort to socially unacceptable tactics. If all hell breaks loose, we place the blame at the doorstep of the leadership of this city."

A year later, of course, all hell did break loose. Gates would act so ineffectually as the rioting began -- remaining at a Westside fund-raiser against the proposed charter amendment on police reform -- that the whole city would turn against him.

As city attorney, Hahn knew as well as anyone of the LAPD's potentially explosive problems of misconduct and excessive use of force. His office was losing or settling big civilian lawsuits, and the costs were steadily mounting. The city had paid out less than a $1 million in 1980, but by 1990, the year before Rodney King, the figure had climbed to more than $11 million. Gates blamed "a lottery mentality among juries," although the biggest cases, such as the notorious 1988 Dalton Avenue raid, were settled out of court by the city attorney. At Dalton, nearly 90 police officers raided two apartment buildings in Southwest Los Angeles looking for drugs. They trashed the buildings in much the same way vandals would, destroying walls, furniture, family photos and even leaving graffiti: "LAPD Rules," "Rollin' 30s Die." No one was charged with a crime, and less than 6 ounces of marijuana and an ounce of cocaine were found. Later Hahn would testify to the Christopher Commission that the LAPD was not "out of control."  

New York University law professor Jerome Skolnick, co-author of Above the Law: Police and the Excessive Use of Force, said it was clear even before the King beating that at least "parts of the department were out of control." "Dalton was a precursor," Skolnick recently told the Times. "It should have sent a signal . . . The next signal was obviously the beating of Rodney King."

Hahn could have demonstrated leadership on police issues both well before and immediately after the King beating. But he would not dare risk the chief's ire. Nor any chief's ire. The one consistent thing about Hahn is that he never takes on the chief of police. Not Parks after Rampart. Not Williams for his lackluster leadership. And certainly not Gates after Rodney King. The city's politics and racial configurations change -- as do Hahn's immediate political goals -- and with them the considerations behind defending or criticizing the police chief. Hahn updates his calculations each election cycle; they have just happened to come out the same way each time: Don't take on the chief. The calculus varies from year to year, but it is invariably political.LA

David Ayón is a research associate at the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.

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