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Chief of Police — It’s Never Been My Total Identity

L.A. WEEKLY: What kind of job is your successor, Police Chief William Bratton, doing?

BERNARD PARKS: I don’t think he’s been there long enough, nor would it be fair to judge him. You have to give time. In the final analysis, the community doesn’t really care whether you organize it in this fashion or that fashion, and contrary to popular belief, most community people don’t have a clue what community-based policing is and all the terms that are thrown around. They either know they’re safe or they’re not safe.

The community, they want to know, "Am I going to be safe in my residence? Are my kids safe going to school? Are my kids safe going from home to the park?"

Do we measure that with number of arrests, what is exactly the accountability?

The accountability for addressing crime in the city of L.A. is not only numbers, but people’s perceptions, and the most ridiculous way to assess the Police Department is counting arrests. Because at some point, as people found in the last four and a half years, if you cut crime in half, there’s an expectation that arrests are going to drop. So you can’t just use numbers. You have to look at the issues of what are you doing on the prevention side. How are you dealing with using preventatives for children coming into the crime-prone age? What are you doing on the education side to help the community educate themselves so that they can better police themselves? You have to get into intervention.

Is the prevention side the job of the Police Department or is it more the job of the City Council?

The Police Department is the largest preventative agency of crime in the history of L.A. How it supports programs that are either in their budget or that are in other people’s budget: after-school programs, supporting-youth programs, having police Explorers be a part of the L.A. Unified School District magnet program for law enforcement. As we look at the city of L.A. we’re going to have a growing number of school-age children in the next decade. They will quickly go into the crime-prone age. If you don’t do something in education, prevention and intervention while they’re school-age, you can expect a significant crime increase when they get into the crime-prone age.

How does this understanding of crime and policing relate to your views about community-based policing and your decision to discontinue having senior lead officers acting as contact points for neighborhoods?

Well, first of all, it’s my belief — and I’m not going to change my belief — that better policing in any community is when every police officer is involved. We have seen, as we talk with the community, they’re not interested in specialist policing. They are not complaining about seeing the police come out and have breakfast with them and talk to them nicely. They want to have a relationship with the person that’s in the police car, that person who randomly gets their call and comes to their house.

You cannot have community-based policing and exclude that. So we can play with terms, we can play with definitions, and we can say senior leads are the answer to community-based policing, but, if anybody can do the math, then 168 senior leads are going to respond to 4 million people’s needs? It’s not going to work. The issue is the patrol car: how they treat people, that relationship courtesy, the respect that a responding police officer has in the community.

Maybe the community likes having an officer that they can eat breakfast with?

A very small percentage. You can’t find one in 10 people who can tell you what a senior lead officer is. You want the Police Department to be able to deal with the community — people who work every day and don’t have time to hang out at the police station and want to be respected when police officers show up at their house.

Are those mutually exclusive possibilities — having an effective senior lead officer and also having a respectful street officer?

You know, you may have more experience than me. I only was there 38 years. But the issue is, if you make people specialists, what do all the other people do? They say, "It’s not my job."

How well did Mayor Hahn handle the campaign against secession?

I don’t want to comment on Mayor Hahn, but I’ll tell you what I did. I felt it was not good for the city. It was not good for city employees. But what I also thought is, it was absolutely essential to give the just due to people that acknowledge and have the wherewithal to make the democratic process work. Because that took a great deal of effort and time to get something on the ballot. There was a message there that’s clear and is still resonating.

 

What are people in favor of secession talking most about? Not that the city does not have services. It’s a matter that they believe that people that are in government spend more time addressing their issues versus issues that are relevant to the city. The public is trying to get streets fixed and sidewalks repaired. Trees trimmed. And people are looking throughout this city, saying: "Were those promises just to get through the election? Or are we gonna see real change?" There’s only, in my judgment, a very short window that people are willing to wait and see if all those promises come true.

How is Mayor Hahn doing? How does he compare with Richard Riordan?

Well, I, I think, first of all, the previous mayor certainly was unique in the fact that whether you liked his politics or not, he certainly made a major impact on the city. He certainly set out to make the city safe. Crime dropped 40 percent or so during his tenure. He set out to redo the school board. He made that impact. He changed the charter. When you look at the accomplishments, it took eight years to get there, but he had a clear agenda when he came in. And he stayed on the course. I don’t perceive that we have that same clear agenda, at least in the city at this time.

What could be done to enhance the Leimert Park area?

You cannot be overcommercialized. People want to have a village effect. But something like, I’ve already talked to Trader Joe’s. Something that makes people come off the hill. But you need something on that corner that says, I’ll come there to Trader Joe’s. And while I’m there I’ll wander down the street and get a scented candle. The other thing you need is more variety of businesses in Leimert Park. You cannot have the same kind of businesses.

Some people like a concentration of coffeehouses, cultural venues.

Well they, they like the concentration, but people have got to make money. And it’s not a hobby. They’ve got to make money there, and they’ve got to bring people there that will spend money. You want it like the walk-through kind of approach of Santa Monica. Or do you want the walk-through approach like Pasadena? People have to come there to buy something. [The previous landlord] gave people a break on their rent. But when he died, the world was going to change. And what they should have been prepared to do was buy that building. The new owner comes in and says, "I want fair market value." And again the only reason you invest in that property is fair market value. And it’s great to be a cultural center, but if you’re not selling enough of your product to pay the rent, is it a hobby?

Does the council representative have a role in resolving that situation?

I think there’s things you can do. But part of it is to go and ensure that businesses are being productive. Can they afford to be in business? Again, I don’t think you can ignore the issue of why people invest in property. And I think the businesses there clearly had a several-year run of someone sympathetic to their product. But the issue is that at some point you have to make enough money to be in business.

Another thought I have over there is that because people like the village atmosphere, you have to think about maybe something like the Downtown Alley, or the Farmers Market on 57th and Crenshaw, where you promote people walking around the village.

The other problem with Crenshaw or the Leimert Park area is that business owners don’t necessarily get along with each other. So they have as many views of what should be in Leimert Park as there are businesses. And for some reason they don’t relate to the thousands of people that trade on Crenshaw Boulevard as part of Leimert Park. Leimert Park is just walking distance to Crenshaw Boulevard. Thousands of people drive and trade at Crenshaw businesses. Yet Leimert Park businesses don’t view them as part of their base of attractive customers. Or tie into the fact that, yes, several thousand people go to several beauty shops and barbershops on Crenshaw. You have to find a way to get them out of that chair, over to Leimert Park restaurants. But I don’t think the answer to Leimert Park is welfare on their rent.

 

How do you feel about Wal-Mart coming into the community?

I think it’s a benefit. The fact that we have a shopping center, that the last store left in the middle of the night several years ago. And you have a choice of bringing a business that employs about 400 people versus leaving it vacant and possibly the whole shopping center collapses. I know all the issues people are talking about: nonunion and all those other things. But I think at some point you have to make a choice of what are the businesses willing to come into the community. And what is it that they’re gonna provide? And do you draw a line through the store and say "no business" versus 400 jobs? Or do you provide the opportunity that, hopefully, when people come into Wal-Mart, they also wander up to the second floor and buy other things from the shopping center? And it becomes the anchor. But I think you also have to be very sensitive to what the complaints are. Does Wal-Mart dry up all the other businesses on Crenshaw and they disappear? And then Wal-Mart disappears in five or six years? Those are the rumors that people have promoted about Wal-Mart.

But I think we have to also step back and say Wal-Mart has a million employees in their system. And I think five of the 10 people that are the richest in the United States all have the same last name, Walton, Wal-Mart–affiliated. So they’re doing something over a long period of time right. And I think they are in that community, and I think they have to be embraced. But I think we have to keep an eye on the issues that are brought up by unions, they don’t pay the proper wages.

You hear people saying, "I don’t like the Wal-Mart because it’s not the level or the status of the store that we think should be in Baldwin Hills." But the people who live in Baldwin Hills shop west and north. People who come to Baldwin Hills Shopping Center come in from the south. So it’s a different population that shops there than lives there.

What do you think of Magic Johnson’s efforts to develop the inner city and his sometimes rocky relationship with Mark Ridley-Thomas, the former councilman for this district?

Let me just say Magic and I have been long-term friends. There have been few people of the stature of Magic Johnson that have developed in their community. And yet he’s benefited from that development, and he intends to continue developing. The 8th District is ripe for that kind of new development. And I think, whatever the contention was before, that probably the district lost many, many major projects that could have been developed, due to personalities.

We have to get beyond personalities and figure out what’s best for the community. If Magic Johnson can put a Starbucks on Slauson and Western, and the day it opens it’s the number-one Starbucks in the chain — if he can put in a shopping center and it’s the number-one in the chain — I think we should encourage Magic Johnson.

But we also want to talk to Magic Johnson and other people, such as some of the fast-food restaurants, and find out why aren’t any of their bakeries and distribution centers and their administrative offices also in the community. Not just the fast-food restaurant. Not just the low-paying jobs.

What is the biggest issue for your constituents?

The number-one issue is crime. The best approach by far for dealing with crime is taking gang members out of gangs and returning convicts to being employed so we do not continue the 80 percent recidivism rate.

You know that a high percentage of people that are in state prison are illiterate. So it starts right at the school — the dropout rate, the 50 percent of the kids who don’t graduate from school in our district. A larger percent do not pass the four-year test once they complete the four years. So education is at the base of all of it. And if we believe the United Way study that says that if you’re not in a strong educational program by the age of 5 you have no chance of survival — we have a great number of casualties in the 8th District.

So those are the things that people are saying. They’re tired of seeing their kids recycled through the system. They’re tired of seeing their kids getting into the criminal-justice system because of the lack of a variety of services and a lack of education.

What has the transition been like, after a career of police work, of moving into something entirely different, especially given that your time as police chief ended before you wanted it to?

 

Well, first of all, you don’t just look at this from the back end. First of all, you have to have an attitude that as you go through this process, you know you’re only going to be there a certain amount of time. So as you get to the point of chief of police, that job is a job that you merely, you’re in it for a while. It’s never been my total identity because I’ve been certainly working on a variety of other things in the community. So it has not been a difficult transition. You always knew that at some point you would not be a police officer. So as you plan for that, you look at your pension and you look at your issues of your work, what you want to achieve and your age and a variety of other things. You say you’re going to be transitioning at some point in time.

So I have mentally prepared, over a long period of time, that whether you were there two years as the chief or four years or five or seven, it’s a short-term issue. It was not a lifetime job. And I think by having that mental preparation, although it was not the most pleasant way to leave — the dramatics of it.

How do you feel about the Christopher Commission report and the reforms it recommended? And where does the Police Department stand in regard to these reforms?

I think, in looking back, philosophically they were on point. But what happened is that it became the bible too long — that 10 years or 12 years after, people were still saying, "Have you done item number 47?" Well, 47 might have been outdated and outmoded five years ago. And people weren’t willing to accept that times change. The other thing was that, early on, the department supported, I think, 90 percent of the recommendations. And yet, if you read the press coverage on it, you’d believe they were going to fistfight every day about some particular item.

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