Hiding behind Badges
It was very simple, as Chief Bernard Parks explained it last week. The Los Angeles Police Department is undermined by mediocrity, slipshod performance, bad management, and insidious and inappropriate cultures. These problems led to the Rampart scandal.
Accordingly, this mediocrity-riddled LAPD should be left to clean itself up. This, essentially, was what the long-awaited 362-page LAPD Board of Inquiry report said. We were all expected to believe this. Almost no reporters did, and I wouldnt vouch for the listeners in uniform, either.
The mediocrity tag was secondhand from a 1996 national police conference, in which someone blamed the lack of integrity in American police forces on mediocrity. Funny: Lots of other people might say the cause is lousy leadership. But leadership quality -- at least top-level leadership quality -- is scarcely addressed in the report, whose every stipulation was approved by the departments leader.
Parks delayed the reports media presentation -- without explanation -- by 45 minutes. The presentation itself dragged out nearly another hour before questions were allowed. The result was the most hostile crowd of media Ive seen. The hostility was reciprocated by Parks, who appeared not to care whether we believed him. His favorite answer: No! Next question.
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It was easy for Parks to hide behind the complexity of the issues and the almost undue involution of his probe. Police officers, Parks kept saying -- despite the fact that the original Christopher Commission report itself was largely a civilian affair -- were the only ones competent to investigate police. The rest of us could believe his investigators report.
Or be damned. Logically enough, this came from the man whose biggest recent falsehood was his declaration that there was no such thing as a culture of silence in the LAPD.
Probably Parks would have suffered more in the ensuing press coverage had his boss not been so diverting in his own follow-up media event. Mayor Dick Riordans news conference was noteworthy for both the mayors habitual totem-pole warmth and his declaration that the Rampart product was the greatest report ever written -- the flushing sound you just heard having been the Book of Genesis going down the toity.
Oh yes, and for the mayors leaving cleat marks on the foreheads of five council members who tried to join the media in the mayors conference room. Riordans staff literally locked the doors on the elected quintet and sicced the Department of General Services security police on them when they tried to enter. I would assume these ill-advised peace officers might get another pay raise in my lifetime, but wouldnt bet on it. (Actually, theres an open question as to who does get to order City Hall guards around. I heard the claim of one General Services official that they obey the mayor when they are in the Mayors Office. Well, I dont know, but if I were put in the position of being ordered by some mayoral flunky to bust council members, Id sure as hell pull enlisted mans privilege and demand to get the order direct from the mayor, in writing. And does the official interpretation imply that the council can eject the mayor from the council chamber if a majority feels like it? Just asking.)
If the mayors contemptuous treatment of Laura Chick, Ruth Galanter, Jackie Goldberg, Rita Walters and Mark Ridley-Thomas wont instill backbone in our City Council, what will? But any signs of resolve in the Rampart matter last week were not, as the Horse Whisperer likes to say, written down. Partly, I think, this was because the corrective issues are divided. There is a consensus that the administrative, as opposed to the criminal, part of the vast case ought to be put before the Police Commission, just as it says in the City Charter. Anyone -- Councilman Joel Wachs, for instance, or the Police Protective League, or the ACLU -- who suggests further review from an outside agency gets told that the commission is Gods Own civilian review board.
But every member of the Police Commission has a resignation letter on file in the Mayors Office. And thus its independence is at the pleasure of the mayor, who has condoned the laming of the Christopher Commission reforms and otherwise sided with Parks all the way. As the Margaret Mitchell shooting case showed last month, there are now -- at most -- three votes on the five-member board who might buck the mayor. Dick Riordan can change this ratio whenever he feels like it. This would put that commissions vaunted civilian independence into the hands of just one elected official.
Of course, Riordan may do the right thing: stay out of this one, and let the Police Commission hire a big staff (which the councils voted to pay for) in order to play Christopher Commission. He may let his commission evaluate the 108 suggestions Parks own hand-picked board of inquirys report made, to vanquish that vaunted mediocrity. Almost everyone seems to believe this a likely outcome. Maybe they know something I dont.
Councilman Mike Feuer, on the other hand, has made it clear over the past week that while hed let the Police Commission do its administrative thing, he also wants an independent agency set up to investigate the LAPDs alleged criminal element. He points out that this would have to be a federal investigation, because Parks and his department have managed to muddle the FBIs role here, and because of the widespread and inappropriate part played by the immigration service in Rampart. Feuer said that the moment Riordan tries to influence the Police Commissions investigation is the moment to put its responsibilities into independent hands too. I think hes right, and can only hope that more of his colleagues agree now than they did when he recently picked up just three votes for his proposal.
None of this, however, addresses the fundamental and perpetual LAPD quandary of which Rampart is but a symptom: Police departments have, as a rule, no institutional memory. Their work proceeds from day to day; often the same suspects are picked up and charged or released. The same sorts of crime are committed over and over again; policing is a now is forever job. This is what the police force remembers. But in its collectivity, it can forget things it wants to forget -- like the Christopher Commissions mandates on community policing. Or the vital fact that, decade after decade, cops will be subjected to the same temptations -- like easy-to-pilfer drug money, cowboy violence, lying for the sake of a smooth conviction. An incredible aspect of Parks exhaustive report is that it treats all such behavior as if it were unique, not endemic. So is the fact that Parks blames everyone but himself for the leadership lapse on his watch.
The Sheriffs Department now does have an institutional memory. Its called the Office of the Special Counsel. It regularly reports on where that department is slipping and where it is succeeding. Its a low-profile, civilian operation, and it works. Is someone now going to tell us that the LAPD doesnt need such an independent memory as well?
Just as the council was sounding weak on the Rampart issue, it showed unity -- under the suasion of Councilman Mike Hernandez -- by asking the LAUSD board to reconsider using the accursed and now mothballed Belmont Learning Complex. Id just that same day engaged school-board member (and anti-Belmont fanatic) Valerie Fields on that issue on Bill Rosendahls show. She said the matter was closed and would not be revisited, arguing (on the basis of no recorded evidence) that Belmont would explode if you just put windows and a roof on it.
The other reason Fields cited seems to carry more weight with the rest of the school board. This is that using the school would diminish the liability of the presumed deep-pockets defendant -- law mega-firm OMelveny & Myers -- against the districts suit. Tilt that argument and it reads like sheer greed: If the district discovers that the school can be used, it wouldnt be able to gouge O & M to the max. So for the sake of pure lucre, it simply wont try to find out if any of Belmonts $170 million investment can be salvaged.
Is this blatant grubbing for a big settlement an ethical reason to ignore the needs of inner-city students for a new high school? Is it even principled behavior?
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