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Role Call

Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

The little gray man in the red tie came to the LAPD Rampart Station to bury Police Commission President Gerry Chaleff, but he didn’t have the guts to tell us that on Friday. Instead he talked about a new pension plan, a higher LAPD entry salary (already in excess of what LAUSD teachers receive, but then the teachers have college degrees), and how angry he was that arrests in this city are down 19 percent and crime up 12 percent.

Oh yes, and that he seems, at last, to have fallen in love with community-based policing, of all things. Listen to Mayor Richard Riordan go on:

“I will not rest until the so-called experts stop debating and act on the issue[s] of morale, recruitment and community policing . . . The time for talk is ended; we must improve morale . . . and improve the way we do recruiting, and we must install the best community-based policing system in the country.”

If this is not the first time I recall Dick Riordan talking about community-based policing, it certainly is the first time I remember his mentioning it with enthusiasm — let alone twice in a row. Just imagine, I thought, what great shape this city would be in now had the mayor only felt this way when he took office in 1993, after making fighting crime his key plank.

We were all of us — the crowd in the Rampart roll-call room that morning was an uneasy mixture of reporters and police — wondering just where the mayor was going with this one, when he stumbled over the point: “This is not leadership,” the mayor said, enigmatically. What leadership did he mean?

Either Chaleff or Chief Bernard Parks, we thought. Right now, the mayor’s relationship with Parks may not be at its best. For Riordan to fire his own chief would be incredibly difficult, however. The mayor would either have to convince two-thirds of the City Council to fire Parks, or persuade a majority of the Police Commission to dismiss the chief, a move that could be rescinded by a two-thirds vote of the City Council.

Clearly, the fate of the official to whom Riordan has just awarded the largest salary in city history still rests in the hands of Riordan’s successor. Parks will remain in office as long as the mayor does.

Chaleff’s ouster Monday therefore seemed logical. Some of us resisted that logic because of the illogical fact that Chaleff, more than anyone else on the commission, favors the sort of reforms Riordan had apparently just fallen in love with. But then one shouldn’t really expect our mayor to be too logical. Dick Riordan has never needed more logic than it takes to find the nearest scapegoat. Minus an unlikely council supermajority of 10 votes to reverse the firing, Chaleff was an easy kill.

That majority probably won’t happen. With only 13 members now present (John Ferraro out sick again, Jackie Goldberg retired to Sacramento), Riordan needs only four votes to block the reversal. You can count at least three of them from the men who opposed the federal consent decree last year, and hence police reform itself — Nate Holden, Rudy Svorinich and Hal Bernson. Riordan won’t have to troll far for a fourth.

Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski boldly stated that “today’s action reinforces the perception that there is dissension from within our city, and that we are incapable of making the necessary reform without strict oversight.” Laura Chick called the firing “bizarre,” and Nick Pacheco and Mark Ridley-Thomas also objected. But most of the council members’ objections were muted. And City Attorney Jim Hahn’s “Gerry, We Hardly Knew Ye” press release simply bade Chaleff a fond farewell, in much the same spirit as did Raquelle de la Rocha, the Police Commission V.P. and Riordan ultra who was only too predictably the mayor’s choice to replace Chaleff. This means de la Rocha has been at ground zero in two of the mayor’s most notable firings. The first was the 1995 ouster of Ethics Commission Executive Director Ben Bycel, which was spearheaded by de la Rocha in her capacity as president of the city’s Ethics Commission. Here’s someone who really knows how to move up the old city-career ladder.

But one can still hope for a little more backbone from the City Council when it comes time for the mayor to appoint a new member to the commission vacancy created by Chaleff’s departure. It takes 10 votes to block such an appointee. And even our mayor would have to plumb new depths of hypocrisy to call the obstruction of the appointment of yet another Riordan toady an obstacle to police reform.

The pessimists at City Hall say that in firing Chaleff, the mayor has told the world “no more mister nice guy” when it comes to policing. Certainly, he has now apparently kicked his longtime moderating influence and Democratic amanuensis Bill Wardlaw clean out of his life: Chaleff was not only Wardlaw’s commission pick; he was the personal attorney of both Wardlaw and his federal-judge wife, Kim Wardlaw. But Wardlaw had already fallen from Riordan’s grace when he refused to back millionaire developer Steve Soboroff for mayor. Now Soboroff is running tough-on-crime commercials that make Riordan’s own 1993 campaign look cuddly. Riordan and Soboroff share the plutocratic perception that the only way to curb crime is to make the cops play rougher. It’s been suggested that the pair may also be expecting a double take from the Bush administration in Washington on that consent decree. Assuming that the Chaleff firing is also meant to tell Bernie Parks he can amp up enforcement without idle back talk from the commission, what you are seeing here, the pessimists say, is the beginning of a four-month lame-duck plan to eliminate police reform from the city’s agenda.

So that the next mayor has to start the entire process over from scratch. Or, if he’s Steve Soboroff, to forget that there ever was such a thing.

It was interesting, though, finally to have a chance to get a good inside look at the far-famed Rampart-area LAPD station last week, courtesy of the mayor. There’s a weight room that would put your local 24-hour gym to shame. There’s a neon sign on the wall of the canteen that reads “Cafe Rampart” in script. And there’s a humbler sign opposite the benches where suspects are chained that offers those in need “a sanitary napkin at no cost.”

Here, in the heart of the LAPD’s biggest problem area, it was easy to recall Dick Riordan seven years ago, calling for a mass recruitment of new police officers — some of whom turned out to be a little problematic — even before he’d figured out how to pay the new people. One also recalled that the mayor then hand-picked a police chief who set out to expunge such vestiges of community-based policing as had somehow found their way into practice. In so doing, Riordan junked the advice of every advisory panel since 1965. Just as he may be doing again, today, after playing along with the council’s consensus on the consent decree.

Those latest crime/arrest numbers suggest — as many said in 1994 — that the Riordan-Parks police style really wasn’t the way to go. All the experts then recommended that the police get the community on their side, to prevent crime rather than waiting to catch the malefactors. But millionaire Dick Riordan knew better. Now, fearful of the legacy that faces him — that perception that Mayor Richard Riordan was historically noteworthy mainly for spending eight years avoiding police reform — he makes tough noises and fires the only courageous and independent voice on the Police Commission. This does not seem to me to be the action of a man truly in charge.

So I wondered if, perhaps, in some Freudian way, the “this is not leadership” line wasn’t the little gray man in the red tie’s semiconscious self-critique. Because certainly no one else’s leadership is as responsible as Riordan’s for the state of the LAPD. And I doubt — as perhaps did most of the young LAPD officers present at that Rampart roll call — that anything Dick Riordan will do in his remaining 140-odd days of office is going to change that state.