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The Anger Commission

For the second straight week, the Los Angeles Police Commission this week moved out of the tiny conference room where the five-member panel usually conducts its meetings and into the larger Parker Center auditorium to accommodate more than 100 angry clerics, activists and residents who wanted to give the commissioners a piece of their mind about how they are treated by the LAPD. This was only the second session of the Police Commission as it is newly constituted, with four new members selected by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and one from the previous panel whom the mayor held over for another term. John Mack, the just-retired president of the Los Angeles Urban League, now leads the commission.All five commissioners can be forgiven if they now are wondering what they got themselves into.That first meeting, they were greeted by a roomful of mostly African-American activists ready to acquaint them with the decades-long legacy of police abuse virtually unknown in whiter and wealthier parts of town. They wanted especially to make the commission understand their frustration at the pace of an investigation into the police shooting death of 13-year-old Devin Brown in February. He was the boy out in a stolen car a few hours before dawn. Lewis E. Logan II, minister of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 79th Street and Western Avenue, told the commissioners that they were facing “a community that has had enough of the violence at the hands of the LAPD.” Minister Tony Muhammad, western regional director for the Nation of Islam, let the commissioners know they were being watched.“I pray that the mayor will do his job in making sure you do yours,” Muhammad said. “Because right now we don’t trust none of you.”That was a week ago. It seems like it’s been a year.Because two days later, LAPD officers got into a scuffle with Muhammad and two of his bodyguards in the course of arresting them at a vigil marking the death of a man shot the night before.What followed has become all too necessary in the last several weeks: meetings between LAPD Chief William Bratton and community leaders, huddles between clerics and Villaraigosa, news conferences, calls for peace. Only a few weeks have passed since the tragic shooting of 19-month-old Suzie Pena in a shootout between her father and LAPD SWAT officers.The legacy of mistrust makes it nearly impossible for most police officers and top brass to understand why they are so hated and feared, and for community activists to understand why the officer who shot and killed Devin Brown — and other officers involved in fatal shootings through their own wrongdoing or through proper adherence to their duties — isn’t immediately fired and prosecuted.Witness, for example, one of the statements made in the Parker Center auditorium a few days after Suzie Pena died. It was billed as a community meeting to discuss the tragedy, and the room was filled with supporters and detractors of the police. Emotions ran high on both sides. Villaraigosa was already in office, but his new commission was not yet seated. Bratton was out of town. In his stead was Assistant Chief George Gascon, who looked out at the crowd and told the community speakers that 500 people were killed last year in Los Angeles, “not by the LAPD, but by this community.”Gascon was reflecting the emotional shock that the department was going through because of the rare LAPD shooting death of an innocent hostage. But he was also displaying what many Latino and black residents of Los Angeles take as the LAPD’s attitude toward them. Victims of gang violence are victims of your community. Your community is the problem.Villaraigosa and Mack have done as decent a job as can be expected so far of striking the elusive balance between support for the embattled LAPD and protection for the rights of residents caught between gang crime and police abuse.It helps that Mack has a solid track record of leadership in Los Angeles’ African-American community. He may be a downtown suit-and-tie type who rubs elbows with business leaders, but he has credibility when it comes to civil rights advocacy. But one of the best signals sent so far in Villaraigosa’s young administration was the mayor’s decision to show up at that first Police Commission meeting. It’s not just that he came, and not just that he said a few pleasant words to his newly confirmed panel. It’s that he stayed for the rest of the meeting, listening to the angry testimony from the clerics and the activists. He sat unflinching as the speakers called out his name and promised to hold him accountable. He nodded, just slightly, as residents recounted their mistrust of the police.He, in essence, took responsibility for his Police Commission.He didn’t have to. Los Angeles’ commission system allows a mayor to appoint members to the 40 or so boards, for the City Council to ask them questions and then confirm them, and then for the mayor and the council to pretend (when it suits them) that the citizen commissions are still the independent third branch of government they were in the early days of the previous century.They’re not. They’re an extension of the mayor’s office. Any commissioner appointed by the mayor (except ethics or pension commissioners) can be removed by the mayor, for any cause or no cause. You do what the mayor wants you to do.Some commission shams are inevitable. When was the last time there was any surprise at whom a newly seated commission picked as its president? We’re all in on that one. We all know that the mayor makes clear who he wants in charge or, absent that, the commissioners talk about it privately (in violation of open-meeting laws) beforehand.In the case of the last Police Commission, who really thought — after then-Mayor James Hahn announced his wish that Bernard Parks not be appointed to a second five-year term as chief — that there was any chance that the commission was going to keep Parks? But the panel went through the motions anyway, conducting interviews and ordering reports, citing very little objectionable about Parks and yet deciding — surprise! — that he should not be retained.That’s not to say the panel’s decision was wrong. Its members knew that Parks shouldn’t be reappointed because the mayor didn’t want him reappointed. What was wrong was the pretense that the body was making a decision on its own. Villaraigosa likely heard nothing new when he sat through his commission’s first meeting. He knows the history of police-community relations in Los Angeles. But by sticking around, he made it clear to the officers, the chief, the people of L.A. and the commission itself that this commission is his, and that he is ready to be held accountable for its actions.