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The Martinet Mandate

Compare New York’s beleaguered City Hall with L.A.’s and be glad you live here. The last time I looked, Mad Rudy Giuliani’s charming Georgian headquarters was sealed off by cops and barricades. Protesters now get arrested and held overnight under the authority of Gotham’s power-maddened burgermeister, who — having begun his mayoral career with dramatic crime reductions — recently tried to slash library funding in the face of a budget surplus.

Cut to 150 N. Los Angeles St. Where people throng our City Hall’s flower-bedecked lobby without even signing in. Outside which slogan-shouting pickets daily march with placards, unhindered. Where Mayor Dick Riordan himself awaits his elevator along with the rest of us. Makes you just love L.A., doesn’t it?

But this pretty picture is darkened by one ugly fact: Riordan has his own Rudy Giuliani, just as inflexible and given to fits of pettiness. His name is Bernard Parks. He’s our chief of police.

Parks’ absolutist bent shone forth last week in two disparate actions. One was his hyperdefensive response to the police killing of a homeless woman. The other was less serious but also telling — Parks’ fizzled bid to make the City Council change the Civil Service Commission’s 20-day suspensions of two unsworn LAPD employees accused of pilfering city property.

It wasn’t that Parks thought this punishment too grave for what were minor offenses. Rather, Parks wanted both employees fired. Since he couldn’t make that happen, he demanded that the council do it on his behalf. By a 7-4 vote, the council refused.

Both these matters exposed Parks’ impulse toward absolutism. In the shooting case, before the investigations were even begun, Parks was loudly telling everyone it wasn’t the police’s fault; instead, he blamed the dead woman’s relatives simply because they failed to persuade her back to sanity. Parks’ apparent inability to make a simple statement defending his department and then zip up his mouth isn’t just unprofessional. It could hurt the LAPD when the matter goes to court and Parks is called to testify.

In the theft case, Parks has already shot himself in the foot. Due to Parks’ own insistence that both first offenders be fired instead of suspended, a civil-service appeal officer revoked the original penalty — leaving the employees with no punishment, apart from the little problem of their pay having been withheld for more than seven months. In its overexcited coverage of the incident, the Daily News was outraged that, instead of due retribution, "the city now owes the men seven months back pay." Harrumph.

Yet here’s what those rascals actually did. One walked off with three dirty jail-mattress covers, which he claimed he was borrowing to use for padding in an impending move. The other pilfered under $70 worth of scrap metal. Now just because the City Attorney’s Office found the offenses too lowly to prosecute doesn’t make these employees guiltless. Nor am I saying neither should have been disciplined.

But let’s talk about how most employers might handle malfeasance of a similarly infinitesimal magnitude.

In the case of the mattress covers, the used linen was probably worth less than the handful of ballpoints the typical clerical type pockets in a week. (Okay, this former city employee hereby confesses.) For such an "offense," a sharp reminder as to just who pays for department supplies might suffice. For the scrap-metal hound, a brief suspension and a nasty note in the personnel file would seem more than adequate. If he was really on their cases, the men’s boss might hand them some crummy assignments. That’s how minor employee infractions are handled in the real world.

Parks, however, is not of that world. In this case, he also seems unaware quite how far he was overreaching by trying to invoke the council’s biggest single legislative power — its so-called "Prop. 5" authority to override city commissions — for so petty a purpose. Generally, Proposition 5 exists to correct costly contracting blunders or legal risks. For a general manager to request its use on a frivolous personnel matter smacks of more than arrogance. It reeks of political incompetence. Even Parks’ little-mourned predecessor, Willie Williams, knew better than to take his own (pardon) dirty linen to the City Council when he was already cognizant — as Parks should have been — that he didn’t have the votes to get his way.

At least Parks has added his own entry to the annals of abuse of authority: Inspector Javert spent his life trying to nail Jean Valjean for stealing bread, Captain Queeg had his strawberry insanity, and now we have Bernie Parks’ mattress-cover madness. Itto laugh.

But there’s nothing amusing about Parks’ defense in the La Brea shooting of 54-year-old Margaret LaVerne Mitchell. We’re told that Mitchell — homeless and presumed to be mentally ill — may have been wielding a screwdriver as LAPD Officer Edward Larrigan shot her fatally. At least Eula Love — killed in 1980 by police in the course of a utility-bill dispute — had a knife. More to the point, since Love’s death, our LAPD officers, we are told, have received an arsenal of nonlethal weapons intended for such incidents, along with considerable training as to how to handle disturbed and mentally ill people without actually killing them.

To little avail.

As this paper reported last week, at least one witness recalls that Larrigan wasn’t within 30 feet of Mitchell when he shot her. But even if the police account truthfully states that Larrigan, for some strange reason, lost his balance as Mitchell came at him with the screwdriver, well, why didn’t he use the Mace, the big aluminum baton, even a Taser, or other nonlethal techniques?

Conventional wisdom holds that the pending FBI investigation, at least, might tell us what really happened, so let’s wait till then before taking a stand. But this is precisely what Parks has refused to do. Instead, in the Times, he’s exonerated the officer and blamed Mitchell’s relatives: ". . . [T]he family members hadn’t talked to her for over three years."

Mitchell’s family claimed otherwise. They also maintained that they’d tried to get the LAPD to help with Mitchell — without success. No wonder.

"We’re using our criminal-justice dollars on mental health," Parks reportedly griped. He thus seemed to imply that the LAPD’s handling of the Mitchell confrontation in a manner that might have left the woman alive would have been too costly to contemplate.

In reality, mental-health problems on the street have been a law-enforcement priority for at least 20 years. It’s too late to blame the problem, as Parks does, on the long-ago collapse of public mental-health care. Mentally ill people can be pretty scary. But handling scary situations is what law-enforcement training is supposed to be about; by now, even the Sheriff’s Department has got a handle on the problem of dealing with mentally disturbed behavior. Judging from the Mitchell case, the LAPD hasn’t.

Maybe I’m forgetting something, but I don’t recall that Parks has ever asked the council to help fund more Police Academy training on mental illness. Not the way he sought its assistance in putting down the departmental linen-theft threat.

I suppose it’s just a matter of departmental priorities. If so, I hope our next mayor finds himself a police chief with a different set of them.

In Blessed Memory

Speaking of City Hall, don’t you think it’s time the city got around to naming it after someone? How about Mayor Frank Shaw?

Shaw, you’ll recall, was, in 1938, the last mayor recalled by the voters. They say he was corrupt. But, hey, he wasn’t all bad. I happen to know that on his watch, Olympic Boulevard was extended to the ocean.

And he’s dead: That’s the usual basic qualification for having something named after you, if you’re a city official.

Retiring scapegrace Councilman Richard Alatorre is an exception, however. Just last month, the following got named after him:

—The Richard Alatorre Eagle Rock View Park.

—The Richard Alatorre Pool in El Sereno.

—The Richard Alatorre Cultural Center on Figueroa Street.

It’s not clear who’s responsible for the park naming, but the Recreation and Parks board authorized the pool and the City Council approved the (delightfully oxymoronic) cultural center, 9-2. Councilman Joel Wachs said he opposed that one action because Alatorre was sitting on the board. I bet he could have found lots more reasons.

Meanwhile, let’s fast-track Shaw Hall. That may be the way to avoid City Hall itself being named after the departing 14th District councilman.