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Things as They Were

The two apostles of things as they were sat in the Los Angeles City Council last week and flaunted their lack of vision.

Our police chief and our mayor were trying to explain their responses to the Rampart police scandal that keeps spreading like an ink stain on a white pile carpet.

By insisting that the LAPD can yet cleanse itself, Mayor Dick Riordan also defended his seven-year pro-police agenda. Chief Bernard Parks, meanwhile, was aloofly defending his own response to Rampart, which scandal one might, uncharitably, call the upshot of Riordan’s police policy.

Riordan mouthed his familiar bromides about how wonderful it was that he, Parks, the Police Commission and the council were together on this one: ”Most of the LAPD officers are honest and hard-working,“ he said. ”The criminals will be brought to justice.“ Never in his lifetime of inept public utterances had Riordan sounded so wooden.

Police Commission President Gerald Chaleff was there too. A famous lawyer, he has the least to lose: The city is not his life. That may be just as well. He and Riordan are said to be conflicted on another problem: the commission‘s recent decision to censure the police killing of Margaret Mitchell last year as ”being out of policy.“ Chaleff voted with the commission majority on this. But Riordan’s broader definition of shooting policy, which Parks shares, apparently sanctions the killing of 100-pound, middle-aged homeless women wielding screwdrivers. He apparently didn‘t like Chaleff’s vote.

In the council, however, Chaleff cheered on the LAPD‘s Rampart Division investigation. Which was nice of him, since he probably didn’t know much more than he read in the papers. His commission receives the LAPD‘s own report on the Rampart mess March 1; the panel then decides what to do with it. One hopes that Chaleff is still around by then.

But Chaleff may be gone if Riordan enforces his usual policy of commission acquiescence to his views. If booted, criminalist Chaleff might well be replaced by his commission colleague, the fanatically Riordan-submissive former Ethics Commission President Raquel de la Rocha. Last week, predictably, she voted against Chaleff on Mitchell. And can we ever forget that, as Riordan’s Ethics Commission chief, she ousted that panel‘s zealous executive Ben Bycel on behalf of the mayor? With her headsman’s reputation, de la Rocha might even have Inspector General Jeffrey Eglash (whose dauntless official report called for the commission‘s censure of the Mitchell shooting) looking over his shoulder.

What you most longed for, in response to the patronizing, leave-it-to-us tenor of the Riordan-Parks presentation, was some offensive back talk from council members. Former Councilman and present county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky had been down in City Hall, lobbying, as it were, for courage among his former colleagues. But the council likes to think of itself as weak these days, so little resulted. Councilman Joel Wachs did have the sense to ask for an outside investigation of Rampart. And he was joined in this call by the police officers union, the L.A. Police Protective League. But Wachs has gotten no real support from his colleagues on this, although his idea might pick up votes if the Police Commission fumbles. Rita Walters and Ruth Galanter expressed personal outrage at the Rampart situation. But most muttered abject squish about ”letting the process work.“ Which translated as simply trusting the barely ”independent“ commission to decide whether Bernie Parks’ in-house report is credible.

But no police commission has ever succeeded in bucking a mayor, who can change its membership at will. Seldom indeed has one even resisted a police chief, and the mayor and the chief are on the same page here. With de la Rocha as president, the mayor would surely get his way. In fact, the only independent commission decisions left would involve regulating pool halls.

Other determinations would come from Riordan‘s office, where they might as well be made by Parks. That we’re only one ouster away from such ”process“ was beyond the entire council‘s imagination.

But that’s the way Riordan‘s always wanted it, hasn’t he? This buccaneer-capitalist mayor took office just after the voters approved the biggest police-reform initiative in city history, and got it enacted, if at all, more in letter than in spirit. He‘d run on a fright-laden anti-crime -- not anti-corruption -- plank, scarcely mentioning the Christopher Commission. Once elected, he called for more police, without reference to the force’s past problems and certainly without taking them into account.

His indulgence toward law enforcement was that of a man of property: He liked omelets, so break those eggs. As soon as possible, he replaced Willie Williams -- the out-of-place out-of-towner who more or less filled the chief‘s job for five years and at least symbolized post-Christopher change -- with a revenant of the Daryl Gates era: the immaculately turned-out, obscenely photogenic Parks. (Whom I have never seen out of uniform. The massive Chief Williams used to slump around in Big & Tall Store--style civilian menswear, and in his later City Hall days, Gates often dressed like a Santa Anita tipster. But Parks must sleep in immaculate, four-star Navy pajamas.)

The whipcord Parks’ first major order as chief withdrew senior officers responsible for community-based policing from the field -- undoing at a stroke the single biggest Christopher reform: the one that might have given earlier warning on Rampart. This was a 20-year step back to things as they were in the late ‘70s. Just as the Rampart scandal is a consequent step toward things as they were in the 1930s.

Even with the best possible Rampart outcome, though, it’s unimaginable that the next mayor will overlook what‘s happened on Parks’ watch. So who might supplant Parks after Riordan retires next year? As I looked over the clutch of lesser chiefs who accompanied him into the council (it is virtually impossible, you know, for a cop of Parks‘ prominence to appear solo on such public occasions) that day, it seemed to me that it could be any of them.

I’d be amazed if the LAPD satraps weren‘t all busy thinking this themselves. Because right now, even if he pulls off a miracle of LAPD redemption, Parks stands to be the second chief in a row to leave office after a five-year term. It is even possible, in the worst possible case, that he mightn’t even last that long.

After all, as everyone seems careful not to mention, Parks himself was once assigned to Rampart not all that long ago. As Commander of Operations-Central Bureau, Parks oversaw Rampart, Northeast, Hollenbeck and Newton stations. It will be interesting to discover just how self-referential all Parks‘ recent public criticism of previous departmental ”red flags overlooked“ might turn out to be.

More Ends, More Means

Having capably played the fool in the City Council last Wednesday, Dick Riordan contrived an even more impressive show of ineptitude when he announced that some fast-talking bond sellers had persuaded him to toss away two-thirds of the potential value of the city’s $300 million share of national, long-term tobacco settlements to create a short-term, $100 million municipal bond issue. This debt would pay off an anticipated $124 million worth of Rampart Division lawsuits that have yet, for the most part, to be filed. One can just imagine what the actual bond paper might look like (see above).

Not everyone loved the idea. ”The money from the tobacco settlement . . . is supposed to save lives, not save face,“ said Dr. Richard F. Corlin, Santa Monica physician and American Medical Association official, according to the Associated Press.

”It is corrupt in and of itself to steal tobacco-settlement money to pay off the price of political problems and police corruption,“ Corlin added.

And what‘s the hurry? The Rampart settlements are years away. This tobacco money, intended for present health purposes, had been, with the mayor’s approval, allotted to meet federal disability mandates. Many felt that even this objective was a stretch from redressing the ravages of smoking.

But subsidizing the city‘s obligation for police misbehavior seems as far from the intended purpose as one can humanly get. Sure, the city will be hard put to pay those Rampart settlements. But the Riordan proposal really is just another ”ends justify the means“ deal. How can we possibly forget that this is exactly the thinking that led Rafael Perez and his pals into beating out confessions and lying in court, just to get all those disastrous false convictions for which the city must now pay?