|Photos by Robert Yager (left)
and Slobodan Dimitrov
Here’s a question:
Say there’s this vast, powerful public institution in L.A., which the public clearly wants to shape up but which resists every mandate and opportunity to change. Its civilian governing board is largely the creature of the administrative bureaucracy, which wants to run things as it has always run things, with no one looking over its shoulder or questioning its authority. The more it refuses to change, however, the more it becomes an affront to the people of Los Angeles, and, eventually, a crisis ensues.
The question is: If you’re Mayor Richard Riordan, what do you do about it?
The answer is: It depends. If we’re talking about the school district, you move heaven and earth to elect a governing board of reformers, who dump the old-guard superintendent and put in some outsiders to shake up the system.
If we’re talking about the LAPD, on the other hand, you appoint a governing board that defines its mission as giving the chief absolute autonomy at all times, and that undermines the voter-mandated civilian oversight of the department. You appoint a chief who ignores the mandates for reform and who defines the Rampart crisis almost entirely as a threat to his own prerogatives. And you yourself are so dismissive of all attempts to subject the department to a modicum of civilian control that now the feds are about to deliver that department to the care and keeping of the courts.
Apparently, you can search the mind of Richard
Riordan — or, for that matter, the collective consciousness of L.A.’s political elite — without coming across anything approaching a unified field theory of public administration. At the LAUSD, Riordan and Co. have repeatedly told us, only an outsider can bring the critical distance required to look at the agency afresh. Acting Superintendent Ramon Cortines and operations Pooh-Bah Howard Miller were hired because they came from outside and were blissfully unwedded to the go-along, get-along, don’t-rock-the-boat ethos that produced the Belmont debacle. Nor have any of the candidates currently under consideration to succeed Cortines been tainted by any contact with the district itself. According to the current consensus, whatever special familiarity insiders may bring to the job is clearly outweighed by all the entangling alliances they’ve entered into on their way up, by all the old crap they’ve believed in.
At the LAPD, however, the word has always been that no outsider can possibly succeed. Rulers must come from within the family. Parker begat Reddin begat Davis begat Gates begat Parks; and the failure of Willie Williams, the sole chief in the past half-century not to come from within, only confirms that someone untouched by the special familiarity, alliances and beliefs of the insider hasn’t got a chance. Poor Willie didn’t know what buttons to push to win support within the department or from the mayor. Never mind that the crime rate began its plunge on his watch, or that the disasters of Parker (the 1965 riots), Gates (Rodney King and the 1992 riots) and Parks (the Rampart debacle) — all disasters rooted in the unwillingness to alter longstanding departmental practice — dwarf any problems we associate with the clueless Williams. No matter: An outsider just can’t cut it.
More generally, our mayor has viewed his mission as promoting the very management practices at the ã LAPD that he worked to undo at the LAUSD. His appointed police commissioners not only supported Bernie Parks at every turn. Working behind the scenes with the mayor’s office, they also consistently subverted the work of the department’s civilian monitor, Katherine Mader, making it impossible for her to do the inspector general’s job that the Christopher Commission had created. Riordan commissars like Edith Perez have been idolatrous in their defense of the chief and his tottering ancien régime. School-board member Vickie Castro’s defense of embattled superintendent Ruben Zacarias and the Belmont complex seems tepid by comparison.
Worse yet, Riordan has stood by Parks even when his commissioners have wavered. When Parks determined that his officers’ killing of homeless, diminutive shopping-cart lady Margaret Mitchell was “in policy,” or when Parks laid blame for Rampart on inexpert middle management at one station house, Riordan’s response, in essence, was “Ain’t Bernie great?” More fundamentally, Riordan selected Parks precisely because he was in total accord with the mayor’s belief that enlarging the department took precedence over reforming it. The Christopher Commission reforms, Parks said upon taking office, were largely (“86 percent,” he said) accomplished, and those that weren’t quite done yet — like setting up a tracking system for officers involved in questionable shootings, or working up psychological tests for recruits — weren’t a big thing.
They certainly never were a big thing for Riordan. The mayor, of course, could argue that the public really just wanted more cops — not a more accountable or scrutinized department. He could, I suppose, argue that while the LAUSD wasn’t satisfying anyone, the LAPD enjoyed widespread public support as the crime rate declined.
And he’d be half-right. Clearly, the public did want more cops — that was the main plank of the platform on which Riordan was elected mayor in 1993. But twice during the ’90s, the public also voted for greater LAPD accountability. In 1992, voters approved Proposition F, which limited the term of the chief and established the civilian watchdog inspector-general position to investigate police misconduct. In 1999, they approved a measure specifically strengthening the I.G.’s power to initiative investigations, as part of the new city charter they voted to adopt. In short, the public hasn’t seen a larger force and a more accountable force as mutually exclusive goals. The mayor has.
Indeed, what the public has been saying about the cops is remarkably similar to what the public has been saying about the schools: We want an increase in accountability alongside an increase in the resources we’ll commit. As a condition for getting LAUSD voters to approve the massive Proposition BB bond issue in 1997, Riordan and his fellow civic capos created an oversight board to monitor all the spending. The public’s votes for Proposition F and the new city charter set up and strengthened another independent monitor — but these were mandates that Riordan, Parks and their commissioners elected to ignore. The mayor and his men became the municipal equivalents of those conservatives who insist, rightly, that throwing money at problems isn’t invariably a solution — unless we’re talking about the Pentagon, in which case it is. The LAPD is Riordan’s Pentagon: the exception that makes a mockery of his claim to being the business mayor ensuring that our tax dollars are wisely spent.
And still the mayor is refusing reform. He left town rather than attend the meeting where Deputy Attorney General Bill Lann Lee read the feds’ bill of particulars that had led it to consider filing a civil rights lawsuit against L.A. Parks has reacted to the threat of the suit with unconcealed fury; the mayor’s is barely concealed. And of all the various parties in the negotiations to reach a settlement short of going to court — the Council, the City Attorney, the city’s chief legislative analyst, and the Mayor’s Office — only the last seems bent on delaying a resolution.
According to several reports, including that of Jim Newton in the Times, Riordan is holding out for a “memorandum of understanding” rather than the consent decree that the feds and most council members would like to craft to keep the lawsuit from proceeding. (The difference is, in a consent decree the department signs a contract to make specific reforms, and a federal judge holds the city to its commitment, with the help of a designated referee who actually oversees departmental practices. A memorandum of understanding merely says the city will make certain changes, and if the feds think it isn’t, they can take the city to court.)
Since the council, not the mayor, has the power to craft the settlement with the feds, it’s not clear at first glance what Riordan hopes to gain by dragging out the negotiations as to what goes into the decree. If he delays a settlement until July 1, it will, by the terms of the new city charter, require 10 votes on the 15-member council, rather than the current eight, to agree to a settlement. At the moment, however, Riordan’s only public ally against a consent decree is Nate Holden, the council’s resident fruit-loop.
It is possible, I suppose, that Riordan and Parks hope against hope to delay a settlement into the beginning of next year, when Young George W. could ride onto the scene and order Justice to drop it altogether. That a Republican administration would let the LAPD off the hook is beyond question. Rightwing think tanks have already condemned Lee for threatening the suit; the law under which the suit would be filed was passed by the last Democratic Congress in 1994; Lee himself has never been confirmed to his post by the GOP Congress (Clinton has given him an “acting” appointment till the end of his term); and the Republicans, particularly since they split with the cops on gun control, are in no position to oppose the cops on anything else. You do not have to be an avid fan of Al Gore to realize that one important difference between the Veep and the W. comes on the question of whether the feds will require police departments to obey civil rights law.
Nonetheless, it seems highly unlikely that 10 members of what is preponderantly a Democratic — and usually a liberal — City Council will wish to hold out to see if young Bush lets the cops off the hook. What Riordan and Parks are up to seems less a matter of strategy than of visceral rage.
Finally, more broadly — what gives with L.A.? Why is one of our major public civic institutions, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, being governed under one consent decree by a federal judge, while the LAPD is facing the near-certain prospect of an identical fate? Is there something about Los Angeles that makes it peculiarly incapable of self-government?
What links the MTA to the LAPD is their common — and distinctly two-tier — view of the city. When it comes to transportation, this is a city of us (motorists) and them (the non-white, bus-riding poor). When it comes to policing, this is a city of us (the middle-class, the merchants, the non-young) and them (the young men from Latino and African-American communities). The LAPD may exemplify the us-versus-them mentality more than any institution in town, but Los Angeles as a whole has cultivated this sense of otherness more than any current-day American city. As the middle strata of the local economy have eroded, as the economic and cultural gaps between the city of affluent whites and non-affluent non-whites have widened to gulfs, our government has made two sets of rules. How the buses run in South-Central, how the cops police Rampart — these are practices specific to the Other Los Angeles. These are practices, apparently, that are acceptable to L.A.’s governing classes; and were it not for federal law and a
Democratic Justice Department, it’s not clear that the Other L.A. would have a remedy at all.
Or, to treat this at the level of theory: Anyone who
argues the classic (pre-20th-century) liberal position that equality before the law should be unaffected by social and economic inequality just hasn’t spent much time lately in L.A.