Photo by Virginia Lee HunterWhen Abner Louima was recuperating in a New York hospital from his beating and toilet-plunger sodomizing at the hands of New York’s finest, his friends and family revealed to the media one particularly riveting detail of his account. While the cops were torturing him, Louima claimed, they had snarled, “This is Giuliani time!”
The story wasn’t true, but it resonated nonetheless. Rudy Giuliani both ran and governed as the cops’ mayor. After decades of rising crime, and the one-term tenure of hapless liberal David Dinkins, Giuliani stormed into office in 1993 proclaiming a new day: No crime, no matter how small or victimless, would go unpunished; no ACLU-niks would work in City Hall; the cops were free to do their job — no questions asked. New Yorkers required no explanation of “Giuliani time.” It meant that the cops had been unleashed.
Richard Riordan also became mayor in 1993, after waging a campaign that he’d run along similar lines. With gang-related crimes soaring, and in the aftermath of the largest riot in recent American urban history (never mind that it was sparked by videotaped police brutality, and the acquittal of the perp-cops), Riordan chose as his campaign slogan “Tough Enough To Turn L.A. Around.” His opponent, City Councilman Michael Woo, had been the one member of the council to seek Daryl Gates’ ouster immediately following the Rodney King beating, and Riordan made sure that L.A. understood how profoundly he differed from Woo on police policy. Though Riordan, mercifully, was incapable of raging and frothing in public (something Giuliani was apparently incapable of not doing), he made it clear that LAPD housecleaning was not high on his list of the city’s needs. To be sure, he backed, and helped fund, the initiative enacting the Christopher Commission reforms, and after supporting Gates during the initial Rodney King controversy, he tried to ease Gates from office in the riot’s aftermath.
But the main theme — really, the sole theme — of his ’93 campaign was toughness, and he backed that up by a pledge to expand the force by 3,000 new cops. Now, after six and a half years as mayor, he’s met that target. What he hasn’t done is promote many of the Christopher Commission reforms he presumably once backed. The commission had established the position of the inspector general, responsible for investigating police misconduct, and answerable only to the Police Commission rather than the chief. Riordan’s police commissioners, however, repeatedly refused to intervene to enable the first I.G. — Katherine Mader — to have access to the material and personnel she needed to conduct investigations. When she protested, they dumped her — with the mayor’s enthusiastic support. When Riordan’s appointee as chief, Bernie Parks, put an end to the department’s tepid attempts to move toward community-based policing, as the Christopher Report had recommended, Riordan backed up his chief. Plainly, police reform — at least, civilian oversight and a demilitarization of tactics — was not a priority for the Riordan administration.
Hizzoner, of course, never told the cops — anyway, not in public — that the ends justified the means. Still, the only remotely memorable phrase that the mayor has uttered during his term in office — and one that he has never disputed — is the dictum “It is easier to seek forgiveness than permission.” That’s become the watchword of a number of key figures in his administration, and it was just such skirting of rules and regs in their zeal to do their job that brought down such onetime Riordan wonder boys as Deputy Mayor Mike Keeley and Airport Commission Chair Ted Stein.
Now, there’s no evidence that Riordan’s emphasis on more cops, tough cops and sidestepping the legal constraints that might impede one’s work actually inflamed a single officer for a single day. Riordan’s not the inflammatory type. But when he took office, he came onto a scene that had already been inflamed. The crack epidemic was raging, gang violence was proliferating, inner-city neighborhoods were desperate for help. The LAPD had had a paramilitary approach to crime, a “them-against-us” mentality, for as long as anyone could remember. The ingredients for large-scale police abuse were already boiling. Rior- dan’s contribution was simply to refrain from turning down the flame — to make clear by word and deed that stopping whatever practices the police deemed necessary was the furthest thing from his mind.
That was enough. At Rampart, it was Riordan time.
The ultimately amazing thing about the LAPD is how little it has changed despite all its changes. Once a force headed by the overtly racist Bill Parker and, more recently, by a chief (Gates) who once made the distinction between blacks and “normal people,” it is now headed by the African-American Bernie Parks. Once a force composed almost entirely of white men, it is today a force that is 13.7 percent African-American, 31.5 percent Latino, 4.9 percent Asian and 18 percent female.
But it’s a lot easier to change the faces, apparently, than the culture. The LAPD has always been known as among the most violent of large-city forces, particularly in its treatment of nonwhite young men. (In his classic, The Making of the President: 1960, author Theodore White, totally in passing, referred to the department as “among the most efficient, if the most cruel, in the nation.”) And now, Rampart makes abundantly clear that little has changed in the past four decades. In the manner of L.A. Confidential, officers have been shooting suspects and non-suspects, planting guns on their victims to justify their acts. And if we give credence only to those of Rafael Perez’s recollections that have been confirmed by other sources, it becomes clear that the Rampart rampage wasn’t the work of rogue cops who hid their violence from their bosses. Certainly, the Rampart brass didn’t know that Perez and his partner were stealing drugs that they’d confiscated. But we now know that beatings — one so severe that it splattered a station-house interrogation room with blood — were a common occurrence at Rampart. Hard to believe the division higher-ups didn’t at least notice the gore.
In fact, according to an L.A. Times follow-up investigation of the Perez transcripts that had been made available to the paper, the higher-ups not only knew about the violence, they celebrated it. In a story in last Saturday’s Times, an officer in the Rampart anti-gang CRASH unit told of attending beer blasts, some at the Police Academy, where awards were given to CRASH officers who’d killed or wounded someone on the street. At two such parties, he said, lieutenants were in attendance, and one was attended by a captain.
Despite the evidence that elements of the department’s command structure were involved in the scandal, however, Parks insists that the Rampart investigation should be conducted by . . . well, the department’s command structure. He has rejected all suggestions that an independent commission, such as Warren Christopher’s, may be better suited to conduct the investigation and recommend reforms. For his part, Riordan has voiced his confidence in Parks and Parks’ approach. In much the same manner that he stood with Parks against granting real power to the inspector general, Riordan now insists that Parks and the department not be subjected to any outside scrutiny. Moreover, according to the Times’ Jim Newton, Riordan has sided with the chief against the current I.G., Jeffrey Eglash, who concluded that the killing by a police officer of Margaret Mitchell — a tiny, middle-aged homeless woman who was brandishing a screwdriver — violated department rules. Parks has disagreed, calling the shooting tragic but justified in policy. Not only has Riordan supported Parks, Newton reports, but he has turned against his own Police Commission chair, attorney Gerald Chaleff, for favoring Eglash’s interpretation, and, on Tuesday, for leading the commission by a 3-to-2 vote to back the I.G.’s position.
In short, throughout this entire period of crisis, Riordan has repeatedly insisted that the department essentially be free of civilian oversight and control.
At Parker Center, it’s Riordan time.
Finally, in classic Riordan fashion, the mayor is doing his work on this crisis almost entirely behind the scenes. On the Rampart rampage itself, the mayor has been all but silent. He’s issued public statements of support for Parks, most recently on Tuesday, but his assaults on Chaleff — like his earlier assaults on Katherine Mader — have been perpetrated almost entirely out of the public eye. No wonder Riordan wants the LAPD to escape civilian oversight: Like the department, the mayor is comfortable only when his work eludes public scrutiny.
The irony, for those who can remember back a whole nine months, is that Richard Rior dan spent much of the past two years campaigning for a new city charter that gives the mayor more responsibility and power. Under the old charter, the mayor argued, accountability was diffused to the point of nonexistence. The new charter would give the mayor clearer responsibility for city departments, and unambiguous control over department heads. Riordan fought with the council, which defended the old charter, on the precise question of whether the mayor could fire department heads. And, by persuading voters to enact the new charter, Riordan’s vision of city government — a vision where the mayor is the hands-on manager of the city’s workers and the deviser of its administrative policies — prevailed at the polls.
And now, with the conduct of city workers and the content of city policies all but certain to be judged criminal, and the city’s financial liability all but certain to be staggering, the mayor has all but vanished. Hands-on Riordan has become Invisible Dick. Media attention has largely been directed to the turf battles between D.A. Gil Garcetti and Parks, between the I.G. and Parks, between certain commissioners and Parks. The chief should have been more vigilant, we’re told, or the D.A. more perceptive, or the commission less compliant.
But read the city charter — both its old version and, even more, its Riordanized new one. When it comes to police practices and conduct, the buck doesn’t stop with Bernie Parks, or Gil Garcetti, or Jeffrey Eglash, or Gerald Chaleff, or John Ferraro, or even Bill Wardlaw. It stops with Richard Riordan — tough enough to turn L.A. around, but nowhere to be found when, as a result of his own priorities, the going gets tough for both the city and its mayor.