|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
I had forgotten the nature of British daily papers until I was forced to depend on them during my recent vacation. Critics usually distinguish between the sexy, broad-circulation English tabloids and the prestigious, large-format versions. The first present stuff like “Horror! Frenchman’s Ghastly Sex Threat Against Local Nurse! Shock!” (the Frenchman was relieving himself in an alley when the nurse somehow happened by), while the elite broadsheets promise insightful opinion and acute reporting. But the two often meld in the same story, viz., following a long profile of a controversial writer: “In all my previous professional experience, I must say, I have never interviewed so icy-blooded a brute.”
As with our own TV magazines, the British press’ slogan seems to be, “That’s Entertainment!” Thus it’s light on news of these U.S. hinterlands. Unless the story is truly global.
So imagine my surprise last month when a Los Angeles public servant showed up atop Page 3 of my morning tabloid. Right there, among the naked bathing beauties, the homegrown giant zucchinis and the misdemeanant, drug-besotted teenage dukes, was the visage of LAPD Chief Bernie Parks. I could not have been more astonished had I met him at my favorite Bristol pub — the Myrtle Tree down on St. George’s Road — downing a pint of bitter among the morning crowd of working bookies raking in the dockworkers’ cash for their daily bets.
But this wasn’t so happy an occasion. The tabloid claimed L.A. was experiencing the worst disclosure of LAPD corruption since Hollywood Division officers decided to moonlight as burglars 20 years ago. What was unusual was that the tabloid was exactly right.
To give due credit, Parks apparently showed himself a virtuoso of media damage control in handling the Rampart scandals: He assured swift, positive resolution and turned aside offers of help from other quarters. By early October (when I got back to town), the story had been off the front pages for nearly a week. It bounced back again, briefly, but for now, the public mood seems to be, “Trust Bernie.”
Yet I wonder what the result of Parks’ measures — which included tearing up the entire LAPD command structure to compile that 60-senior-cop investigative board — is likely to be. Go-it-alone arrogance, for good or ill, has increasingly characterized his regime. And unlike the late-1970s Hollywood burglary caper, the Rampart scandal reaches deep into that most sensitive of areas, community trust: There are allegations of intimidation, mayhem and even murder of civilians by sworn officers. Community input could be a good idea in this process of investigation and redress, you might think. But Parks apparently doesn’t.
Parks reportedly claimed he’s been looking into the Rampart mess for some time. Okay, maybe. But one can be skeptical. While he’s good at meting out discipline, Parks doesn’t like to believe his department is capable of doing wrong and tends to make short shrift of those who say otherwise. This attitude predates this case. Which, you will recall, began with a felonious former officer with qualms about facing eight years in prison for stealing a million dollars’ worth of cocaine from Parker Center’s evidence storage room. The then-officer, Rafael Antonio Perez, therefore cut a deal with prosecutors by spilling his guts about what he’d purportedly seen going on at Rampart station. He claimed that Rampart officers had lied in court, framed innocent people and, after shooting at least one man, Javier Francisco Ovando, put a gun in his hand and arrested him for assault. He also asserted that other officers had witnessed the misdoings, but observed the unofficial “code of silence” about them. Perez’s testimony got 11 cops suspended, busted out many pending L.A. prosecutions and made headlines around the world.
So how did all this come about? Just for starters, how did a completely unauthorized rank-and-file cop manage to walk out of police headquarters with a million dollars’ worth of narcotics held in evidence? So much else has happened since then that this question has gotten little play. Especially since Parks would have us think that he’s running the tightest ship since Captain Bligh’s. But, at least back when Perez took the coke, it certainly did not look that way from the vantage point of the LAPD Property Division.
Indeed, Parks had very likely reviewed an extremely detailed warning that the facility was dangerously insecure at roughly the time that Perez ambled out of it with 6 to 8 (accounts vary) pounds of stolen narcotics.
In his 40-page Property Division audit, formally issued May 20, 1998, but apparently in LAPD hands months before, Controller Rick Tuttle observed that the LAPD’s evidence department was definitely porous, and made more than a dozen detailed recommendations for improvement. He observed that:
“Selected high-value drugs were stored in a less-secure area than the majority of high-value drugs.” In other words, sometimes cocaine and heroin were kept under tight security, sometimes not. Tuttle further observed that the Property Division staff were habitually keeping the packaged food destined for departmental vending machines “in a safe which contained cash, [and] high value drugs . . . thus unnecessarily causing increased traffic . . .” Seemingly, even ham sandwiches weren’t considered secure if left out in the property room.
One assumes that it was this kind of slackened security that allowed Perez — who allegedly signed a false name at the property office — to walk out of Parker Center with enough coke to light up most of Rampart Division. Tuttle further observed that, while most of us can’t go buy so much as a box of detergent without appearing on someone’s security videotape, no one had ever even bothered to put up video-monitor cameras in the LAPD property room.
Useful advice, one might assume. Certainly, its release occasioned some media attention. All the more reason, one might assume, for Parks to say, “Thanks, Rick, we’ll get right on it before someone goes and steals a million dollars’ worth of evidentiary blow.”
But anyone who assumed that would not know Chief Parks very well.
Here’s how Parks did respond to the audit: “Comments published in the news media when the audit was publicly released made it appear there were serious security inadequacies . . . Property Division personnel were labeled as suspect by the matter and tone of comments attributed to you.” Asserting that nothing in the controller’s report supported “any allegations of misconduct or gross mismanagement,” Parks further complained that Tuttle’s comments “severely depressed the morale of a very conscientious group of city employees and may adversely impact the prosecution of pending criminal cases.”
In light of the Rampart prosecutions now being tossed out right and left due to Perez’s testimony, that last one is a bad joke. Meanwhile, just imagine all those Property Division desk cops and unsworn LAPD employees, their feelings so hurt by the mean old controller’s accusations of incompetence that they actually screw up their jobs even more.
But that’s not all. Parks concluded by warning Tuttle, “Any future press releases [with] the potential to impact the public safety of the citizens of the city should be coordinated with my office.” This is sort of like saying:
“Don’t you dare say anything negative about the LAPD without clearing it with me first.”
This is typical Parks, refusing to bend to reality, however strong the wind. Purely on the basis of the chief’s by-now-familiar, brittle posture of martinet sanctimony, I cannot help but wonder how deep and revealing Parks’ highly publicized internal Rampart probe is really going to be.
More Controller Control?
Fortunately, Rick Tuttle probably won’t meet Parks’ demands that the chief approve audit releases. Indeed the LAPD may soon have to endure even more scrutiny from the Controller’s Office. As could other city departments.
This is because the charter the voters passed this spring doesn’t just give more power to the mayor. It also strengthens Tuttle’s office, by authorizing “performance audits” — massive assessments of how entire departments are run. The idea was to make city government more accountable — both to its leadership and to those it is supposed to serve.
An essential step in this process is the hiring of at least 20 new auditors — at an additional cost of up to $1.5 million. It will be interesting to see how this proposal fares in the new year’s city budget discussions.