It‘s hard to decide which was the more humiliating moment for the members of the Los Angeles Police Commission on the day, early this month, that LAPD Chief Bernard Parks presented his long-awaited report on the Rampart Division scandal to the press and public.
Moment number one came immediately after Parks, flanked by 15 starched and pressed members of his command staff, had finished his address to a Parker Center auditorium packed with about 75 journalists and at least 25 television cameras.
After verbally waving off every pointed question as one would swat at an annoying fly, Parks left the stage. Just before he did so, however, the press was reminded not to go away. The Police Commission was ready to take any questions we might have. With that, cops and press bolted for the exits.
Los Angeles’ civilian Police Commission — the body held responsible by the City Charter for setting the LAPD‘s policy, giving the chief his marching orders and overseeing the department’s performance — was left standing on the stage wearing shit-eating grins and no clothes, totally irrelevant to the unfolding story of one of the worst police scandals in city history.
Humiliating moment number two occurred shortly thereafter, out of sight of the commission and inside the mayor‘s cramped eighth-floor City Hall media room, where Richard Riordan was holding his own press conference. Like Chief Parks, Mayor Riordan tried to brush off the Rampart Division scandal as if it had happened in Jersey City, and on somebody else’s watch. Before he‘d even read it, Riordan dubbed the 362-page report the most detailed and honest inquiry ”in the history of mankind.“
After about half an hour, as the mayor exited through one door, an ungodly knocking rattled a second door, at the other end of the room. When someone opened it, in swept Laura Chick, Ruth Galanter, Jackie Goldberg, Mark Ridley-Thomas and Rita Walters — a full third of the City Council — and they were hot. First their staff members, and then they themselves, had been locked out of the mayor’s press conference.
While venting their rage at the mayor, they aimed their contempt squarely at the Police Commission. ”My confidence in the Police Commission has been shaken,“ said Chick, chair of the council‘s public-safety committee. She and other city officials, said Chick, ”have asked [the commission] hard questions and have basically been told over and over, ’You don‘t run the department, you don’t oversee the department. We do.‘“
Several days earlier, that level of frustration had led Councilman Joel Wachs to move for an outside inquiry. The motion failed by an 8-6 vote, but the narrow margin underscored the council’s growing doubts that the commission could be independent of the mayor‘s influence, conduct its own investigation or produce anything other than John Ehrlichman’s Watergate-inspired modified-limited-hangout. ”What,“ Chick asked, ”have they been doing for the last six and a half years?“
On Tuesday, Inspector General Jeff Eglash and the Police Commission‘s executive director, Joe Gunn, sought to answer that question with a strongly worded memorandum on how to proceed with the commission’s investigation. Commission President Gerald Chaleff followed by defending the commission: ”It has been somewhat frustrating to remain silent throughout the last few weeks and months when there‘s been a constant [call] for an independent review of the Board of Inquiry and the Police Department, when I knew at all times that that’s the job of the Los Angeles Police Commission. I think . . . the adoption of [today‘s] report and the future actions of the Police Commission will show that independent civilian oversight has always been present in Los Angeles, and that’s the Los Angeles Police Commission.“
Always? Should Chaleff re-examine the performance of his commission in particular, and of almost every other Police Commission over the past half-century, he might better understand the public and official skepticism he seeks to dispel.
It was William H. Parker who founded both the modern-day LAPD and the tradition of autocratic chiefs refusing to tolerate any ”outside“ interference in running the department. From Parker‘s appointment in 1950, LAPD chiefs dominated the part-time, civilian commissioners through a combination of intimidation, ego massage and control over the flow of information, becoming what former Police Commission President Stephen Reinhardt once described as ”masters of non-disclosure.“
That was meant to change when the Christopher Commission reforms limited the chief’s tenure and created an inspector general to cut through the fog shrouding the LAPD‘s inner workings. The I.G. was to be the knowledgeable, plugged-in eyes and ears of the commission and the public. In practice, however, Riordan, Parks and even the commission itself fiercely fought to limit the I.G.’s power. Parks won that battle, a victory that helped lead the department down the road to Rampart.
It didn‘t start out that way. The office of inspector general was created by the voters in 1995 and staffed by Katherine Mader, a former defense attorney as well as a former prosecutor. Mader soon showed her mettle, issuing several critical reports that helped spell the end for the ineffectual reform Chief Willie Williams.
While Riordan and his commissioners — they are appointed solely by the mayor — detested Williams, they revered Parks and his strict, no-nonsense approach to crime and cops. When he took office in the summer of ’97, however, Parks and Mader immediately clashed. And when Mader blew the whistle on Parks for allegedly showing favoritism to a suspended officer, the inspector general was promptly and publicly castigated, overruled and undermined by the Police Commission and its then-president, Edith Perez.
A short, quietly intense woman, Perez seemed to adore Parks even more than did Riordan, casting awestruck Nancy Reagan eyes at him during every joint news conference. It was, after all, her Police Commission that had chosen Parks at Riordan‘s behest. As for the mayor, he had staked his entire legacy on himself and Parks building the new LAPD into a smarter version of its old, hard-charging self. And they wanted no interference in that task.
The result was that Mader was effectively stripped of power, particularly the right to initiate investigations and promise sources confidentiality. Simultaneously she came under intense attack by Perez. Recalls Mader, ”Two directors of the Police Protective League told me that the president of the Police Commission had requested that they go after me, and if they did, they’d be supported by the Police Commission.“ (The League refused the offer.)
The crudest example of Perez‘s determination to undermine a strong I.G.’s Office turned up when the Los Angeles Times discovered that she had been sending anonymous brown envelopes containing news clippings praising the Police Commission and criticizing Mader to political and media leaders.
There were also ”numerous occasions,“ says Mader, ”when people who contacted the I.G.‘s Office were later questioned in an intimidating manner by their supervisors. When I complained to the commission and to the chief, nothing was done to protect the careers of these individuals.“
Opposition to Mader among high-ranking LAPD officers was fierce, according to David Smith, who served as a lieutenant in Internal Affairs before retiring as a captain last year. ”There were comments made at staff meetings, chief-of-police meetings, bureau meetings. The atmosphere was that we did not need her. They treated her like they treated Chief Williams. Nobody cooperated with him either.“
All this occurred as Mader had finally managed to develop sources to penetrate the byzantine workings of the LAPD, and was issuing reports that focused on the kind of behavior and lack of accountability so glaringly apparent at Rampart. She issued reports on the need for a tracking system for problem officers and showing that Internal Affairs was doing only 10 percent of the use-of-force investigations, while the rest were left to the divisions — where misconduct was easy to cover up. Another Mader study showed that prosecutors were not being provided information about internal disciplinary actions against officers that called into question their credibility.
Mader was finally forced out of office, to be replaced by Jeff Eglash, a former federal prosecutor. Eglash has enjoyed broad support, but was promptly at loggerheads with Parks. Just before the Rampart scandal broke, Eglash complained publicly that the department ”unilaterally sought to put restrictions on the Inspector General’s Office.“
As the campaign against Mader continued, Perez and Parks launched a public-relations campaign for the new LAPD, one that never mentioned the Christopher Commission reforms. Nevertheless, in August of 1998, they announced with great fanfare that 85 percent of the Christopher Commission reforms had been implemented, and that it was now time to move ahead.
Yet while some reforms had indeed been put in place, the major Christopher Commission recommendations were never implemented. Among them, according to Special Counsel Merrick Bobb, who monitors the L.A. County Sheriff‘s Department for the Board of Supervisors, were several ”that bear directly on the current scandal,“ including development of a tracking system to follow an officer’s use of force, civilian complaints and lawsuits he generated and the number of times he had been disciplined. ”The idea was to use the computerized information to evaluate officers‘ performance, and in selecting officers for specialized units such as CRASH,“ says Bobb, who was a deputy general counsel for the Christopher Commission, which led the investigation into the LAPD’s use of force. ”At the very least, such a system would have created questions about exactly why so many officers were involved in so many Rampart shootings, excessive-force complaints and other incidents.“
A second key recommendation, Bobb points out, grew out of the rapid expansion of the LAPD in the late 1980s. The commission suggested that the expansion may have led to the increasing police violence that culminated in the beating of Rodney King. They found that the department was unable to do in-depth background checks, or to adequately train officers. Yet, as Riordan demanded, exactly that kind of hasty expansion took place when he became mayor; that buildup was cited in Parks‘ report as one of the causes of the Rampart disaster.
”The Christopher Commission also recommended that there be extensive pre-admittance and continuing psychological testing of new officers,“ says Bobb, ”but that too was never implemented“ (another cause of the problems at Rampart cited by Parks).
The final key recommendation never implemented, says Bobb, was ”an inspector general who has had the power and authority to act independently of the chief of police.“
Chief Parks’ Board of Inquiry report is now in the hands of the Police Commission. It is extremely detailed and responsive to some of the problems within the department. But it‘s also a transparent attempt by the chief to pass the buck and lay blame on a ”mediocre“ middle management, to limit the investigation almost solely to the Rampart Division and to, above all, fend off any outside investigation. What the report does not ask is how deep, wide and high the abuse was known within the department, and what exactly Parks had been doing for the past six years while his troops were playing Terminator, during which time Parks was either in charge of Internal Affairs or the chief of police.
The Christopher Commission report looked at the very top of the organization down to the very bottom, and looked closely at leadership issues, Mader points out. ”This [Parks] report fails to go into whether certain policies promulgated from the top have had an impact on Rampart. But how could anyone have expected that they would look at these issues if they’re the ones writing the report?“ Such highly political issues will have to be examined if an investigation by the Police Commission and I.G. is to have validity.
The Police Commission has vowed to conduct such an inquiry, but many wonder if it is capable. Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, a past president of the Police Commission, recently voiced what has become a growing consensus: ”There‘s been so much silence on the part of this commission — which is supposed to be the eyes and ears of the public. In the face of so much corruption, it’s going to be hard for the public to believe they even have the ability to engage in proper oversight.“
The commission recently demonstrated a modicum of backbone when it voted 3-2 to defy Parks and find ”out-of-policy“ the senseless shooting of a homeless African-American woman named Margaret Mitchell. It was the first time the commission had bucked the chief on anything important, but they could do no less in the current climate. Three possible mayoral candidates — City Council Member Joel Wachs, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa — have already called for an independent outside inquiry into the scandal.
Another declared candidate, City Attorney James Hahn, said early this week that he supports the commission‘s investigation, but that the mayor should stop lobbying the commission members about it. If Hahn seems to be walking a tightrope here, it’s because he is: Hahn‘s been at odds with Riordan for years, but in his bid for mayor he enjoys the support of Riordan’s top political adviser, Bill Wardlaw. And despite their split over mayoral succession — Riordan supports real estate broker and crony Steve Soboroff — both Riordan and Wardlaw share the common goal of limiting the investigation into the current scandal.
Riordan has staked his legacy on rebuilding the LAPD, with Wardlaw, the mayor‘s political brains and backroom man, masterminding the effort. If an outside inquiry — particularly a federal inquiry — were to find massive abuses throughout the LAPD, it would seriously undermine all that they’ve worked for. And nobody has worked harder than Wardlaw; it was he, after all, who coached Bernard Parks in his oral exams for chief.
Certainly nobody has pulled more strings than Wardlaw. The number-three position in Bill Clinton‘s Justice Department, for example, is currently filled by Raymond Fisher, who previously, as president of the L.A. Police Commission, carried Riordan and Wardlaw’s campaign to oust Willie Williams. Bill Clinton also appointed Wardlaw‘s wife, Kim M. Wardlaw, first as a federal district judge and then to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. And when convicted Whitewater defendant, Clinton friend and former Associate Attorney General Webster Hubbell mysteriously received a consulting contract from the city of Los Angeles, guess who was hired to defend the Wardlaws in the inquiry that followed? None other than Gerald Chaleff, the current president of the L.A. Police Commission. Chaleff also represented former Riordan adviser and Airport Commissioner Ted Stein when Stein had legal troubles.
The key to the kind of report the commission will deliver lies with the determination and integrity of the current I.G., Jeff Eglash. If Eglash demands and gets the resources and independence to do his job, the commission may be forced to produce something other than a whitewash. In a memorandum delivered to the commission Tuesday, Eglash talks about investigating the entire department, and suggests serious reforms that would bring the department once and for all under firm civilian oversight.
It’s the sort of change that Chief Parks is sure to resist. The struggle that will ensue over the next several months will determine whether this scandal will achieve what riots, elections, a succession of chiefs and a blue-ribbon commission were unable to do: bring real change to Parker Center, and a new kind of cop to the streets of Los Angeles.