Chief Parks plays the race card

Black leaders are rallying behind the ousted LAPD chief. But his tenure marked the triumph of identity politics over reform, and his departure is good news for the city.

By Charles Rappleye
Published April 17, 2002 6:05PM (EDT)

The decision to remove Bernard C. Parks as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department met with the outrage you might expect from an embattled minority community when it loses its most prominent public official. And it met with outrage from Parks himself, who delivered a two-hour defense of his record to the Los Angeles City Council Tuesday as scores of supporters -- most of them African-American -- looked on.

But drowned out in the clamor was the long sigh of relief shared by advocates of police reform across the racial spectrum, in a city where the police department has been a problem -- especially in the black community -- for more than 30 years.

It was in the black enclave of Watts, after all, that pervasive and sometimes brutal police misconduct gave rise to the devastating riots of 1965. And it was the reforms that arose from the police beating of black motorist Rodney King that gave the Los Angeles Police Commission the authority, and the responsibility, to move against Parks last week.

Parks, who is African-American himself and has strong ties to south L.A., has rallied many of the city's black officials and church leaders to his side. But on Wednesday, the L.A. City Council voted 11-3 to reject Parks' request that it overturn the 4-1 vote of the police commission against Parks, denying the chief his last chance for a final term.

From the outset, Parks' appointment by tough-on-crime Republican Mayor Dick Riordan represented the triumph of identity politics over the more painstaking business of true institutional reform. Parks was no crusader for reform; he was an LAPD insider with 34 years on the force when he took the job, and he never acknowledged the endemic problems and paramilitary culture identified by the Christopher Commission after the 1992 riots.

Yet if the removal of Chief Parks is clearly the right decision for the city and for the police department, it is one that carries sad irony for black Los Angeles. In a city led for two decades by the late Tom Bradley, who was both African-American and a former cop, Parks is among the last important black public figures, a reflection of both black flight and the increasing clout of Latinos in L.A.

The sense of frustration at Parks' demise was sharpened by L.A. Mayor James Hahn, whose bald political pandering to the black community during the last election -- he was the lone major candidate who didn't call for Parks' ouster -- left him open to black leaders' charges of betrayal. Hahn's father, Kenneth, was considered a beloved benefactor during the 20 years he served as a county supervisor for much of south Los Angeles; the same was expected of the son.

James Hahn did little to diminish those expectations. During a crowded primary race last year in which the Rampart police scandal was a front-burner issue, Hahn stayed mute on the question of Parks' LAPD tenure. And in the runoff election, pitted against a popular Latino liberal, Antonio Villaraigosa, Hahn promised to give Parks a fair chance at reappointment, sealing his deal with the city's south side: Blacks voted for Hahn by an 80-20 margin.

Once in office, Hahn took a direct hand in the affairs of the police department, siding with the police union in its successful bid to introduce a three-day, 12-hour workweek, which Parks firmly opposed. Some analysts believe Hahn's ultimate decision to move against Parks was dictated by simple politics -- the mayor was trading his constituents in black L.A. for the 8,000-member police union. But that doesn't wash, because it's a losing proposition: More than 90,000 black voters went to the polls during the last mayoral election, meaning that Hahn enjoyed a 70,000-vote cushion before any other votes were counted.

Sure, Hahn will get a political boost in some quarters from dumping Parks. But by any political calculation, it was a losing move. The fact is that, however belatedly, Hahn made a principled, even courageous stand -- though now he'll never get credit for that.

The fact is, Parks was a bad choice from the get-go. Through a lifetime inside the LAPD, Parks came to embody everything that was wrong with the department -- its emphasis on force over dialogue in the field, and its conviction that only cops can understand and address the challenges they face. Within weeks of his appointment as chief, Parks tangled publicly with the department's inspector general, whose office was created as a key plank in the Christopher Commission reforms. At the same time, Parks dismantled the few significant steps the department had taken toward community policing, disdained by the LAPD's old guard as a waste of time.

Instead, Parks made cynical use of the reform agenda to squeeze his troops with a new, Draconian code of discipline. Every slightest infraction of department rules and procedures resulted in a full-scale investigation and, too often, in discipline far out of proportion to the offense. Officers felt demeaned and then angry, their reaction registered in the departure of hundreds of career cops to early retirement or to other departments.

It was the worst of both worlds. Inside the department, Parks ran the discipline system like a drill sergeant. To the outside world -- and to a malleable police commission -- Parks was able to tout discipline as reform, while allowing the paramilitary outlook that dominated the LAPD to go unchallenged.

Parks brought the same approach to the Rampart scandal, which exposed systematic misconduct in the department's anti-gang units, including routine beatings and planted evidence. From the moment he heard the allegations being made by rogue-cop Rafael Perez, Parks handled Rampart as a public-relations problem to tidy up rather than the systemic malaise that it was. He promised an investigation to detail the extent of misconduct, but he never delivered, and he stonewalled efforts by the county district attorney as well as the public defender to review police files. In addition, Parks worked hard to divert attention from the fact that he was as culpable as anyone -- he was in charge of Internal Affairs when all the hell-raising was going on -- for failing to rein in an out-of-control unit.

Parks' disdain for reform, and for the mayor, was on display again at City Hall Tuesday, even as he was seeking to keep his post. Conflating his own career with the safety of the streets across Los Angeles, Parks demanded, "How many lives should be lost to accommodate a police union as payback for an endorsement, and to accommodate the small number of community activists who want the police department at their beck and call?"

"The true question is how much emphasis does the city of Los Angeles place on the value of life over political agendas?" Parks asked.

But it was Parks who assembled a political coalition in the last weeks of his bid for reappointment, a coalition built largely around race. The chief drummed up support at church breakfasts and neighborhood rallies; his appeal generated endorsements from black leaders like Rep. Maxine Waters and Danny Bakewell, L.A.'s answer to Al Sharpton. Waters and Bakewell have in the past been among the LAPD's most vocal critics, but in this case, they set their own agendas aside.

It may be true that Mayor Hahn betrayed his loyal black voters, but the duplicity came before the election, when he suggested he would give Parks a second term. Hahn knew firsthand from his previous post, as L.A. city attorney, of Parks' imperious manner and his conviction that only the LAPD can run the LAPD. In fact Hahn was complicit in refusing to file charges against criminal cops; in one case that surfaced during the campaign, a deputy city attorney said Hahn fired him for reporting a case of officer misconduct to federal authorities.

Hahn also knew firsthand how hard Parks fought a consent decree agreement that was struck with the Department of Justice last year, resulting in the appointment of a federal monitor to oversee reform at the LAPD. Parks campaigned against the agreement on grounds that only the department brass could bring true reform; Hahn pressed for the settlement because he knew the opposite was true.

Even when Hahn finally mustered the nerve to move against Parks last January, he still had trouble talking straight. Rather than engage Parks on the complex questions of reform, the mayor instead made his case based on the city's rising crime rate and on declining officer morale.

And so we have this most curious phenomenon: Twice since the Christopher Commission reforms were put into place, the LAPD chief failed to win a second five-year term, and both of those chiefs of police were black. Now Parks, like Willie Williams before him, is threatening legal action, and black L.A. is crying foul.

The question now is whether Hahn will press on with his determination to implement reform, or will fall back on the easy symbolism that has marked LAPD succession for the past decade. Speaking to a radio audience this week, Hahn lamented that in Los Angeles, "We've basically created this colossal figure of the chief of police who towers over appointed civilian oversight, who towers over political figures."

The mayor insisted that the next chief, whom he will appoint in consultation with the police commission, will "understand that civilians run the police department." Hahn's selection should indicate whether, in its third bite at the apple, Los Angeles has found the will to police its own cops.

Charles Rappleye

Charles Rappleye writes about LAPD issues for the LA Weekly.

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