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Gates Defends Police at Fiery Council Meeting : Violence: Commission gets briefing on charter provisions that could be used to discipline the chief.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Embattled Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates defended the Police Department at a raucous City Council meeting Wednesday while the Police Commission received a briefing from the city attorney’s office on a range of options for disciplining the chief.

It is not clear that the commission intends to fire or even discipline Gates, who has been chief for 13 years. The 45-minute briefing on possible disciplinary action comes in the wake of the videotaped March 3 beating of motorist Rodney G. King on a San Fernando Valley street corner.

The commission, a civilian panel that oversees the department, heard testimony from assistant City Attys. Frederick N. Merkin and Leslie E. Brown, who explained which City Charter provisions could be used to discipline Gates.

Earlier, during an often heated public hearing at City Hall, Gates addressed the City Council for the first time on the King beating, enduring the now-familiar calls from speakers for his resignation and engaging in a tense exchange with one councilman.

Meanwhile, Mayor Tom Bradley told reporters at Los Angeles International Airport that “the only way” for the Police Department to recover from the controversy is for Gates “to remove himself” from office. It was Bradley’s strongest statement to date on Gates’ future.

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Commission Vice President Melanie Lomax confirmed Wednesday that she and the other panel members had asked the city attorney’s office to tell them how they could censure, discipline or remove Gates from office.

Lomax declined to comment on what steps the commission would take next.

But Commissioner Dan Garcia said Wednesday’s briefing should not be seen as a first step toward removing Gates from office.

“We want to know how to go about disciplining officers, including the chief of police,” Garcia said. He added, however, that Gates’ hold over the department appears tenuous.

“It’s clear there is a very serious crisis in leadership,” Garcia said. “There are many people from all different walks of life . . . who are expressing a lack of confidence in the leadership in the department. That’s a serious problem.

“But we’re going to be careful,” Garcia continued. “A lot of people want us to go lynch somebody right away, but we’re going to be fair to everybody.”

Garcia predicted that the commission would take no action against Gates until after the commission’s investigation into the King beating is completed, which could take more than a month.

For 2 1/2 weeks, Gates has been under pressure from politicians and community leaders to resign or retire because of public outrage over the King beating. The incident, televised across the country, has generated a national debate on police brutality.

The Los Angeles County Grand Jury last week indicted four police officers on charges related to the beating. The grand jury’s investigation is continuing, as is a U.S. Justice Department investigation into allegations of brutality by Los Angeles police officers. Gates appeared to be surprised to hear about the commissioners’ briefing.

“Haven’t heard a word,” Gates said while returning to Parker Center police headquarters after the City Council hearing. “Haven’t heard a word.”

After the closed-door briefing, the commission held its second public hearing to gather community input for an exhaustive inquiry into the Police Department’s procedures and allegations of widespread brutality by officers against minorities.

The Police Commission session Wednesday afternoon was the chief’s second public hearing of the day. Gates was summoned to the City Council in the morning, ostensibly to explain the circumstances behind a police brutality lawsuit that cost the city $625,000. Almost immediately, however, discussion of the videotaped beating overshadowed the agenda item.

Gates made an emotional plea to the council members to support his department and his tenure as chief, reminding them of the many police projects he has supported in their districts.

“This City Council, which is representative of all the people of the city, needs to stand up and do exactly that (support the Police Department) at this point,” Gates said. “There isn’t one of you who hasn’t called to us for assistance and you know we’ve always been there. . . . “

Councilman Michael Woo then asked if the chief was threatening to withhold services to council members who fail to support him.

“That is the most insulting thing I’ve heard on this council floor in a long time,” Gates snapped at Woo, “and I’ve been here a lot longer than you’ve been alive!”

It was a rare display of anger from the chief, who seemed fatigued by the crisis.

“The chief of police will one day leave this department . . .” he told the council to cheers from the audience. “But not because of those folks (the protesters).”

Some conservative council members said they would support the chief.

“I do support him. I’d like to see him stay,” said Councilman Hal Bernson, who represents part of the Valley. “I think he’s very capable and has the ability to do what’s necessary” to rebuild confidence in the department.

Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores hugged the chief after he entered the council chambers. “It’s a difficult issue,” she said. “I think the chief has done a good job. . . . If you’ve got a broken arm, I don’t know if cutting off your head is the way to fix it.”

Privately, some council members have said they do not feel Gates’ ouster would solve all of the department’s problems. Some council aides say that the council members fear the political backlash of appearing to be anti-police when the city is being ravaged by crime. Still other staffers say the council members fear that if they attack the chief it could hurt their efforts to obtain special police services in their districts.

To date, no council member has called for Gates to resign.

Bradley’s remarks about Gates’ future came as the mayor returned Wednesday afternoon from a business trip to Hawaii. “People are not calling on 8,300 officers to retire,” he said. “They are calling on the chief. The only way to start the healing process is for him to remove himself from the center of (the) storm.”

After Wednesday’s council session, Gates offered his first response to Bradley’s comments.

“I’ve indicated over and over again I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “That’s all there is to it. It’s rehashing what has already been hashed over.”

Asked about Bradley saying that Gates could restore confidence in department by stepping down, the chief responded: “I wish I could restore my energy by going to Hawaii.”

Independent moves to force Gates from office also gathered momentum Wednesday.

Civil rights groups announced a campaign to coax recently retired Assistant Chief Jesse Brewer back to replace Gates. Brewer was the highest-ranking black officer in the department.

The announcement came after a coalition of 20 community leaders--from groups including the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Nation of Islam--held a closed meeting to develop strategies to force Gates from office.

“If anybody thinks the pressure will relent, they’re in for a big surprise,” said John Mack, president of the Los Angeles Urban League. “This community will remain determined.”

Bill Shearer, vice president and general manager of radio station KGFJ and a leader of the coalition, praised Brewer for his “impeccable credentials.”

Shearer said he had contacted Brewer about the plan, but said Brewer “has implied that he’s not excited about accepting such a challenge.” He added that Brewer said he might accept the post if a coalition of community leaders persuaded him to do so.

Gates also faces a campaign for his ouster by community activists and religious leaders under a provision in the City Charter that allows citizens to recall appointed officials.

The grass-roots effort is expected to get started today with the publishing of a legal notice in The Times giving Gates notice as required under the City Charter. Petitioners can then begin trying to collect about 60,000 signatures that would be needed to qualify for a special election.

Even though the city attorney’s office issued an opinion in 1987 that the heads of all city departments are subject to the recall provision, senior Assistant City Atty. Merkin said his office is studying whether the charter covers the police chief.

Gates walked into the commission chambers Wednesday to a chorus of boos. Lomax--describing plans to conduct an exhaustive review of the Police Department--was drowned out by a crowd screaming “Gates got to go! Gates got to go!” interspersed with one man’s cry, “You bigot!”

Gates had a handful of supporters, too. One voice shouted “Hang in there Daryl! Gates must stay!”

Early in the meeting, Ramona Ripston, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, announced that she had 10,000 letters demanding Gates’ resignation. She had her staff dump a dozen boxes of them on the stage.

Earlier, 20 television news crews descended on the marble-lined City Council chambers, awaiting Gates’ appearance. The chief arrived just after 11 a.m. and stood by stone-faced as a dozen members of the public sharply criticized him and his department.

Some said they were angered by revelations in the King case, including the release of transcripts showing that some officers involved in the beating made racial slurs.

One speaker, Mervin Evans of Los Angeles, said he was angered by reports that some of the officers involved in the beating and other police officials had downplayed the extent of King’s injuries in police reports.

“I am shocked that members of the LAPD would try to cover up this incident,” Evans said. “Police confidence has been shaken to the core. Confidence in the chief is gone.”

After the meeting ended--with a small band of critics booming “Gates got to go!” and camera lights glaring--Gates was besieged with questions from reporters about calls for his resignation and Bradley’s remarks.

Gates strained a smile and tried to brush aside the questions as he made his way out of the chambers, accompanied by a circle of plainclothes police officers and aides.

But the protesters and the phalanx of local and national media pursued the chief down hallways and stairwells, out of City Hall and a full block to the front door of Parker Center.

In stark contrast to the reception Gates received earlier in the day, his remarks to a group of about 80 business leaders dining at the Los Angeles Hilton on Wednesday night were frequently interrupted by applause and laughter. A reporter was barred from the meeting but could hear the reception from the hotel lobby.

Afterward, city Parks and Recreation Commissioner Richard Riordan said Gates got a “very positive and very constructive reception. . . . They were very, very supportive.”

Leaving the hotel, Gates said: “I’m always encouraged when I have my friends around me--people who support me and, more importantly, who support the Police Department.”

He added, “no one asked me if I’m staying, but I told them, ‘I’m staying.”’

Also on Wednesday, the directors of the Los Angeles Police Protective League voted to continue paying legal fees for the indicted officers. League President George Aliano said police officers need to know “that if that happened to them, they’d have a place to go.”

Times staff writers Tina Anima, Leslie Berger, Glenn F. Bunting, James Rainey, Richard A. Serrano, Sheryl Stolberg and Tracy Wood contributed to this story.


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