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Echoes of the McCone Commission

Although the first public hearing of the Christopher Commission produced little new information, the session took on an importance that went far beyond its sparse contents.

That was largely because of the prestige of the chairman of the Independent Commission on the Los Angeles Police Department, Warren Christopher, a prominent attorney.

His achievements as a diplomat and adviser to presidents, governors and mayors have raised hopes that the commission might get to the bottom of the Rodney King beating. But hope is mixed with skepticism, based on the history of most government commissions.

They tend to be created in crisis to give the appearance of action while permitting government officials to continue business as usual. Mayor Tom Bradley is especially fond of them, having appointed such bodies to address everything from city budget deficits to the global oil shortage.

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Much of the current skepticism is based on the performance of the most famous commission in recent Los Angeles history, the McCone Commission, created to examine the causes of the 1965 Watts rebellion and propose cures for them. In doing that, the McCone Commission, like the Christopher group, probed the Los Angeles Police Department.

Reading the report today, it’s clear that the commission ignored racism and brutality in the department. Moreover, it seemed unaware of powerful social currents sweeping the city in the ‘60s. “Elementary, superficial, unoriginal and unimaginative” is how an advisory committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission described the commission report.

The writer of the McCone report was a 39-year-old lawyer who was just beginning to taste success. His name was Warren Christopher.

This crisis comes in a different era, and as a result Christopher might find better success this time than he did with the Watts panel.

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The McCone Commission was doomed from the start. The Democratic governor, Pat Brown, was in big political trouble from the Watts riots, which exacerbated damage to him from the UC Berkeley Free Speech Movement demonstrations the year before. To mollify conservatives, he appointed a commission headed by a conservative Los Angeles Establishment figure, John McCone, former head of the CIA.

It was Christopher’s burden as vice chairman and principal draftsman to both please McCone and satisfy the nervous governor, whose chief political adviser, Hale Champion, was constantly coaching him from the sidelines. It was an impossible position. No wonder the report was a compromise at best, a whitewash at worst.

A lot has happened to Christopher in the last 25 years. He’s chairman of one of California’s most powerful law firms, served in the Justice Department, and as deputy secretary of state won international acclaim for negotiating the release of the hostages held by Iran.

In short, he’s made it. And this time he’s too big for any sideline coaching from City Hall, especially from a mayor who is wobbling rapidly toward lame-duck status.

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The McCone Commission’s charter was broader, and thus more difficult, than that of Christopher’s commission. In examining the causes of the Watts riot, the McCone Commission was searching currents deep in the nation’s society and history. Unemployment, bad education, and racism were among the reasons for the insurrection. All of them exist today.

As Geoffrey Taylor Gibbs, an attorney representing the Langston Bar Assn., an African-American group, told the Christopher Commission on Wednesday: “In 26 years, the only thing that has changed in Los Angeles is that the community under siege refers to itself as African-American rather than Negro.”

The Christopher Commission’s job, on the other hand, is manageable--find out what’s wrong in one city department, the LAPD, and propose ways of fixing it.

Manageable, but will it do it? The process so far is labor-intensive--studying more than a million documents, interviewing cops in closed sessions. If there’s anything hot, that’s where it’s happening.

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The focus is on the mundane--how patrol officers do their jobs, how they are recruited and trained. He told me he was highly interested in the testimony of the head of the police union, Lt. George Aliano, who told of the tough life of a patrol officer.

Are the commissioners going to go higher, up where the McCone Commission feared to venture--the office of chief of police? The McCone Commission didn’t touch the chief because politics shaped the course of its investigation and report.

The only limitations on the Christopher Commission and its prestigious chairman would be self-imposed. Christopher said the commission report will deal with Chief Daryl F. Gates, but he didn’t say how.


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