Some special-interest groups have transformed the horrible beating of Rodney King into the political lynching of Daryl Gates.
They say they simply want to rein in an "out of control" Los Angeles Police Department. In fact, the King beating offers these groups a convenient pretext to resume their longstanding quest for control over the LAPD and the hiring and firing of its chief.
These groups have lost interest--if they ever had any--in King. What animates them is a bizarre dream of turning the clocks back to the early 1920s, when the LAPD was politically controlled and a job in the department was the best that money could buy.
Landmark reforms in 1938 changed all that. Civil Service rules shielded police officers from the whims of politicians. The LAPD, unlike its counterparts on the East Coast, owed nothing to politicians. As a result, the LAPD remains uncorrupted, securely out of the reach of elected officials and groups who would politicize it.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and other groups now want to punish the chief for the sin of upholding this tradition of keeping politics out of police work.
The ruling on Monday by Superior Court Judge Ronald Sohigian now has these same groups crying foul. They claim that the Police Commission is no longer an independent body in control of the Police Department, but an entity now subject to the political whims of the City Council.
Nothing can be further from the truth. In fact, Sohigian's decision is a reaffirmation of Los Angeles' longstanding municipal-charter form of government. The judge saw through the commission's actions and properly empowered the council to settle a lawsuit that could have cost the city millions of dollars in damages.
The Police Commission still has authority over the police department and can change the rules and regulations to ensure its control. Indeed, the commission-approved LAPD manual governs just about every aspect of an officer's daily routine. Training of both recruits in the academy and officers on the job is under direct management of the Police Commission.
If special-interest groups judge the LAPD's record to be less than admirable, they should look to the Police Commission, which bears the ultimate responsibility, for corrective action. Sadly, the commission and these groups wanted to take the easy and expedient way out--by firing Gates without cause.
Sohigian's decision in the Gates case does not alter the Police Commission's power over the police department in any manner. And it does not undermine the city's traditional commission form of government. The legal victory for the chief just reaffirms the fact that the Police Commission must follow its own policies and procedures in taking disciplinary action against any officer, including the chief.
While the chief has won, special-interest groups are still attacking the Police Department. It is extremely disturbing to see more than 8,300 officers and their chief tarred with the same brush as the four indicted in the King beating. In some full-page newspaper ads, the LAPD is equated with vicious criminal gangs that plague our city.
Los Angeles police officers made more than 304,000 arrests last year; less than 1% involved use of force. And of that number, less than 1% resulted in a citizen's complaint. That is a remarkable record and, unfortunately, one often overlooked.
In all the furor surrounding Chief Gates, no one has charged that he broke the law, violated any commission rule or failed to carry out department policies. At worst, he has been accused of making intemperate remarks.
Along with everyone else, I was appalled by the beating of Rodney King. But that incident no more justifies the removal of Gates than does the conviction of a federal judge for tax evasion warrant the impeachment of the President.
Quite the contrary. Gates' strong leadership is needed more than ever to develop new methods of preventing a similar occurrence in the future. Removing him would demoralize the department and send a chilling message to police officers and the public: Despite years of dedicated service, a public servant who falls out of favor with the politicians and special-interest groups stands little chance of keeping his job.
There is a proper role for special-interest groups to play. They should suggest constructive ways to improve the LAPD's policies and procedures without sacrificing an iota of its morale and efficiency.
We must not make Daryl Gates or the King beating a political issue, pitting one ethnic community against another. We must unmask the political motives of the anti-Gates groups for what they are and move on to heal the city's wounds.