The Los Angeles City Council on Friday voted to stick with a police chief selection process that has come under attack for excluding Latinos as finalists and has been muddied by legal uncertainty over when Chief Daryl F. Gates will retire.
The council voted 8 to 4 against Councilman Richard Alatorre's motion to delay the selection of a chief until after voters decide in June whether to adopt a package of significant reforms affecting the way chiefs are selected. The Police Commission is planning to appoint Gates' successor next month.
Alatorre's motion was prompted by the exclusion of two high-scoring Latino candidates from the list of six finalists for the job. The finalists include two blacks and four whites.
The debate pitted Alatorre's concerns about fairness to the Latino community against arguments that any delay in the selection process would hinder the campaign to reform the Los Angeles Police Department in the aftermath of the Rodney G. King beating.
Latino leaders in the drive to overturn the existing system attacked the council's action Friday and vowed to keep fighting.
"We intend to raise hell about this," said Xavier Hermosillo, chairman of a Latino community group called NEWS for America. "The refusal of the council to go along with this . . . shows an unwillingness to deal with the changing population of Los Angeles, which is 40% Latino. . . . The council's action does nothing to ease racial tensions that already exist in this city."
The council vote had been the subject of intense lobbying by Mayor Tom Bradley's office to keep the police reform process on track. One challenge facing the mayor was to prevent a council vote that divided along ethnic lines. He succeeded.
The majority that voted against Alatorre's motion included Latino, Anglo, Asian and African-American members of the council.
But although an ethnic confrontation was avoided in the council chambers, frayed tempers, cries of racism and profane insults left some worried about the future of city politics.
"This debate is a preview of the racial tension that could tear this city apart," Councilman Michael Woo said. "This is the kind of thing that happened in the Deep South where poor whites were pitted against poor blacks."
The list of six finalists is headed by Police Commissioner Willie L. Williams of Philadelphia and LAPD Deputy Chief Bernard C. Parks, both of whom are black. Two Latinos--Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Division Chief Lee Baca and Ruben Ortega, a former Phoenix police chief--would have made the final cut if not for the scoring advantage for LAPD candidates.
Under current rules, an outsider must score higher than all insiders to make the final cut. The reforms on the June 2 ballot would remove that advantage.
Ortega expressed dismay at the entire process.
"There's too much uncertainty now; too much confusion about what's going to happen. . . . It's not clean, it's not concise, it's not clear. The city has a major problem on its hands."
Apart from threats of ethnic divisiveness, the selection process has also been thrown into doubt by a city attorney's office opinion issued this week. The opinion warned that if police reforms on the June 2 ballot are approved by voters and take effect before Gates retires, the new chief's appointment could be invalidated.
If voters defeat the proposed reforms, the appointment would take effect as soon as Gates steps down.
Further complicating matters is the timing of Gates' departure. Although Gates has said he plans to retire before the beginning of July, he has said he plans to use accrued vacation time that will prolong his term.
If he is chief when the election results are certified in late June or early July, the voter-approved changes would invalidate any earlier appointment and mandate a new selection system, according to the opinion by the city attorney's office.
On Friday, Gates again refused to set a specific retirement date, and pointedly noted: "I have stacks and stacks of (vacation) time."
Another obstacle is posed by a civil service appeal filed by Baca, who would have placed third among the six finalists if the City Charter had not provided an advantage to LAPD candidates.
Baca said he will drop his fight if his appeal is rejected at a Civil Service Commission hearing next Friday. "That will be the end of it for me. I don't see any purpose in pursuing the matter further," Baca said. "It's been an interesting experience. I wish the best to the six candidates for the remaining portion of the selection process."
If Baca prevails, it would probably invalidate the interview process that produced the list of six finalists, city Personnel Department officials said.
The selection process has also been marked by a series of allegations made by NEWS for America, which charged that three finalists may have been involved in obstruction of justice and other violations of department policy.
The Police Commission, which ordered an internal investigation of the charges, received a closed-door briefing on the investigation Friday. The finalists in question--Assistant Chief David D. Dotson, Parks and Deputy Chief Matthew V. Hunt--have strongly denied the allegations.
Through it all, Police Commission President Stanley K. Sheinbaum has insisted that his panel will go forward with its plan to select Gates' successor next month.
But he sharply criticized Gates for first notifying the commission that he would leave in April, and later saying he would remain until after the June election to campaign against changes in the chief selection process.
"He gave his word and shifted it. . . . It's difficult for us to deal with. It's difficult for the public," Sheinbaum said.
Sheinbaum bristled when reporters suggested that Gates, in effect, controls the selection process because he can accelerate or postpone his retirement as he wishes.
"No. No!" Sheinbaum snapped. "He can't delay. He's caused too much disruption thus far."
Delays in choosing Gates' successor "could throw the selection process in disarray," he said, as well as risk the withdrawal of some candidates.
For example, he predicted that the top-scoring finalist, Williams, would find it politically difficult to remain in the running through months of uncertainty.
Reached in Philadelphia, Williams declined to say whether he will wait out the selection process if it dragged on through July. "I will not comment on any legal issues being debated or any actions of the City Council," he said tersely.
Sources in Philadelphia's Police Department said they expected Williams to stay with the process and remain under active consideration even if a decision was held off until summer.
Another finalist, Deputy LAPD Chief Mark A. Kroeker, said he was more confused than angered by the possibility that the selection process for chief could become moot.
"It's been a lot of hard work going through all this but when all is said and done, I'm willing to go through it again. . . . My position is sit tight and remain available."
Voting against Alatorre's proposal to delay the process were Council members Joy Picus, Mark Ridley-Thomas, Mike Hernandez, Rita Walters, Marvin Braude, Woo, Ernani Bernardi and Ruth Galanter. On the losing side were Alatorre, John Ferraro, Joan Milke Flores and Hal Bernson.
One of the strongest arguments Alatorre's supporters had to make--that the exclusion of Latino candidates discriminated against the city's large Latino population--was undercut by the number of Latino leaders, including Hernandez, who opposed Alatorre's motion.
People on the losing side blamed Latino opposition to Alatorre on a longstanding rivalry between rival political camps, Alatorre's and that of Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. Hernandez succeeded Molina as council member for the city's 1st District and did so with her support.
Molina opposed Alatorre's motion. No one from her office took part in the floor debate that preceded the vote, but Antonio Villaraigosa, a Molina appointee to the board of the Southern California Rapid Transit District, spoke against the proposal.
On Alatorre's side, a number of prominent Latino officeholders and organizations were represented, including State Sen. Art Torres, the Mexican-American Political Assn., Los Angeles Unified School District board member Leticia Quezada, La Ley--an organization of Latino officers within the city Police Department--and NEWS for America, the group of politically active Latino business and professional people that spearheaded the drive to stop the selection process.
Times staff writers Rich Connell, Michael Connelly and George Ramos contributed to this story.