Riots Transform Campaign on Police Reform
Spawned by the Rodney G. King beating, the measure to reform the Los Angeles Police Department has evolved into a referendum on the worst U.S. riots this century, with leaders on both sides of the issue struggling to harness images for their own purposes.
“History was the great communicator of this campaign,” said Steve Glazer, a strategic consultant hired by Citizens for Law Enforcement and Reform (CLEAR), which is backing Charter Amendment F on Tuesday’s ballot.
“Los Angeles voters and the world watched the Rodney King beating, the Christopher Commission review and findings, the verdict, the riots and the inadequate police response,” Glazer said. “The challenge of the campaigns is to reinforce these historic events or rewrite them.”
Geoffrey Garfield, campaign director for the Police Protective League, the lead opponent of the measure, agreed.
“The campaign evolved into an interpretation of the riots,” Garfield said. “The riots became the context and Rodney King the subtext.”
So as the campaign entered its final stretch, both camps were hastily replacing pictures of the King beating with photographs of burning buildings and looting in political advertisements.
Essentially, Charter Amendment F would limit a police chief to two five-year terms, allow the mayor to select a chief with the approval of the City Council and provide civilian review of officer misconduct by adding a civilian to disciplinary panels.
But the heated debate over the measure went far beyond its provisions after the widespread street violence.
Proponents blamed the Police Department’s slow initial response to the riots on a failure of management--the same management they said has failed to deal with racism and bias among officers.
Opponents charged that the department’s response was stymied by politicians, particularly City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, who urged police to use restraint in the aftermath of not guilty verdicts returned last month in the case of four officers charged with beating King.
The riots changed the political landscape and sent the Charter Amendment F campaigns into a temporary tailspin, said Eric Rose, a City Hall lobbyist and former political consultant to Chief Daryl F. Gates.
“There was a temporary period where both campaigns were in a down mode trying to re-evaluate their strategies,” Rose said. “But the Yes on F effort had a built-in media advantage: 13 months of LAPD-bashing and graphic images of the beating of Rodney King played daily on television.”
The campaign to amend the 60-year-old City Charter began in March as a potential clash between two influential men and the different Los Angeles that each represents.
On the side of change was Warren Christopher, the lawyer and former diplomat who headed the blue-ribbon panel that investigated the Police Department after the King beating. He spoke for the emerging multiracial city and its desire to have greater control over its Police Department. On the other side stood the embattled Gates, representing a more conservative constituency comfortable with the department’s semiautonomous relationship with City Hall.
All that changed in mid-April when the powerful police union belatedly entered the fray, bringing in the New York-based firm of Jerry Austin and Hank Sheinkopf.
Police union leaders talked of their ability to spend $500,000 on the campaign and to dispatch hundreds of off-duty officers to tell voters that the measure amounted to a political grab for control of the department.
The union’s campaign had barely gotten off the ground when it was derailed by the verdicts in the King case and the riots. The promised cadre of “Officer Friendlies” never materialized because police officers were too tired to stump against the measure.
“Who would have thought that riots would put police officers on 14-hour shifts with no days off for two weeks?” Garfield asked. “We had to redouble our efforts to get civilian volunteers.”
The union also produced mailers, radio and television commercials suggesting that politicians contributed to the violence by urging police to use restraint after the verdicts.
But CLEAR strategists pleaded with the officials targeted by the union--including Ridley-Thomas and Mayor Tom Bradley--to keep a low profile and avoid public clashes.
“It becomes critical at certain junctures that we speak with one voice. Sometimes that means some voices are muted while others are louder,” CLEAR spokesman Fred McFarlane said. The tactic “didn’t give our opposition a chance to pick away at personalities,” he said.
Instead, the job of public speaking in support of the measure was left primarily to Christopher and former Police Chiefs Tom Reddin and Ed Davis--all of whom were considered beyond reproach.
The police union has had its own problems dealing with Gates, who many viewed as a liability to the No on F campaign.
Trying to distance themselves from the outspoken chief, union officials argued that Charter Amendment F was placed on the ballot primarily to force Gates to leave. Because Gates has announced his intention to retire at the end of June, they said, there is no need for the measure.
“Gates distracts from the issue,” Garfield said. “Heck, we’ve made a mantra of saying, ‘He’s gone. He’s gone. He’s gone.’ ”
“Think about it!” said a particularly pointed union mailer sent out last week. “If Charter Amendment F passes, and Gates becomes mayor, Daryl Gates will choose our next police chief! Vote no on Charter Amendment F.”
Meanwhile, neither camp was able to muster the $1 million in contributions that some political strategists had predicted it might take to run a successful campaign.
The CLEAR campaign as of Friday had received $627,061 in contributions since March 18--with nearly one-fourth of the total, $141,500, coming in over the past two weeks.
Many of the donations came from big law firms, developers and corporations, including the Walt Disney Co., according to financial statements. Last-minute contributions included a $56,500 donation from Walt Disney Co. President Frank G. Wells, $20,000 from businessman and civic activist Richard Riordan and $5,000 from entertainer Barbra Streisand.
Most of CLEAR’s money was spent on radio commercials, phone bank operations, door-to-door efforts in the San Fernando Valley, East Los Angeles and South Los Angeles, and Democratic and Republic slate mailers going out over the weekend, CLEAR campaign officials said.
CLEAR officials decided against producing a television commercial, which could have cost up to $300,000 a week to saturate a market crowded with the advertisements of a host of state and federal candidates.
The No on Charter Amendment F campaign raised $442,306 between March 18 and Friday, according to its financial report. Most of the money was borrowed from the police union and used to pay for phone bank operations and radio and television commercials, according to its financial statement.
A $278,670 loan from the union paid for controversial radio and television commercials produced by Sheinkopf’s firm.
The union’s first television commercial was turned down by two television stations, which refused to air what they called an inflammatory political advertisement featuring footage of men beating trucker Reginald O. Denny during the first stage of the riots.
Bending to complaints from stations and outraged elected officials, police union President Bill Violante had the footage replaced with less controversial material.
Charter Amendment F is supported by a host of elected officials and community organizations and leaders ranging from the Valley Industrial Commerce Assn. and the United Neighborhoods Organization to the Board of Rabbis of Southern California and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.
Leading opponents include the police union, Gates, former Mayor Sam Yorty, City Council members Hal Bernson, Ernani Bernardi and Joan Milke Flores, several major Republican and homeowner groups and the 1,000-member Latino Business Assn.
“This is a once in a decade opportunity,” Christopher said. “If it fails, the city will be set back for some time, and Chief-designate Willie Williams will be deprived of the tools he needs to do the job.”
Garfield said that what the department needs is more officers and better training.
“There is no provision in Charter Amendment F for the resources to run the kind of Police Department this city needs,” Garfield said. “The measure is a crowbar by which the politicians will pry open and plunder the Police Department.”
Charter Amendment F If approved Tuesday, Charter Amendment F would institute sweeping changes in the Los Angeles Police Department. The measure would reach into all corners of the LAPD, from the civilian Police Commission that oversees it to the chief and rank-and-file officers. Provisions affecting the chief would:
Limit a chief to two five-year terms.
Allow the city’s Personnel Department to screen applicants for the chief’s job and submit the names of six qualified candidates to the Board of Police Commissioners. The board would provide the mayor with a list of three candidates, ranked in order. The mayor would have the authority to appoint the chief, subject to the approval of the City Council.
Provide the Police Commission with the discretionary power to appoint a chief for a second five-year term.
Remove from Civil Service protection the appointment and termination of a chief. Instead, the Police Commission would be given the authority to remove a chief for reasons other than misconduct. The mayor, or the City Council by a two-thirds vote, would have the authority to reverse a commission action to remove a chief. The council would also have the authority to initiate, by a two-thirds vote, the removal of a police chief.
Provisions affecting the civilian
Board of Police Commissioners would:
Limit members of the commission to two five-year terms.
Create an independent civilian executive officer position to assist the panel and allow the commission to appoint an independent staff.
Provisions affecting disciplinary procedures
for police officers would:
Change the composition of a Board of Rights internal hearing panel from three police officers to two officers and a civilian.
Extend the period of time allotted for the Police Department to bring misconduct charges against a police officer.
Allow demotions in rank as a penalty for misconduct.
Make it possible to use police officers’ prior conduct as evidence in disciplinary hearings.
Prevent disability pensions from being awarded for injuries resulting from an officer’s misconduct.
Argument for: It would make the department more accountable by allowing greater City Hall oversight in the selection and removal of a police chief; help eliminate officer misconduct by placing a civilian member on the police disciplinary review panels; strengthen the Police Commission’s ability to independently review LAPD operations; help make for safer streets by improving police discipline procedures.
Argument against: It would make the Police Department and its chief the puppets of City Hall politicians; transform the chief from a professional manager to a political appointee who could be effectively silenced or removed for political reasons; demoralize officers and erode the quality of law enforcement.