Chaleff Firing Sends a Message to Parks

Susan Estrich is a professor of law and political science at USC

Morale in the Los Angeles Police Department is dangerously low, leading experienced officers to leave and leading promising would-be recruits to look elsewhere. And city residents, particularly in high-crime areas, are increasingly afraid. While crime is down overall since Mayor Richard Riordan took office seven years ago, lately the rate has been increasing while the arrest rate has been declining. The mayor is determined not to leave office later this year with a legacy of increasing crime.

Recently, Riordan created quite a flap by firing the president of the Police Commission, Gerald Chaleff. Because Chaleff was seen as a thorn in the side of Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, many people interpreted this move as one in support of Parks. But that’s not the only possible explanation. Here’s another: Riordan, concerned about the crime rates, was unhappy with Chaleff, and he’s unhappy with Parks.

So why didn’t Riordan fire the chief of police, who surely can be held more responsible for crime rates than a Police Commission president? For one thing, the mayor of Los Angeles does not have the power to remove the chief. He doesn’t even have the power to initiate a process to remove the chief.


As Kelly Martin, the mayor’s chief of staff and herself an experienced attorney, explained it, there are two processes provided by the charter for removing the chief of police: one initiated by the Police Commission, which can vote to fire the chief, and one initiated by the City Council. If the commission initiates the process, and the City Council does not assert jurisdiction, the mayor has five days to overturn the decision. If the City Council initiates the process, the mayor is permitted to testify at a hearing on the firing, but he cannot veto the council’s decision.

In other words, the mayor can save the chief, but he can’t fire him. If he wants to shake things up, under the charter, he must do so through his appointments to the commission.

The recent event involving Chaleff is not just about police reform, no matter how much the mayor’s critics would like to cast it as such. Last November, the mayor, despite his concern about the prospect of federal meddling in the running of the police department, agreed to a comprehensive series of reforms contained in a consent decree signed by the city and the federal government.

But while the debate about reform is getting all the ink, it is the increasing crime rate, and the fact that arrests are dropping even as reported crime is increasing, that the mayor is hearing about from city residents, and that he is determined to aggressively address.

To do this, Riordan wants--and needs--a Police Commission president who will stand up to the chief and to the department. The acting commission president, Rochelle de la Rocha, took a strong tone in her first meeting, indicating she will not be afraid to stand up to the department. This is as it should be. Obviously, Riordan did not think he had that kind of president in Chaleff. But it’s no secret that the mayor is unhappy with the chief as well.

On Friday, Mayor Riordan announced that an agreement had been reached between the chief and the Police Protective League to meet and confer on new disciplinary guidelines for the department, a first step to address an issue that has plagued the department and contributed to its low morale.


Public service is a messy and often thankless business. Gerald Chaleff deserves the gratitude of the residents of Los Angeles for devoting himself tirelessly to the city’s work since his appointment by Riordan.

But the reality of politics is that you stir the pot by changing the ingredients; you change things by changing the people who run them. With five months to go, Mayor Riordan is determined to fight the increasing crime rate. So he decided to shake things up, and whatever people think of his decision, it is clear that he has.