Parks Gets a Second Chance

James K. Hahn's election as mayor of Los Angeles appears to have given Police Chief Bernard C. Parks a new lease on his professional life and made the Police Protective League a strong player in the running of the Police Department. The league's newfound power, when combined with Hahn's choices for the Police Commission and Parks' well-established reluctance to implement fundamental change, do not bode well for the kind of serious reform called for in the consent decree that the city negotiated with the U.S. Justice Department.

Parks' hold on the chief's job is problem No.1. During the mayoral campaign, Hahn, unlike most of his competitors, left open the door to renewing Parks' contract. One reason is Hahn's long-time alliance with the city's African American community. Unlike the rest of the city during the unfolding of the Rampart corruption scandal, black support for Parks remained strong and solid. Announcing that he would not automatically seek his termination was a signal from Hahn that he took black concerns about the chief seriously--sort of.

For Hahn's simultaneous pursuit of the Protective League's endorsement set off a powerful new dynamic for Parks to deal with. Hahn obtained that endorsement after he signed a written pledge to implement a three-day workweek for some cops within 90 days of his swearing in. Initially, Parks adamantly opposed the truncated work schedule, but after a post-election meeting with Hahn, he announced he'd implement it. Nevertheless, the league remains highly skeptical of Parks and badly wants him removed. In securing the police union's endorsement, it should be noted, Hahn also did a back flip on Parks, assuring league officials that, as the union tells it, he was "not committed to retaining the current chief of police."

The Protective League has reason to be skeptical. Parks has been remarkably ineffective at achieving goals he believes in, such as meeting former Mayor Richard Riordan's goal of adding 1,000 new officers to the department. According to a recent Los Angeles grand jury report, the number of LAPD officers, which slightly exceeds 9,000 today, has actually declined by 800 during the past two years; the department has lost 30% of the officers it had on the force five years ago. Meanwhile, the number of applicants has dropped from 14,000 in 1995 to under 7,000 in 1999.

How warmly, then, can Parks embrace a three-day work schedule that's good for union members but that he thinks is wrong-headed policy for the department and the city? Moreover, how fully will the chief cooperate with a federal monitor assigned to measure his department's compliance with the consent decree when he can't even abide an inspector general?

"He's certainly taken a position on a number of issues that make it difficult for him to change and move in an opposite direction," says Richard E. Drooyan, who led the Police Commission's investigation of the Rampart scandal. "[And] this is a critical year. His working relationship with the commission, his ability to implement reforms--all are critical issues as to whether he should be replaced."

"It's going to be difficult for Parks to get big things done," adds Dave Smith, a former LAPD area commander who retains close ties to the department.

Many rank-and-file cops and field commanders who are not members of Parks' inner circle also wonder about Parks' commitment to reform. The chief's failure to implement the Christopher Commission reforms, most notably, a computerized system to track abusive officers, is well-documented. In any case, there's little upward communication flow, because Parks doesn't want any feedback from below. And with department morale so low, it will be hard for him to accomplish an ambitious reform agenda even if he is motivated to do so.

Former Asst. Chief David D. Dotson, who once had great respect for Parks' abilities, says that the chief now "appears not to have the kind of depth of judgment and understanding to get along with people and to make things work in the city. .... I'm beginning to think he may not be up to the job."

Hahn, for his part, has never shown the grit needed to take on Parks or any other LAPD chief during his 16 years as city attorney. While he deserves credit for helping negotiate the consent decree, his work on the agreement should be seen for what it was: a sensible reaction to a Justice Department ultimatum that the city had to reform its Police Department or face a lawsuit. A protracted trial, furthermore, could have been personally embarrassing, raising questions such as what he was doing as city attorney to protect the city, whose interests he represented, while it was paying out $144 million to settle lawsuits against the LAPD from 1992 to early 2000?

Hahn's appointments to the Police Commission, announced last week, suggest his new office hasn't emboldened him to challenge Parks. Instead, Hahn has assembled a panel similar to Riordan's, one that Parks dominated. The previous commission took a stand only when pushed to its limits, failed to support its own inspector generals, often allowed itself to be used as a rubber stamp and rarely took its oversight mandate seriously.

It's unfair, of course, to prejudge people's performance or intent, but there's little or nothing in the appointees' backgrounds, save for San Fernando Valley businessman Bert Boeckmann, to suggest that any of them has a strong base of knowledge or experience in police-reform issues or in dealing with a large intractable organization like the LAPD. By the time they've concluded what's known around Parker Center as their "wooing period"--their wining and dining, the helicopter rides and trips to the Police Academy, etc.--and complete the learning curve for members of a commission that meets half a day a week, a crucial year of reform opportunity will have passed. As for Boeckmann, who has served an extraordinary 141/2 years on the commission, if reform means more cops, better recruitment and retention, and lower crime rates, then he's surely a reformer. However, when it comes to a broader view--community policing, police brutality, training, tactics and philosophy of policing--Boeckmann's place on the commission can only be described as a dead seat.

The most charitable interpretation of Hahn's appointments is that fundamental police reform is not an issue for him, and, like Riordan, his priority will be recruitment and retention of officers. The only difference between the two mayors seems to be that the Protective League is going to have more say in Hahn's City Hall than it did in Riordan's.

In the continuing battle to create an accountable Police Department, it appears Hahn has decided on his strategy: allow an inexperienced Police Commission to "run" the LAPD in theory, while its anti-reform chief and self-serving Police Protective League fight it out for who will run it in fact.

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