Chief’s Inflexibility Doomed Him
It wasn’t Mayor Jim Hahn who did in Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks, and it wasn’t the Police Commission. If City Council members make it a trifecta, it won’t be them either.
Bernie Parks has always been dedicated, and sometimes he’s been an inspiration, and he brought a much-deserved sense of relief to a community that had lived in fear of unscrupulous thugs wearing badges.
But Parks was sunk by the very thing that drove him to the top of a force he served through four decades--the myopic conviction that by sheer will, he, and he alone, could fix what was wrong with the LAPD.
If there was anything surprising about Tuesday’s Police Commission vote, it was only the margin. As deliberations dragged on behind closed doors, people began wondering if Parks might find a third vote of support among the five commissioners. But in the end it was 4 to 1, which makes it all the more clear it’s time for Parks to go.
“Violent crime has continued to rise ... while cities such as New York and Chicago are experiencing a drop,” said Rick Caruso, head of the Police Commission.
But crime rises and falls in every city, often without any direct relationship to what police do or don’t do. Parks’ greater liabilities were rock-bottom morale, which has led to an 1,100-officer shortage, and an inability to accept a glaring truth:
As the Christopher Commission report put it 10 years ago, the LAPD’s problems are part of an inbred, entrenched, closed culture that can only be saved by opening it up to outside review.
Parks would have none of it.
The Rampart scandal? Not a problem. The chief’s got it under control, and if you happen to hear anything to the contrary, it’s because the L.A. Times has “ginned up” a meager little story. A story that begins, incidentally, back in 1994, when Parks himself headed the Internal Affairs division that first heard complaints of rogue cops brutalizing citizens and planting evidence.
“The Christopher Commission said you’ve got to turn away from the insular, retaliatory, bunker culture; the culture that sinks Serpicos and anybody who blows a whistle,” said Constance Rice, a civil rights attorney who has represented victims of abuse, as well as officers with grievances against the department.
“When you don’t share information with the D.A., you don’t share with the inspector general, and in fact get in the way of information he needs; and you don’t share information with the police commissioners, that’s the old culture,” she said.
“When you say you can take care of your own problems with a ‘policing ourselves’ culture, you’re going to have Rampart and you’re going to have Rodney King.”
Rice, who is African American, believes Mayor Hahn bungled the Parks affair, publicly withdrawing his support without first building an argument for it in the black community and elsewhere.
“He threw a grenade into the process and badly politicized it, and it’s not salvageable at this point,” she said of Hahn’s relationship with the black community, which helped put him where he is.
But Rice agreed with the substance of Hahn’s stand on Parks, and had the courage to say so in a crowd of 1,500 at Second Baptist Church.
“I was the only one in the room who said Parks shouldn’t get a second term,” said Rice.
Parks, she said, will tell you that Internal Affairs is the engine for reform, rather than outside review.
“Internal Affairs is the problem. It’s like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.”
The black community had good reason to feel comfortable with Parks in charge, Rice said, but it should have been more demanding.
“I used to drive down Crenshaw, and there wasn’t a time I didn’t see someone pulled over in what looked like a suspicious stop,” she said.
“The attitude of the cops was, ‘We own the streets.’ When the changes came, I expected the community to say, ‘We like this guy. He comes to our churches, he comes to dinner, cops are respecting us. What more do you want?’
“But I’m looking at it as a civil rights attorney who has studied the system for 15 years, met with cops and lawyers and judges, and wants to get to the point where it doesn’t matter who the chief is.”
Parks has insisted that he’s demanded the same professionalism from every officer, and if morale is low as a result, so be it. But some cops have told me they see it differently, and Rice does too.
“He’s fired some cops who should have been fired, but also kept some who should have been fired. There are people everyone knows committed the same offenses as someone who got fired, but because they’re in the chief’s camp, they’re not even investigated. Yes, there is a group out to get him, and some of those are racist cops. But the vast majority of officers are not in that camp. They’re concerned about how discipline is implemented, how fair it is and how consistent.”
But for all of their intellectual differences, Rice has grown to respect Parks.
“Everything he does is out of the profound belief that it’s for the good of the department, which he loves as much as he loves life. What he does is not venal or a power trip or anything else. It’s totally to serve. He’s blue. LAPD blue.
“But I’ve been locked in a room with him in negotiations and seen him interact with Jim Hahn, mediators and judges, and that rigidity and inflexibility is ferocious to the point that it’s the elephant in the room.
“Is he a great cop? No question. Is he dedicated? Off the scale. But when it comes to leadership and the capacity to move people and sell his vision, it didn’t work, and a lot of it had to do with his inability to hear anyone else.”
Steve Lopez writes Sunday, Wednesday and Friday.