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Caruso Leaving Helm of LAPD Panel as Term Ends

Times Staff Writers

Real estate developer Rick Caruso steps down today after serving two years as president of the Los Angeles Police Commission, which he helped reshape from a department rubber stamp to a more independent panel that denied former LAPD Chief Bernard C. Parks a second term.

“Before, we had a police commission that did the chief’s bidding,” said Joe Gunn, retired commission executive director. “Rick Caruso came in and immediately said we would listen to outside opinions, but ultimately we would do the right thing. And sometimes that meant not doing the politically correct thing.”

Caruso, who will remain on the police board, is expected to be succeeded by David Cunningham III. The commission president cannot serve two consecutive two-year terms.

“I really believe that everybody’s strengths are also your weaknesses,” Caruso said. “I lay it on the line and I take a lot of pride in being honest. I admit I don’t have a lot of tolerance for politics for the sake of politics. It’s not my job to figure that out but to determine what the best position is.”

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Police union vice president Mitzi Grasso said Caruso “brought a breath of fresh air and a sense of well-being to the department.”

“He’s done a tremendous job as the president and he’s one phenomenal leader,” said Councilman Dennis Zine. “I’m pleased to hear that he’s remaining on the board.

“He cut through the red tape and bureaucracy and has been highly successful. He doesn’t think in the box, he doesn’t think outside the box, he creates the box.”

Taking on Tasks

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During Caruso’s tenure, the commission overhauled the LAPD’s disciplinary procedures, recruitment and work schedules. The department also came to grips with reforms required by a deal that ended the threat of a federal civil rights lawsuit against the LAPD.

The commission moved to restore the popular senior lead officer community policing program suspended by Parks, to limit high speed police chases, to replace the aging LAPD headquarters at Parker Center and create an independent commission to review whether the department’s response to the Rampart corruption scandal has been adequate.

The man responsible for building the Grove, the Promenade at Westlake and the Commons at Calabasas has suffered setbacks as well. The commission backed away from its prior decision to not respond to unverified burglar alarms, choosing instead to allow two false alarms annually. Caruso was the lone dissenter.

While many of those actions shaped day-to-day policies of the LAPD, the panel’s most visible and controversial decision came in April 2002 when Parks was turned out after one five-year term as police chief.

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Commissioners, who are appointed by the mayor with the consent of the City Council, also oversaw the nationwide search for his replacement, which brought former New York City Police Commissioner William J. Bratton to Los Angeles.

Before becoming chief, Bratton recalled the first meeting with Caruso when the Brentwood businessman bluntly told him that he didn’t think he was right for the chief’s job in Los Angeles. “He took some umbrage at some of my comments that saw him as critical of the department,” Bratton said.

“It’s ironic in a sense that he wanted to change police leadership because of all the problems. Over time, he came to appreciate where I was coming from.”

Bratton said Caruso was “the driving influence” at the commission, saying he chose to run the board like a business. “He’s a bottom-line-focused person, saying, ‘Let’s cut through all the red tape and get to the bottom line; how do we get this done?’ ”

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Caruso received an undergraduate degree from USC and is a Pepperdine law school graduate. It was his father, Hank, a multimillionaire who began the Dollar Rent A Car chain, who made sure his son became a lawyer. Caruso, 44, owns Caruso Affiliated Holdings, a development company. It also controls franchise rights to California Pizza Kitchen restaurants from Santa Monica through Malibu and Santa Clarita to San Luis Obispo.

The father of four has been a longtime player in city politics. He served 15 years on the board of the Department of Water and Power under Mayors Tom Bradley and Richard Riordan, including an extended period as president. In 2000, his nomination to the Harbor Commission was rejected by the City Council, but he was named to the police commission by Mayor James K. Hahn in 2001.

In the vortex of city politics, Caruso could also be dominating, impatient and arrogant, according to those inside and outside of the department. He sometimes would cut off a long-winded colleague with a dismissive wave of the hand, or repeatedly look at his watch.

He could at times be seen leaning backward in his chair and staring skyward as if he were poolside, reclining in a chaise longue.

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He also could be outspoken to a fault, getting involved in a controversy after allegations that he called Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles) a “bitch” during the Parks debate.

But Caruso also showed a funny and sensitive side. Silvia Saucedo said Caruso would cut through tension with well-timed jokes and sometimes change a hardened position after hearing an emotionally charged plea.

He would quietly slip into the hospital to visit an injured officer or victim, in one case donating thousands of dollars to the parents of an infant boy whose arm was torn off when a car was hit in Sylmar by suspects fleeing from police.

Vote a Disappointment

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And Caruso was fiercely protective of his staff. He was incensed over the treatment of Gunn, who had championed the commission’s decision to stop responding to false burglar alarms, on his last day before his retirement. Caruso called the vote to reverse the new policy the most disappointing of his tenure and worried that it could portend a break in the independence he had tried so hard to build.

Jeff Eglash, former inspector general, praised Caruso’s legacy, including bringing in a reform-minded chief and moving forward aggressively to comply with the federal consent decree imposed on the city after the Rampart scandal.

“There is no question the commission under Caruso is stronger and is in charge of the department,” Eglash said.

“The department has been reorganized and outsiders brought into the highest rank, bringing energy and new ideas with them.”

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Cunningham, 48, an attorney, is the son of a former Los Angeles city councilman, David Cunningham Jr. He was the lone member of the five -member police commission last year to support Parks for a second term.

Cunningham, an African American, began his legal career with the U.S. Justice Department specializing in voter-rights issues. He has served on the boards and committees of the Los Angeles Urban League, the Watts Health Foundation Community Trust and the Los Angeles Bar Assn.


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