Police Beating Case Stirs Up Rifts
At a community center in South Los Angeles and in the council chambers at City Hall, cracks began to emerge Wednesday in what had been a relatively united front in the city’s response to last week’s televised police beating of a black suspect.
There was a clear political undercurrent to much of the tension that surfaced Wednesday, with foes of Mayor James K. Hahn seizing an opportunity to criticize him and his hand-selected police chief as the mayoral race begins to gear up.
Since the June 23 beating of 36-year-old Stanley Miller, most African American leaders had seemed satisfied that LAPD officials were taking the incident seriously. And there appeared to be considerable solidarity among city and police officials in their measured reaction to the beating, which has once again focused unwanted national attention on the Police Department.
But that showed signs of changing Wednesday.
During a terse exchange at the City Council meeting, Councilman Bernard C. Parks, a black former police chief, told Chief William J. Bratton that constituents have complained that Bratton has used racially insensitive language in referring to minorities. Parks, who is running for mayor, was replaced by Bratton after Hahn refused to back Parks for a second term as chief.
And across town, Danny Bakewell, a prominent black activist and a longtime ally of Parks, criticized a civilian panel appointed by Hahn to monitor the incident, saying its members were not representative of the black community, and unveiled his own oversight committee.
Bakewell, at a news conference, picked up a flashlight similar to one a police officer had used to strike Miller. In a dramatic flourish, he brought the large flashlight down heavily on a papaya, a honeydew melon and a cantaloupe, sending juice and seeds spraying into the air.
“That’s the kind of abuse and brutality that goes on in our community,” Bakewell said.
Police Commission President David Cunningham III said he thought all the sniping was counterproductive. “We live in a democracy, and people have the right to express opinions and points of view,” he said. “But the city loses if the focus becomes personalities and politics.”
Bratton, who has sought to assure city residents that the LAPD is not the same department it was during the notorious beating of Rodney G. King in 1991, voluntarily went to City Hall on Wednesday with two of his top officials to brief the council.
The presentation was part of Bratton’s strategy to keep city officials updated on the department’s findings. Bratton, who took over as chief in October 2002, has acknowledged that his handling of the Miller case is a test of his administration.
Over the last week, the chief has won praise for his calming rhetoric and promises of a thorough and open investigation.
But while several council members applauded Bratton for his briefing, at least two wanted more answers.
Councilman Jack Weiss, a former federal prosecutor, pressed Bratton for details on when the officers were separated after the incident and the circumstances surrounding the discovery of a pair of wire cutters on Miller.
Officer John Hatfield said he struck the suspect after a car chase when another officer mistook the wire cutters for a gun, according to sources close to the investigation.
At one point, Bratton abruptly interrupted Weiss: “If I may ask, what is the purpose of all this?”
“I just want to know,” Weiss replied.
“The group at this table are not intimate with the level of details you’re looking for,” Bratton shot back.
Weiss asked the department to report back to him.
Parks launched a more personal attack on Bratton, evoking increasingly testy replies. The councilman first questioned Bratton on his absenteeism, referring to recent news reports that he frequently travels out of the city, both for personal and business reasons.
Bratton was on a plane to Hartford, Conn., when the Miller beating took place.
The chief made no apologies for his travels, saying that much of the time he spends out of town occurs on the weekends on his scheduled days off. He said he is always reachable by phone. He added that three members of his command staff who fill in for him when he is gone were among the finalists for the chief’s job two years ago.
Bratton said there is no requirement that he stay in Los Angeles “365 days a year, 24 hours a day.”
“If you want that type of requirement, well, you better find yourself another chief of police, because I’m damned sure not going to do it,” Bratton told Parks.
Undeterred, Parks then told Bratton that he had received numerous calls from constituents offended by comments Bratton has made, which they construed as racially insensitive and directed at minorities.
Words such as “tribal,” “thugs,” “terrorists,” Parks said.
Bratton said none of his comments was intended to “demean anyone.”
“I think my record on the issue of race ... is quite clear. If you’ve got problems with it, well, that’s your problem,” Bratton replied. Parks later reminded Bratton that, as councilman for the city’s 8th District, Parks represents 250,000 people.
Parks declined to comment about the exchange after the meeting.
Bratton said he took “strong offense” to Parks’ insinuations. “Any type of implication that I am not extraordinarily sensitive to issues of race -- It’s one of the primary reasons I came to this city. It was my hope that we could do so much more working with the police to deal with race problems that have afflicted this country for so many years.”
As words were being exchanged at the council meeting, Bakewell, publisher of the city’s oldest black newspaper, held a news conference during which he suggested Hahn’s newly formed oversight panel lacked credibility because it was made up of the mayor’s political allies.
“Are you going to tell me a lot of thought went into that committee?” Bakewell asked. “Some of it was insulting to our community.”
Compton City Councilman Isadore Hall, a backer of Bakewell’s group, said, “The people the mayor appointed are friends of the mayor. He needs to go deeper than that. You’re appointing your own clone to an investigative board.”
Bakewell said his new group, which he is calling the Community Commission on Police Abuse, would be more representative of the black community. He insisted his commission was not meant to replace Hahn’s panel. “We applaud and support them and will help them,” he said.
The mayor rejected Bakewell’s criticism of his panel, headed by Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack.
“I think everyone knows the independence of John Mack. And he’s going to do exactly what I hope this monitoring committee will do, which is watch very carefully this process; demand that it be done in an open, fair and thorough way; and that the community be able to be informed at every step in the process,” Hahn said.
The mayor said he heard the exchange between Parks and Bratton on the radio, and he defended the chief’s record on race relations with the black community.
Assemblyman and former City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas cautioned about playing politics with the situation.
“Whoever seeks to insert mayoral politics into this will be judged accordingly,” Ridley-Thomas said. “This isn’t a matter of mayoral politics. It’s a matter of justice.”
Times staff writers Jason Felch, Scott Glover, Noam Levey and Richard Winton contributed to this report.