QUEST FOR CHANGE
Bernard C. Parks stands on a busy street corner in South Los Angeles, talking about how to solve the city’s notorious traffic problems.
As he strains over the din of passing cars, it becomes clear: What Parks really wants to fix is the man who engineered his ouster three years ago as chief of police, taking away the job he had worked his life to obtain.
The city is “stuck in neutral” because of Mayor James K. Hahn, Parks complains to six reporters and a couple of pedestrians. He flips through a stack of reports to illustrate his point.
Hahn has missed 586 votes as the most powerful member of the MTA, says Parks.
People drive past. They honk. They yell, “Hey, Chief!” Parks ignores them and keeps reading.
“The mayor is a transportation no-show. He has missed 30% of all MTA board meetings since he was elected....”
Finally, Parks looks up. He takes a few questions and then walks to his car, moving slowly in black loafers and a brown suit. He drives away, alone, headed for another stop in his campaign for mayor.
Two years ago, Parks, now 61, was Los Angeles’ new political darling. Nearly a dozen reporters followed him into City Hall the day he took out papers to run for City Council, after his unceremonious departure as police chief. The tall African American man with chiseled features made the national news when he won his council seat, representing South Los Angeles, with more than 80% of the vote.
His supporters figured he could easily muster the political heft to unseat his nemesis, Hahn. Perhaps, they thought, he was the next Tom Bradley.
But so far, it isn’t working out that way.
Parks has burned through several campaign managers, struggled to raise money and failed to secure key endorsements, even from some prominent members of the African American community.
In many ways, Parks’ campaign suffers from the same problems that dimmed the brilliant arc of his LAPD career. Even as his reputation for integrity eases his path, other traits trip him up.
He is a proud and stubborn man who has suffered personal heartbreak, losing a daughter and granddaughter, one to cancer and the other to gun violence. During his early years in the Los Angeles Police Department, he was often the target of blatant racism, leaving him deeply sensitive to any slight.
Like an armor, his personality is strong and controlling -- but it is marked by contradictions. He can be witty and self-deprecating, well-prepared and engaging. Yet he is often undiplomatic, insular, inflexible and single-minded.
Parks fusses over bureaucratic details with so much tenacity that his critics say he misses the bigger picture. Potential political supporters aren’t quite sure what to make of him or his motivations for taking on Hahn.
Some see his campaign as pure revenge, an allegation that Parks denies.
“I don’t think it is lost on anyone that he feels he has a score to settle with Jim Hahn,” said one close associate who declined to speak publicly for fear of offending Parks. “But the truth is, he has every right to run.”
As police chief, Parks fought with Hahn, who he thought had no business meddling with the Police Department. He was constantly at odds with the powerful police union and the rank-and-file cops, who viewed him as a cold disciplinarian.
He trusts few people and, even in the throes of a big-city campaign, relies largely on the counsel of his wife, Bobbie, and son, Bernard Parks Jr.--both political novices. When several pundits recently criticized the involvement of his family in running his mayoral bid, Parks became angry, casting the criticisms as racist.
“We’re not slaves anymore,” Parks says heatedly. “Families are allowed to stay together. They don’t sell us off anymore.
“My family is very important. Bobbie is a partner in everything I do. Anyone who doesn’t like that, that’s their problem.”
He’s a man who doesn’t like his authority questioned, and who never forgets what he considers a betrayal.
“He can be rather impolitic, which is difficult if you’re in politics,” says Assemblyman Mark Ridley-Thomas (D-Los Angeles).
Even so, former LAPD Deputy Chief David Gascon -- a longtime friend of Parks -- says that Parks is surprisingly affable, if you’ve earned his respect. (He also rewards loyalty; he promoted Gascon to key positions during his tenure as chief.)
“You hear the descriptions: He’s well-prepared and ramrod straight and all that,” said Gascon, who was pressured to retire from the department shortly after Parks’ departure. “If you really get to know him, or if you deal with him in a small-group setting, you’ll find that Bernard Parks is a witty, charming and warm individual.”
People stop him on the street to shake his hand and get autographs.
Some call him “Mr. Councilman,” but most still call him “Chief.”
“You know what?” Parks says. “I’ll answer to ‘Hey, you.’ ”
At a recent rally at Parks’ campaign headquarters in South Los Angeles, Bobbie took the stage to introduce her husband: “The city needs leadership and guidance,” she tells a crowd of about 100 supporters. “Integrity means a lot.”
Parks jokes: “Thank you for that warm introduction. I wish she would say those things at home.”
For Parks, the idea of holding public office is still a new concept. He says he never really considered entering politics until after he lost his LAPD job -- though his rise and fall were certainly political.
“For years, people would ask me that question: When are you going to run for office?” Parks says. “I always told them, ‘I’m not running for office. I have a great job in the Police Department.’ ”
Now, Parks says his mayoral bid is all about “bringing a different dynamic” to city government.
“The current mayor seems so complacent with the way things are that he is unwilling to set forth any broad agenda, and so lethargic that he is not even inclined to take on corrupt forces within his own administration,” says Parks, whose agenda focuses heavily on police issues, such as restoring officers to a more traditional workweek.
“I don’t think we could afford four more years of staying the same.”
For those who have watched city politics, the Parks-Hahn rivalry is nothing new. The men have spatted behind the scenes for years -- two career law-and-order types who should have gotten along but never liked each other’s style.
Hahn viewed Parks as a pedantic obstructionist; Parks saw Hahn as a slacker. The former chief calls the mayor “Jimmy No-show.” Parks’ foes call him “Bitter Bernie.”
“He’s bitter, and he’s brilliant,” says Eric Rose, a political consultant with ties to law enforcement. “He was the most prepared police chief-in-waiting. But he’s also a micromanager.... He has to know so many details that he gets lost in the minutiae. He’s well-read, he’s very smart, but he’s also stubborn. Once he makes up his mind, he’s intransigent.”
Money and Adventure
Certainly, Parks is determined.
Born in Texas, he was a baby when his parents moved the family to Los Angeles, seeking new opportunities and an escape from the racism of the South. His father became a harbor police officer, bringing a strict law-and-order discipline to the family. Parks and his three siblings were raised Catholic and sent to parochial school.
As a young adult, Parks wasn’t interested in following in his father’s footsteps at first. He had a job with General Motors, building Chevys for about $3 an hour. Then he heard an LAPD ad on the radio: The Police Department was offering $608 a month to new recruits.
He decided to join, for the money and the adventure. “You never knew what you would encounter from day to day,” Parks said.
His first assignment was in traffic. He loved being outside on the streets of Los Angeles. Curiously, it is where he met his wife.
“I was on 6th and Broadway directing traffic, minding my own business, and she drove up and rolled down the window and wanted to know how she could get arrested,” Parks recalled. “I tell her every day that there are laws against stuff like that now, but that’s what she did. She just drove up, and I looked at her. It took me by surprise.”
He asked her to pull over, and the two exchanged numbers. “We ended up having lunch on my birthday a few days later,” he said.
It wasn’t long before the two moved in together. They were married a few years later, in 1970, and bought a house in Baldwin Hills.
At work, Parks encountered the kind of racism his parents had sought to leave behind in Texas. Officers would scrawl racial epithets on the bathroom walls. Some would write derogatory terms on the sun visors of their patrol cars, to send a message to the communities they served and to their colleagues, Parks said.
Promotions for black officers were hard to come by. Tom Bradley left the department in 1961 when he could not rise above the rank of lieutenant.
“It was never a written rule, but it was understood,” Parks said. “There were positions that were just off-limits. What you found is that you were never part of the discussion.”
Bobbie -- a beautiful, elegant woman with a potent presence -- was always the first one to tell her husband to fight.
“My mom is really the guts of our family,” said Bernard Parks Jr. “My dad and I are just the window dressing.”
With Bobbie’s support, Parks was determined to break through the barriers.
Some of his African American mentors had warned him that any black officer seeking promotion had to ace every test. To cope, Parks became an avid student of department policy and police work. He would lock himself up for days to study for the department’s exams.
“I figured out, from talking to a lot of people, that the written part of the exam was the only one totally in your hands,” Parks said. “It was a given that you weren’t going to get a good oral exam [grade]. So you had to compensate by out-writing people. If you didn’t do well, you had no one to blame but yourself.”
Bernard Parks Jr. said he remembers when his father became a captain in 1977: His first day on the job, he found his new captain’s car vandalized in the police lot.
“Someone had written ‘Nigger Captain’ on the door, dashboard and ceiling,” Bernard Parks Jr. said. “I don’t know how he went to work every day. It was not a friendly environment.”
Parks, then as now, is reluctant to talk about the incident.
“There were people who clearly were not appreciative of me being there,” he said. “You just do what you have to do. I was there to do a job.”
By 1980, Parks had been promoted four times, to the rank of commander, as he and Bobbie raised four daughters and a son. And in his free time, he earned a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Pepperdine University and a master’s degree from USC.
Along the way, however, ambition interspersed with tragedy.
The Parks’ 15-year-old daughter, Lori, was diagnosed with cancer. She died within six months. The loss would be relived a generation later, when a Parks granddaughter -- named in honor of the daughter who died -- was shot and killed while leaving a fast-food restaurant. The shooter’s target was a childhood friend in her car.
At work, the LAPD was haunted by the Rodney G. King beating in 1991, and the 1992 riots that followed the acquittal of the officers who had struck him. Parks, then deputy chief, wanted to replace Police Chief Daryl Gates, but it was clear that the city’s politicians were looking for an outsider.
City lawmakers brought in Willie L. Williams from Philadelphia. Serving as second in command under Williams, Parks tried to get along with the new chief, but they never really liked or trusted each other, observers said. In fact, Williams believed that Parks was pushing his agenda behind the scenes, bad-mouthing him to city leaders. In 1994, Williams demoted Parks without explanation, dropping him one rank from assistant chief back to deputy chief.
Parks thought about retiring, but Bobbie closed off that option, telling him that she would not let him walk away. He set aside his pride and stayed on.
In 1997, after Williams’ departure, Parks finally got the job he always wanted. But his sense of triumph would not last long.
As chief, Parks became an instant celebrity. Dressed in his uniform, he looked like he had just stepped out of Central Casting.
People magazine named him one of the 50 most beautiful people on the planet in 1998. (Some remember him showing up at a charity fashion show decked out in leather pants.) Then-Mayor Richard Riordan, who picked Parks as chief, praised him everywhere he went. “We have the best chief in the world,” Riordan would say.
A year later, the Rampart police scandal broke.
Rafael Perez, a former anti-gang officer accused of stealing cocaine that had been booked as evidence, agreed to identify other corrupt officers in exchange for a more lenient sentence on drug charges.
Perez told authorities that officers in the Rampart Division’s anti-gang CRASH unit had routinely beaten and framed suspects and covered up unjustified shootings.
Parks resolved to get to the bottom of the matter, setting up a special board of inquiry. Riordan supported the chief, but council members wondered whether Parks was up to the job.
Then the U.S. Department of Justice, which had had an eye on the department since the King beating, moved to sue Los Angeles for allowing a “pattern or practice” of civil rights violations in the LAPD. The only way to avoid a federal lawsuit was to go along with a legally binding agreement -- or consent decree -- to make reforms. Parks resisted the outside pressure. The department could fix its problems, both Parks and Riordan argued, without the federal government checking its progress.
Parks and Riordan lobbied council members in intense private meetings. In the end, the City Council and then-City Atty. Hahn -- tired of paying out millions in legal settlements to police victims -- sided with the federal government.
Eventually, Riordan and Parks acquiesced, both blaming Hahn for giving in too easily to the Justice Department.
Hahn, however, saw the consent decree as a major victory. With it he launched his mayoral bid, developing a close relationship with the chief’s foes in the police union.
In his campaign, he gave no public indication of his distaste for Parks. But after he was elected with strong support from the African American community, the mayor announced that he wanted a new police chief.
The mayor complained to reporters that Parks “seems to make up his mind and then be unwilling to change it.” Parks would lecture Hahn on police procedure, and Hahn found it irritating, he said.
After the Police Commission voted not to give Parks a second term, the chief appealed the decision to the City Council -- to no avail. Angry, he packed his boxes and left Parker Center. Hahn picked former New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton to take his place.
“I had tons of people calling me and asking what I was going to do,” Parks says. “I said I’m going to retire and take it easy. They said, ‘You owe the city more time.’ ”
Within weeks, he decided to run for the South Los Angeles council seat vacated by Ridley-Thomas after his election to the Legislature.
He won an easy victory. To smooth the transition, he quickly formed cordial relationships with his council colleagues, even the ones who supported his ouster as chief.
“We thought he would come in here like a bull in a china shop,” said Councilman Tom LaBonge. “But it hasn’t been that way. He’s great to work with.”
Even so, he has received mixed reviews from some of his constituents, who complain that he’s spending too much time on running for mayor and not enough time in his district.
Critics said they were taken aback by some of his conservative, pro-business views. For example, Parks supported Wal-Mart’s right to build supercenters -- popular among many who live in the area -- even though labor representatives argued that the discount retailer has a devastating effect on local communities. They also criticized Parks’ proposal to rename Crenshaw Boulevard as Tom Bradley Boulevard. That effort showed that Parks didn’t realize how much the community identified with the name Crenshaw, opponents said.
“It’s a shame,” said one former supporter. “A lot of people had high hopes for his continuing public service. I think this mayoral pursuit has complicated matters. It all seems like an act of revenge.”
Parks dismisses the criticism.
“We’re working very diligently to get things done,” he said. “And why would I want revenge? The city of Los Angeles has provided me with more opportunities than I ever imagined. I have nothing to be ashamed of or apologize for. I’m running for mayor because there is a lack of leadership in this city.”
He added: “We need a leader who will drive this city forward.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Bernard C. Parks
Born: Dec. 7, 1943,
Education: Pepperdine University, bachelor’s degree in public administration (1973); USC, master’s degree in public administration (1976)
Personal: Married to Bobbie Parks; four grown children
Career: Joined the LAPD in 1965; became deputy chief in 1988; promoted to assistant chief in 1992 by Chief Willie L. Williams, who later demoted him to deputy chief; served as chief of police from 1997 to 2002; elected to the City Council in 2003.
Strategy: Parks complains that Mayor James K. Hahn, who masterminded Parks’ ouster as police chief, is a failed leader. Parks is courting African American voters who backed Hahn in 2001 and also seeking support from moderate and conservative voters who see him as strong on law-and-order issues.