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Leave Chief Parker behind

As if traffic or the yawning deficit in the city’s budget weren’t enough, City Hall has a new preoccupation.

Welcome to the controversy over what to name the new police headquarters.

For the better part of a year, a gleaming new home for the Los Angeles Police Department has been rising between 1st and 2nd streets in the heart of the Civic Center. The department long ago outgrew its existing headquarters, the aging and seismically dubious Parker Center. Sometime in November -- the construction gods allowing -- the LAPD will move into its new facility, which has raised the question of what the new building will be called.

Last week, the City Council’s Information Technology and General Services Committee approved a motion by former Police Chief, now council member, Bernard Parks that the new building retain the name Parker Center, “in keeping with the traditional name of our police headquarters.” That, he said, would “assure continuity.”

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Parks’ measure, which won the vote of the only other committee member in attendance -- Tony Cardenas --now awaits action by the council as a whole. Tuesday, the civilian Police Commission will discuss the matter and make a recommendation to the lawmakers.

It’s hard to imagine a proposal further off the mark. If the police commissioners turn up for work sober on Tuesday, they’ll recognize Parks’ suggestion for the absurdity that it is.

The struggle for police reform is one of the most fraught chapters in our recent civic history; it’s also a success story. In large part, it has involved disentangling the department from the legacy of William H. Parker, whose nearly two decades of service beginning in 1950 made him the LAPD’s longest-serving chief.

Although it’s true that Parker took what was then widely regarded as the country’s most corrupt urban police department and imbued it with an aura of integrity, he also turned it into a small, highly mobile paramilitary organization whose relations with the city’s African American and Latino communities were utterly poisonous. His public statements regarding black Angelenos varied from the merely patronizing to the clearly racist. During the Watts riots, for example, he described the department’s progress in suppressing violence by saying, “We’ve got them dancing like monkeys on strings.”

In a powerful new documentary film by Pierre Bagley on the LAPD’s history, commissioned by Chief William J. Bratton and funded by the L.A. Police Foundation, Parker’s racist legacy is unflinchingly explored. At one point, he’s shown on a film clip describing how blacks had “flooded into the community” of South Los Angeles. “We didn’t ask these people to come here, and they’ve taken over a whole section” of the city, Parker says. (Bagley’s film airs on local television later this year, and it’s well worth a look by anybody who cares about the city’s history.)

The reforms that began with the Christopher Commission nearly 20 years ago were codified by the consent degree with the federal government during the second Richard Riordan administration and have been purposefully implemented since Mayor Jimmy Hahn named Bratton chief. They’re all about decisively breaking history’s cold grip on the department’s relations with the city’s minority residents. Parker’s defenders like to say that his ostensibly racist attitudes simply reflected the attitudes of his time. Fair enough, but those are years we’re trying to put behind us, and those we choose to honor usually are women and men who have been able to stand apart from -- or even above -- their times. Parker did neither.

Friday, Bratton said that “from all I’ve heard, there is strong opposition, particularly in the African American community, to naming the new headquarters building after Chief Parker.” For that reason, the chief said that he expects “our Police Commission to send a recommendation to the City Council that they not rush into any decision without taking all these other, deeply felt points of view into consideration.”

Does he have choice of his own?

“Actually, I think it should just be called the Police Administrative Building,” Bratton said. “If you name it after an individual -- no matter who that person is -- there’s bound to be controversy, which would be unfortunate. This building stands for the essence of the new LAPD, one that serves all our communities evenhandedly. Why should we make it -- and our officers -- carry the baggage of the past?”

That seems sensible enough. Somehow, the local seat of representative government has managed to struggle along with the utilitarian designation “City Hall.”

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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