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Parker Center redux? Proposal causes anger and confusion

Political and civic leaders expressed confusion and anger over a proposal to name the Los Angeles Police Department’s new headquarters after William H. Parker, a godfather of modern policing whose legacy is clouded by the negative influence he had on race relations in the city.

For weeks, a motion by City Council member Bernard C. Parks has been winding its way quietly through City Hall to christen the gleaming, soon-to-open building with Parker’s name. Hoping to draw attention to the issue and to put pressure on Parks to rescind the proposal, members of the civilian board that oversees the LAPD are scheduled to hold a public debate on the issue today. The City Council is scheduled to vote on the motion at a meeting next week.

“I find it puzzling and, frankly, very troubling,” said John Mack, a member of the Police Commission and a prominent civil rights leader. “The Parker era was probably the most blatantly brutal and racist in the history of the LAPD. It is a very insensitive move by Councilman Parks and, to be honest, a case of amnesia on his part.”

In an interview, Parks downplayed the negative associations with Parker’s name and emphasized his effect on law enforcement, saying no one in the city’s history has had more influence on the LAPD. Critics of his proposal, he said, were unfairly singling out Parker in a city in which others with controversial legacies are honored. “We can do a purging if we want to, but we shouldn’t be selective. . . . Let’s collectively purge the city so we can be politically correct on everything,” he said.

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Parks, who joined the LAPD as an officer at the tail end of Parker’s career and became chief himself, said of Parker: “I don’t know if he was any more racist than the parks and rec guy who said blacks and Hispanics can’t swim in [city] pools. . . . The issue is that we had things that were contemporary and accepted. . . . Is that all on his shoulders or is that what society allowed to occur?”

Parker’s name adorns the current police headquarters. Parks also argued that the name should transfer to the new building unless a formal proposal for a new name is approved by the City Council.

Parker, who in 1950 began an unprecedented 16-year tenure as head of the LAPD, is widely credited with cleaning up what was then a poorly run organization rife with corruption. He succeeded in turning it into a taut, professional agency purposely built to resemble a military operation, in which standards were tightened and discipline imposed. There is little disagreement, however, that in reconstructing the department, Parker also gave rise to a culture of discrimination and brutality within its ranks, especially toward the African American communities of South Los Angeles.

A central tenet of Parker’s reform was to design a police force that kept itself separate and isolated from the city it served -- in part because there were too few officers to embed in communities and in part to guard against corruption.

The strategy, however, mixed with the racist attitudes that pervaded the department’s rank and file at the time, led to a siege mentality in minority neighborhoods, where Angelenos largely saw the police as a violent, occupying group. Tensions simmered through incidents in the 1950s and early 1960s before erupting in the Watts riots in 1965, when 34 people died.

Parker’s personal ideas on race are less clear. He promoted some black officers and integrated patrol cars but also made several racial comments as chief. During testimony before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, he referred to Latino Angelenos as being “not far removed from the wild tribes of Mexico,” according to Lou Cannon in his book “Official Negligence.” And in a documentary about the LAPD, Parker says of the city’s growing African American population: “We didn’t ask these people to come here, and they’ve taken over a whole section” of the city.

Parker’s legacy led several community leaders to react with surprise and disapproval at the move by Parks, who is black. Most pointed to efforts under current police Chief William J. Bratton to improve ties between the LAPD and minority groups and said Parks’ proposal amounted to a step backward.

“Names carry a message,” said the Rev. Eric P. Lee, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.

“Why would we want to hearken back to a mordant, dead, racially charged past when the point now is to move forward?” said Earl Ofari Hutchinson, head of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable. “Councilman Parks and his motion are badly out of step with the times.”

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joel.rubin@latimes.com


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