Chief Parker’s time is past
William H. Parker was a monumental figure in the history of Los Angeles and of modern law enforcement. He took over as chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1950 after scandals had damaged its reputation. He raised its sense of mission, created its manual and weaned it from the corrupting influences of city politics. He also was an arrogant racist who so fiercely insisted on the LAPD’s independence that he antagonized colleagues and fellow law enforcement leaders from coast to coast, notably feuding with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover for more than a decade.
His place in California history is secure, and his legacy is large and complex. The city’s police headquarters, Parker Center, has for decades borne his name. But those decades are enough, and Parker does not warrant similar commemoration at the new headquarters, scheduled to open by the end of the year. The City Council should reject the misguided proposal to name the building for him. It needs no moniker at all, and certainly not that of this complicated and flawed chief.
Any honest appraisal of Parker’s tenure must acknowledge his dualities -- his rigid professionalism alongside his vulgar comments on race relations; his justifiable pride in his fellow officers alongside his absurd refusal to acknowledge the existence of police brutality; his largely successful career against the shadow of his final months, which he spent in forceful defense of the LAPD’s unimpressive performance during the 1965 Watts riots. Parker is hardly the only major public figure to encompass such contradictions -- Hoover himself comes to mind -- but his most fervent supporters and his most dogged critics have depicted him one-dimensionally, distorting his record to suit their interests.
A window into Parker’s complexities comes from an unlikely and largely unexamined source: the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s long-running file on him (excerpts appear on the Op-Ed pages today). The documents capture the contentious relationship between Parker and Hoover, a professional wariness that occasionally boiled over into anger and ostracism. The file includes the reports of field agents and the special agent in charge of the bureau’s Los Angeles office, commencing soon after Parker’s appointment and continuing to his death in 1966.
In a 1953 entry, the agent in charge relayed to headquarters the comments of another police chief who attended a convention with Parker and said he “gave a complete demonstration of unjustified egotism.” The bureau shared that view, and Hoover himself had unbridled contempt for the chief. For a time, Hoover directed all of his agents to avoid Parker, only relenting in the summer of 1954, and then only grudgingly. He approved occasional professional contacts but warned Los Angeles agents that “you must always be extremely alert and on guard at all times in all dealings with Chief Parker.” Even after that point, the FBI would not assist in training LAPD officers because it distrusted the chief; those contacts resumed only after Parker’s death.
Over the years, Parker’s occasional outbursts came in for scrutiny by the bureau. In 1955, for instance, some state courts began excluding illegally seized evidence from trials after a case in which the Supreme Court appended a memo to one of its decisions urging the attorney general to prosecute police officers who had illegally broken into a home to plant a wiretap. Parker loudly complained and argued for greater latitude for police to violate the law without consequence to the cases they were pursuing. At the FBI, one official concluded that “what Parker actually is advocating (perhaps unknowingly) is that the so-called ‘police state’ be established; that police be above the law; that the end justifies the means.” Those are richly ironic insights coming from Hoover’s FBI, but they reflect how far from the mainstream Parker’s views had strayed.
On race, the file reveals fewer complaints with Parker, perhaps because the bureau itself -- certainly Hoover -- was at least as intolerant as Parker toward the rising calls for racial justice. Nonetheless, the FBI dutifully collected some of Parker’s less temperate remarks, such as when he denounced proponents of civil disobedience, then led by Martin Luther King Jr., as employing a “revolutionary tool to overthrow existing governments.” He once enraged L.A.'s Mexican American community by suggesting that some immigrants were “not far removed from the wild tribes of Mexico,” and infuriated African Americans by describing the Watts riots this way: “One person threw a rock and then, like monkeys in a zoo, others started throwing rocks.”
Parker led the LAPD for 16 years. During that time, he restored its reputation in part by insisting on rigorous separation between officers and the communities they served. Police patrolled in cars, made arrests, booked suspects and returned to their cars to resume patrolling. That distance insulated police from the community and thus cut off opportunities to engage in corruption. Parker also oversaw the writing of the LAPD manual and insisted that pride and duty guide the department’s officer corps. All of that helped break the department’s longtime culture of corruption, and for that this city owes Parker a debt. Those same innovations, however, created an LAPD that was removed from its citizens, an almost all-white legion protective of its own, prone to force and racism. For those unfortunate developments, Los Angeles paid a dear price in Parker’s time and for generations to come.
In 1965, Watts erupted after a California Highway Patrol stop turned ugly; the ensuing riots stretched across the better part of a week and left scores dead. Parker spent the rest of his life trying to explain and defend the actions of his officers during those angry days. He made his last public appearance on July 16, 1966, at the Statler Hilton downtown. As the event concluded, members of the Second Marine Division Assn. rose to give Parker a standing ovation. He slumped back in his chair and gasped for breath. Parker died 35 minutes later.
Parker’s body lay in repose in the rotunda of City Hall, and the outpouring of mourners reflected the divisions that he had long inspired. Thousands came to view him, Police Chief Ed Davis later said -- most to pay their respects, a few “to make sure the son-of-a-bitch was dead.”