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We’ve come a long way

The modern Los Angeles Police Department hit bottom on the afternoon of April 29, 1992. That day, a Ventura County jury refused to convict four officers who had been charged with assaulting Rodney G. King. Enraged by the decision and the department’s culture of brutality and racism -- so vividly documented months earlier by the Christopher Commission -- a mob gathered outside Parker Center, heaving rocks at the building and setting a guard shack on fire.

At that moment, Chief Daryl F. Gates, who regularly decried the influence of politics on policing, was attending a political fundraiser across town. And in the hours that followed, the same LAPD whose brutality gave rise to this anger suddenly discovered its latent cowardice. Officers let the mob rampage downtown, and those sent to settle upwelling violence in South Los Angeles watched on television as Reginald Denny was pulled from his truck at Florence and Normandie and beaten to a pulp.

Recovery from those terrible days has been long and difficult, but successful. Today, Los Angeles’ police force is better trained, more diverse, better disciplined and better led than the one that betrayed the city’s trust in 1992. Its work is appreciated by residents across racial lines. Its record, though not perfect, is far less inflammatory and far more constructive.

As Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and his Police Commission consider a successor to outgoing Chief William J. Bratton, they do so in an atmosphere of progress, not crisis. It has been more than a generation since a chief left the department in such strong shape, and that makes this selection an opportunity to improve rather than yet another mandate to start over. Today’s LAPD has topped 10,000 officers for the first time; crime is down; police are using less serious force; and city residents overwhelmingly approve of the department’s work. Those are heartening indicators.

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There are, to be sure, areas where improvement is called for. The LAPD’s disciplinary system, for instance, is a relic of Chief William Parker’s “thin blue line” era; it is cumbersome and opaque. As Chief Bernard C. Parks used to say, the LAPD disciplines too many and fires too few. Too often, police operate outside the scope of public scrutiny. An officer wears his name on his uniform, but if he shoots and kills a suspect, the department, which once led the profession in public disclosure, will protect his anonymity. That is largely the result of a police union that misunderstands its mission and a department that has allowed it to do so. Rather than secure for officers the wages and benefits they deserve, the Los Angeles Police Protective League -- sometimes with Bratton’s complicity -- has fought to protect individual officers from public scrutiny despite the public nature of their work. The next chief should do more to reward good officers and less to protect bad ones.

At the same time, the next chief must embrace and extend the important gains of the Bratton years. Bratton helped introduce the sophisticated use of statistics and mapping; the next chief must employ those and other technological tools to develop “predictive policing,” which many, including Bratton, see as the next important innovation in protecting American cities. The next chief also must understand and appreciate the fundamentals of community policing -- the notion that enforcing laws against minor offenses can result in declines in more dangerous crimes.

The next chief must be shrewd and blunt and, yes, political. He or she must lobby city, state and federal officials to expand the LAPD until it can protect all the communities in this diverse and far-flung city. The next chief must demand accountability and restraint by officers, a mandate reinforced during Bratton’s tenure by a federal consent decree but which, with the termination of the decree this past summer, now falls directly to the chief and command staff. And, finally, the next chief must reinforce what in some ways is Bratton’s greatest contribution to Los Angeles’ power structure: He has groused about the city’s politics -- who hasn’t? -- but he has honorably recognized that he is subordinate to his civilian bosses, the city’s Police Commission and mayor. The next chief can do no greater service to Los Angeles than to ensure that Bratton’s deference to civilian authority is a model, not an aberration.

Every selection of a new chief is a moment of self-examination for the LAPD. This is no exception. As city leaders consider candidates for the job, they should use this opportunity to evaluate the department itself and ask who can best build on Bratton’s success. It is, moreover, a chance for the public to do the same. Polling suggests that Los Angeles residents are more appreciative of their police than they have been in many years, but that is a reason to be reflective, not complacent. Incidents such as the melee in MacArthur Park in 2007 serve as a reminder that the LAPD still has the capacity to upend the city. When the department is well run, it is a source of protection and service, as its motto insists; when it fails, it can injure not just individuals but the city’s social order as well.

The selection of a new chief is the decision of the mayor and the Police Commission. But it is a decision with ramifications far beyond politics or legacies. Under the right chief, Los Angeles may continue to become safer and more harmonious. Under the wrong one, the city may learn again the lessons that gave us those horrifying days in 1992.

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Monday: Measuring the LAPD’s performance and the challenges for the next chief.

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Note to readers

In this series of editorials, The Times examines the Los Angeles Police Department’s record and the implications for the selection of a new chief. We invite you to write to us with your thoughts on today’s LAPD, your experiences with it or your hopes of what it might become. Send to: letters@latimes.com.


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