It is truly sad that in his otherwise insightful Jan. 21 Op-Ed column about the progress of the Los Angeles Police Department, Tim Rutten needlessly labels iconic former Chief William H. Parker as a racist. Like many things in life, history is open to interpretation. Rewriting history, however, is a different pursuit entirely. It is from this standpoint that I take great exception with Rutten’s claim that Parker, who was LAPD chief from 1950-66, “stands exposed as the racist he was.”
While I struggle with this declaration, I certainly recognize that Rutten is entitled to an opinion. But his is a perspective that is not supported by history. The same is true of some of Rutten’s other claims about the diversity of the Los Angeles Police Department.
It’s true that the LAPD is more diverse than it has ever been. Chief William J. Bratton has effectively delivered on this promise to Los Angeles, and credit is due to him for this accomplishment. History will show that he is indeed a tremendous innovator, an accomplished leader and the right person to guide the LAPD now.
History also shows that the chief has not been alone in his personnel endeavors. When the LAPD shifted to a paid police force in 1869, a Latino officer stood in its ranks; another joined a short while later. The LAPD hired its first African American officer more than 120 years ago, when other police agencies were not inclined to do so. And it’s been nearly 100 years since the LAPD hired its first female officer. Simply put, the LAPD’s diversity dates to its early years. Certainly things have changed in modern times, and Bratton has nobly embraced that change. But Rutten slights a whole series of past chiefs who also pursued the goal of racial diversity within the ranks of the LAPD.
Where would this movement be had Parker not desegregated the LAPD? Under Parker, African American officers were transferred to stations where they had never served before. This fact seems to be overlooked often, particularly by those who are quick to point a finger at Parker. Indeed, like Bratton, Parker was the right chief at the right time. This was and is known, not just here in the City of Angels but throughout the country. Parker implemented a successful model of policing that we now know had some unintended consequences. His “professional” model of policing grew out of the historically small size of the department in comparison to other big cities. There weren’t enough cops to go around, so Parker sought a model of efficiency -- in this case, military efficiency -- as a means of service delivery. Unfortunately, race relations in some quarters soured. This was neither unique to Parker nor the city; it was a product of the times.
Regrettably, the model insulated officers from their communities more than we cared to admit at the time. But nobody knew this then. Parker was sailing in uncharted waters. His model worked in terms of fomenting the necessary reforms that ultimately brought the LAPD onto the national stage. Parker was often consulted by other police chiefs and politicians across the country, and he was arguably the most well-known law enforcement official in the U.S. after then-FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Those who knew Parker, many of whom I have had the pleasure of speaking to, do not identify the chief as a racist. He faced the challenges of his time, and if he were a racist, we would have known by now. Undoubtedly, Angelenos had time to decide what Parker’s legacy would be, and a few years after he died in 1966, they named the police headquarters in his honor. I don’t interpret this gesture as the condemnation a racist would deserve.
Yes, there are old television news clips that show Parker using terms that we today consider racially insensitive. Parker’s words were the words of his time, a vastly different time in American social and cultural history and a period of profound change. For reference, look at the front-page banner headline of a Times edition published during the 1965 Watts Riots: “Negro Riots Rage on; Death Toll 23.” History won’t condemn The Times, its reporter or its publisher as racist. Such an undertaking would be an attempt at revisionist history. Yet the man who reformed the LAPD, who was wounded in combat in service to his country and then died in office while serving this city, is not afforded equal treatment.
Glynn B. Martin is executive director of the Los Angeles Police Historical Society.